MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, the psychological impact of losing your job. We'll have that story in a moment.

BRAND: Twelve million Americans are now out of work. At least two million have given up looking. Of course, a lack of paycheck is incredibly stressful. It can also damage your self-esteem. Chicago Public Radio's Adriene Hill reports.

ADRIENE HILL: Carol Cantrel(ph) can't find work. She's 51 and has been looking for a graphic design job for months.

Ms. CAROL CANTREL(ph): I think my Fine Art degree is very attractive to a lot of design situations or design jobs, but it's obviously not enough. Something is not enough.

HILL: She gets about $50 a week in unemployment. Her benefits were recently extended and her savings are depleted. On a good day, she might have a few hundred dollars in the bank. She doesn't answer her phone because bill collectors are calling.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man: First-time applications second floor - stairs, elevator. Senior case workers, first floor.

HILL: She recently applied for food stamps for the first time at an Illinois Social Services office. After being herded upstairs and submitting her paperwork, she waits in a grungy institutional room. The floors don't seem to have been mopped in a while. She's nervous being here.

Ms. CANTREL: Maybe I don't see myself this way.

HILL: What do you mean?

Ms. CANTREL: Well, I almost feel like I'm doing something wrong. (Laughing) Taking. Taking so much, I think.

HILL: Carol feels bad about herself that she can't find a full-time job. She went to school to be a designer. She thinks of herself as an artist. But now, she works one day a week making photocopies for an attorney. She does a little freelance design work for a chair company. She's had to ask her father for money.

Ms. CANTREL: I think because I am educated and I do get interviews and I think I'm just not accustomed to this and I haven't though of myself this way before.

Dr. MICHAEL HOROWITZ (President, Chicago School of Professional Psychology): In American culture, work has even more meaning than in many other societies. ..TEXT: HILL: That's Dr. Michael Horowitz, president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He says there can be profound emotional challenges to being out of work, feelings of worthlessness and failure. It can also raise fundamental questions about self.

Dr. HOROWITZ: In some countries, the last thing we talk about is what do you do for a living? What's your work? Here, it tends to be the first thing. So it really gives meaning and identity to many people in our society.

HILL: Those identity questions are central for Liz Quidera(ph). Two months ago, she was laid off as an exhibit designer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, figuring out how to put exhibits together, how to place artifacts in exhibits. It was work she loved and was proud of. It was her calling. Liz doesn't have severe financial stress right now. She has savings and not a lot of bills. For her, being without the job she loved makes her question who she really is.

Ms. LIZ QUIDERA (Former Exhibit Designer, Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois): It's been a huge revelation. First of all, this has become a time where I'm learning to - I'm going to get emotional now - but where I learned to value myself and my own terms because I depended so much on the value that I held as this employee. You know, it's the work that I was doing for someone else. That's what I took pride in. That's how I identified myself and when you lose that, that's very hard. ..TEXT: HILL: Now months after the layoff, it's getting easier. She's taking control of her life. She exercises every day. She spends more time with her children. She's found some freelance work. I asked her how she answers the question "who are you?" now.

Ms. QUIDERA: I'm a very - it's hard for me to say this. I'm just - I'm not a quitter. (Laughing) I just keep forging ahead. I keep - I'm a very strong person and I'm...

HILL: She can't finish and instead, leads me over to a bulletin board on the wall of her home office. She shows me a list that she wrote years ago of things she wants from life.

Ms. QUIDERA: Order - I like a lot of order. Order in my house, order in my life - I was feeling everything was just chaotic - joy, family, a beautiful garden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILL: Liz goes on. The last item - to work at something meaningful. And she tells me she's been able to create a lot of those things for her life without a full-time job. She's building an understanding of herself that's wider and deeper than work. For NPR News, I'm Adriene Hill in Chicago.

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