Support groups pop up to relieve the emotional toll of joblessness.
GOSHEN -- The date remains seared in Craig Johnson's memory -- June 16, 2008.
"On a Monday," he continues. "You want the time? Actually, it was 1:27."
What followed was a long motorcycle ride to clear his head -- and a trip to the unemployment office.
He had been axed after nine years with a supplier to the recreational vehicle industry.
Ten months later, he still fumes when asked about that day. But mainly, he keeps focused on the future and the hunt for work, jokingly referring to himself and his brethren as the "employment challenged."
If you don't keep your sense of humor, he warns, "you'll just get lost in the hate and the desperation."
The steep economic decline is exacting a heavy toll, but the impact isn't strictly financial. Losing your job can spur a lost sense of identity, anxiety, hopelessness, shame and worse. With 18.8 percent of Elkhart County's work force unemployed -- 18,506 people, up from 5,766 a year ago -- that's a lot of potential angst.
Getting laid off "is a loss, much like a death can be, and so people go through a whole lot of emotions, of sadness, depression and anger," said Jay Shetler, a Goshen psychologist. Studies link joblessness with higher rates of depression, he said, and clients in his office -- some newly unemployed, others still working -- are increasingly fretting over the tight job market.
Even Johnson, a gung-ho optimist who leads a support group for the unemployed at Goshen's River Oaks Community Church, has to hustle some days to keep busy. Staying active, experts say, is key in fending off the unemployment blues.
He remembers the first few days after he lost his job, how he wanted to lash out. "Angry was an understatement," said the Elkhart man, getting ready for a support group meeting.
John Elliott, let go Jan. 15 after 15 years with a Goshen glass and windshield repair company, started volunteering recently at the Black Squirrel Golf Club. It'll give him something to do, he figures, and it gets him out of the house.
"I'll meet a lot of new guys. I don't know," he explains, speaking at a gathering of a support group for the unemployed at West Goshen Church of the Brethren. "It's better than just sitting at home."
He's returned a few times to his former place of employment to check up on his former co-workers. The response wasn't too warm last time and it seems to bother him -- "You're just a number" -- though he figures the guys may just be stressed about the economy.
Otherwise, the man, 61 -- who was nearing retirement anyway and whose wife still works -- looks for a job, assembles jigsaw puzzles and, the best part, spends more time with the grandkids. He's also been taking note of all the cracked windshields and broken windows fixed with tape -- signs people are putting off repair work and indicators of why his former employer laid him off.
Vance Stees, the only other attendee beside Shetler at the support group meeting this day, can't get used to the rejection when he hits the pavement searching for work. He lost his job in the print shop of a manufactured home builder last December after 18 years, though his wife still works at a fast food restaurant.
"What am I doing wrong?" he asks. "Am I not dressing properly?"
Beyond that, he misses the camaraderie of the workplace -- co-workers were like family -- and tires of so much idle time.
"I want to be working because I don't like sitting around," he said. "It's a long day being at home by yourself when your wife's out working and your daughter's at school."
Shetler counsels against watching too much television, particularly news programs reporting the dire economic conditions.
"Don't feed yourself with negative messages," he said. "That negativity gives you a negative mindset."
Rather, get up at a set time each day, establish a routine, do volunteer work to keep productive and keep looking for work, even though it gets old. Think of the situation as a chance to reinvent yourself, change careers, go back to school.
"There's risk, loss of income, all sorts of negative things," Shetler said. "But there's also opportunity."
It's another day, and Craig Johnson, leader of the River Oaks support group, is at his Elkhart home, taking a break from replacing the roof on his garage.
"It was 20 years past due," he says, chomping a cigar. But now that he has the time -- and it's a spectacular spring day to boot -- why not get the job done?
Inside the garage sit several lawnmowers that he's refurbished. He serviced generators built for RVs before the guillotine dropped and is pretty handy with a set of tools.
"If you want one, they're $50," he offers.
Inside his home, he shows off the home entertainment center he built and discusses the recipes he's learned since losing his job. With his wife the main breadwinner, helping with the cooking is the least he can do.
Moreover, there's the volunteer work with two nonprofit organizations, computer classes, occasional freelance jobs fixing generators and the never-ending hunt for a steady job. It's so much work being unemployed that he's shed 50 pounds since getting the pink slip last June, trimming down to 265.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel," he advises. "Just get out and do stuff. Don't sit in front of the TV eating Cheetos and drinking beer."
SUPPORT GROUPS FOR THE UNEMPLOYED
Several support groups for the unemployed operate in and around Elkhart County. These are open to the public:
* First Presbyterian Church, 200 E. Beardsley Ave., Elkhart. The group, People Between Jobs, meets Mondays at 8 a.m.
* Bristol United Methodist Church, at its Open Door Center, 101 W. Vistula St. The group, People Between Jobs II, meets every Tuesday at 8 a.m. Enter through the rear entrance.
* West Goshen Church of the Brethren, 1200 Berkey Ave., Goshen. The new group meets the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 9 a.m.
* Michiana Career Network, 17646 Cleveland Road, at the "firehouse" at the South Clay United Methodist Church, South Bend. The group meets every Friday at 12:30 p.m.
* St. Pius X Catholic Church, 52553 Fir Road, Granger. The group meets Wednesday at 7 p.m. in room 213 of the church's school.