Valleys

by Coranna Howard in Self

I've always felt unsettled pushing on the margins of my survivability. That's more true now than ever, as I spent nearly everything I had moving to Washington. It feels as if I grew up in a lower socioeconomic class than I did (my family was low-to-middle class, for the record), or it at least feels that way when I look at my psychology. I've always felt money was scarce and that it could vanish at any moment.

Since seriously starting to search & apply for work in software & game development in 2014, I haven't had a single interview. I've met almost entirely with radio silence — if not, then rejection. Tailoring my application letters didn't help — given the rate of no communication, it was a waste of time & effort.

On the other hand, I've made the most ground talking directly to people beyond the HR/recruiting wall, though, of course, those attempts never went anywhere either. (They have just as little power as I.) I've been considered in scant few instances, but never passed muster — I was always less-qualified than someone else, even though I've applied only to the positions I could ever hope to get on paper (entry-level).

The vast, vast majority of companies I see have few entry-level positions, if any at all. When they do have them, they're almost always for graduates or interns, neither of which I would ever qualify for. (I can't afford university and I am chronically debt-averse.) Considering how flooded the tech industry already is, I would likely face just as much difficulty finding work even if I had gone to university. This is no consolation. I am 25 and I have yet to work a single day in the industries I am most qualified for, not counting IT, which I despised so much I left for good.

No matter the strides I make on my own, nothing seems to be adequate. This is especially shattering as the majority of what I hear from people I talk with (very few, mind) is that I'm more qualified than most people who enter the tech industry, that I have more practical experience and more technical knowledge. I believed that idea even before I spoke to anyone, even before I tried to find work, but now I see that either there's a vast difference between what people see when they speak to me and what they see on paper — or everyone is just humoring me.

And believe me, I know how much getting to work in the tech industry is driven by social networks. I had only one or two close friends growing up (none otherwise, and none at all now), and I never had a personal relationship with anyone who held the interests I had in programming & information. I tried very hard to branch out after I quit (often going far outside my comfort zone), talking to indie devs I encountered, joining jams and conversations on the net, going to meetups in the Bay area during my stay there, tailoring my job applications, working on open source projects, etc. — none of it led anywhere. At the time, I could have afforded the next GDC or any of the other developer conferences, but after my experience thus far in 2014, I didn't think I could do any better in those environments. It's flooded anyways; how could I ever hope to get ahead of the crowd with no degree or professional experience? I didn't (and don't) know anyone going to GDC anyways, so it would also have been a lonely experience.

I can't underline enough the damage that this does to my self-worth and willpower. I made huge efforts after quitting, working hard on projects, sticking to schedules, cutting out distractions, etc. After each failure, however, it became harder and harder to get anything done. I was already enduring a lot, and this just made it worse & worse. I've been stuck there ever since, and I become more withdrawn every time I try to find work. At the depths of it, which is where I am most often, I do nothing all day. I am muted and blank. I reach my stress peak a few hours after waking. I'm always tense. I find myself holding my breath.

I don't know what keeps me anchored. By all measures I can make, I shouldn't have made it this far. Perhaps a partial explanation is that I've been living with stress & isolation since my mid-to-late teen years, so much so that I've become desensitized, that most of the time I can't recognize that I am acutely stressed — it's gone on for so long that it's the normal state of being. When I don't get to feel sadness or despair, I feel nothing at all; my head is an empty, colorless void. This has been my reality for a long time, and it's invisible to everyone, except when I joke about drinking bleach.

To top it off, the United States of America, my birthplace and lifelong home, has just turned back the clock on progress by at least 50 years. (I suppose it's (morbidly) fitting that neo-liberalism goes out with a neo-fascist bang…)

I was already afraid to go outside and confront reality. Now I am terrified. I'm getting half or less of my normal sleep cycle, I have to hold back from crying when I let anything into my head, and my paranoia of my neighborhood is only increasing. I feel like I'm the only one I know who is rationally concerned about the future, but I'm too paralyzed to do anything about it. If I were able, I wouldn't even know what to do.

My moral compass aches for me to fight back and help others, so I also feel like I'm failing everyone, myself most of all. I want to teach what I can to people worse off than me, but how could I? I can't even progress on my own projects. I'm so far down in my pit that I consistently struggle to find words when I speak. I want to do something I enjoy, something useful, but no one has given me a chance. I want to have my purposes fulfilled, but at every step, they are further cut and crushed.

It feels as though I'm stuck in a valley that no one visits. For most people, the valley is cradled by a thick fog — everything is so stacked against me that I might as well not exist. The rest recognize it as the pit they crawled out of to prove their worth, their existence, often by strength & willpower alone. I have neither. I once had a modicum, but it eroded as I tried to climb out, stopped by mudslides & avalanches at every attempt.

But when they look back at me in the valley, all they have to say is "sad face I know how it feels, I was there once" and "don't give up! there's always a way out!". It seems there's no way for them to look into the valley without offering useless platitudes to the poor souls still trapped there.

The few who extend a hand, who let me catch a glimpse of the space surrounding the valley, don't quite understand how I'm stuck there. "You should have no trouble!", they say. For them, getting out of the valley was a weekend hike — one of many. They had the support of family, decent education, friends to lean on and cherish, valuable experience to prove their ability & worth, the good fortune to conform or sufficiently fake it. They were a bright flame in the fog, readily spotted from above. "That one is destined for greatness", the onlookers would say. I, on the other hand, am a dull ember, barely warm to the touch after so long in this gloomy place.

But what I see outside the valley is, at a close look, familiar. When people drop their walls (if they can), what I hear & see is of a multiplicity of valleys, all uniquely & variably oppressive & dehumanizing. It turns out they climbed out of an entirely different place than the one I am in.

Their individual valley sets the limits of possibility. They simultaneously live in a space that many others occupy, but they all experience vastly different realities. The biases of others form the oppressions and privileges that shape their valley — their reality. Sometimes they manage to climb out of their valley, to reshape their reality. For example, they move into a new space occupied by better people. But some can't climb out. There is a limit to how much a valley can rise to the space surrounding it. Some find themselves back where they started — others in a place deeper and more invisible than any before it.

That is where I feel I am: that I'll never be able to climb out, that I'll never be able to reshape my reality. I moved into a new physical space, but my valley has only become deeper.

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