Editor’s note: This is a sponsored article produced in collaboration with Kids Helpline Australia.
Staring down the barrel of my empty bank account is when I get most wistful for the halcyon days of my full-time social media government gig.
When I was told that my contract for my first, real, tangible adult job would not be extended, I knew to expect it. My initial six-month contract had been extended to eight, so I was already running on borrowed time. And while whispers from Liz* – my doting office mum who had graciously taken the office’s greenest young employee under her wing – hinted that another extension could be coming, I knew that my chances were slim. A state election was brewing dark on the horizon, and with the first wave of the pandemic in full swing, the rumours quickly fizzled to nothing.
Unemployed in a pandemic
Being let go from my first ever full-time job and heading into an unprecedented global pandemic brought on a heady cocktail of emotions. An unknowable, uncharted future facing down a global pandemic made me panic to such an extent that I found myself yelling unrepeatable expletives into a pillow. I tried to stay positive. Could I see this time as a little ‘holiday’ before inevitably jumping back into the ring of employment? Once you landed that first office job, my parents assured me, it couldn’t be hard to get the next. I knuckled down, writing applications, scouring the ‘About Us’ pages of the workplaces I was applying to – ready to infuse my applications with the specific brand of ‘diligence’, ‘integrity’ and ‘attention to detail’ that each organisation required.
And like a lot of people, I applied for Centrelink payments; ending up on the newly introduced JobSeeker payment and COVID supplement. But even that felt like a ticking clock. Every month came with the threat that JobSeeker payments would be lowered, and my feelings of security would crumble just a little more. When I next hit the grocery store, it was the non-essential items that dropped first – the small highlights of my week like nice discounted cheese, or fancy coffee. But as JobSeeker payments returned to normal rates, bigger things had to become negotiable by necessity. I was anxious as I considered doctor’s trips, specialist visits, car tune ups – these things couldn't come before rent, or electricity bills.
The arrival of COVID had muffled everything; put the world on stasis, and the job market too. As I sunk hours into job applications, sometimes never to even receive a courtesy auto-generated acknowledgement email, I began to sink into despair. I started to wonder if I was unhirable. Maybe I secured my old position by sheer luck; swindled my way in like a stack of kids in a trenchcoat sneaking their way into an office. Either way, my lack of employment started to feel like a personal failing, despite the fact that unemployment rates were hitting an all-time high.
Time slipped past in slow dollops, like the languishing drops in a lava lamp. Two weeks of unemployment became two months, and any semblance of a routine began to slip away. As I was barely managing to crawl out of bed to the couch, ordinary people were documenting their lockdown adventures on Instagram and TikTok; nurturing sourdough starters and picking up crochet. But instead of rolling my eyes, I felt inspired. I had a go at TikTok’s famous froggy bread trend, and it sparked something in me; an impulse to create that had been lying dormant.
The turning point
During the pandemic, I had re-discovered something that my full-time work schedule didn’t allow for: making things – writing and drawing – simply for the joy of it. I’d tried my hand at a sensible, adult career path, and it had left me jobless and adrift in the middle of a pandemic.
I'd always thought it was just a force of habit that when I was overloaded with stress I would draw and write. My notes for work and class have always had one thing in common: they’re covered in doodles. Little rabbits and scrawling wildflowers would bloom from the quieter moments of my day. At work – exhausted from deleting the unhinged comments on our company’s Facebook page – I would dream of worlds filled with dragons and knights, faeries and monsters for a reprieve. Making things with my hands has always felt grounding – there was no pressure to get it right. Spending time drawing a fox, writing a poem, and yes, kneading some bread to make a frog – were all small, shareable moments of joy.
Having a creative outlet to pour my energy into gave my otherwise listless job application days meaning and motivation. If I edited one cover letter, I could finish an illustration. Two job apps in? Time to get stuck into the story idea gnawing at the back of my mind. Getting lost in the worlds I created helped me unwind, and distracted me from the state of the world. Sometimes a little unreality can help make reality more bearable.
And while the timing of losing my job during a global pandemic hadn’t been ideal, it had been for the opening of Uni degree applications. So with nothing left to lose, I threw my application in, plus a 10-page writing sample and put it to the back of my brain. Come February 2021, I was a full-time student enrolled in a writing degree. (It was that, or becoming a tattoo apprentice. The university got back to me first.)
At a time wracked with instability, the waiting arms of academia felt like a safe harbour. With night classes every week, I had a structure to cling to, responsibilities to lift me out of the house and social contact to keep me connected. In my experience, studying a degree dedicated to creating my passion projects led me to people who are delighted by the same extremely specific, nerdy niches. It’s how I found my personal ‘village’, whose support proved invaluable during an extremely stressful time in my life. And for that, I could not have been more grateful.
Rowan Campbell is a student at the University of Queensland. When he's not adventuring in the hills of Brisbane or drinking coffee in West End, he's working on freelance illustration, comics and stories about cute little animals with a specifically joyful queer focus. Find more of his creative works at @svvanprince.
This article is sponsored by Kids Helpline, Australia’s only free, confidential, 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5-25.