Life is surreal enough without suddenly earning a global reputation as a screwup.
On June 8, 2011, if you had Googled me, you would have come across some of the writing I’ve done for the Chicago Sun-Times over the last 17 years.
On June 9, all the stories disappeared. They were overwhelmed by results that had some combination of the words “Glee,” “vomit,” “fired” and “ashamed.”
Not me. After I’d confessed all to my editors, I was on the brink of melting down in the newsroom into an ugly, quivering puddle of disgrace. So I’d slunk off to catch an express train home. It was somewhere around the Norwood Park station that the managing editor called me, put me on speaker phone, and announced, “Paige, you’re fired.”
You thought of Donald Trump just then, didn’t you? So did I. That’s what I mean; life is surreal.
I mumbled, “OK. Thank you,” and hung up.
It was one of those occasions where you’re supposed to learn what you’re really made of. It would have been more useful if my first thought after that had been, “How will I buy food now?” or even “How will I tell my mom?” But I have an extremely delicate brain, which unfortunately switched into irrelevant efficiency mode. My first thought: “Now that Friday is free, I should move up that Genius Bar appointment from Saturday.”
I may not have inner strength, but I do try to keep my time management skills sharp.
I woke up the next day without a job for the first time in my adult life, and like any good American, trudged dutifully off to the mall. So there I was, robotically waiting as the Mac genius was hard-restarting my iTouch. “This would be a nice place to work,” I thought, slightly hysterically. “So clean.” When my phone rang again, I answered without thinking.
It was “The Today Show,” offering to fly me and my family to New York for a nice weekend before appearing live on Monday’s program.
The rest of you probably recognized immediately what a bad idea this was. Best case scenario, I would have the chance to share the horror of my humiliation with the country in high-def. Worst case, Matt Lauer would (correctly) call me a blockhead.
But this producer was good. Really good. I don’t know how she got my unlisted number, or what devil’s psychology she used on me, but by the end of the conversation I was ready to drive to O’Hare.
Harried working moms everywhere could identify with my story, the producer told me. I was a symbol of the universal struggle to balance work and family, she told me.
Translation: My firing had become the “wacky” story of the day. And I finally came to my senses when when two words occurred to me: Balloon Boy. That’s what segment I’d be. And if I made my 7-year-old go on the air with me, God knows she’d just throw up again.
Soon the hiccup-crying started.
On Saturday morning, my husband told me that news of my shame had made the London papers. That’s when the hyperventilating started.
On Sunday, panic attacks set in until late afternoon, when the headaches started.
Judging by the physical symptoms, I figured I was burning through the seven stages of grief at a healthy clip. How long do you get to stay in denial?
Most surreal of all: My kids were inappropriately thrilled that I was fired. Suddenly I was home with infinite time on my hands, and nothing better to do than debate whether it was more strategic to fight Vilgax with Four Arms or Cannonbolt. (For the record, Four Arms may have the sheer brute strength and the fan base, but give me Cannonbolt’s “pinball” move any day.)
Over the last months, I’ve been pretty thorough in my self-loathing. There have been bright spots, though. Like Anthony Wiener. I’ve thought affectionately about him many times. His scandal was breaking at the same time as my scandal, and his trumped mine big-time. (And if you just thought about Donald Trump again, you should probably take a break from your TV.)
“You didn’t send pictures of your [extremely private lady parts] to some 22-year-old pool boy in Minot, North Dakota… right?” a friend e-mailed me. “We’re good on that, right?” She’s the same person who told me, joyously, “You made Perez Hilton!”
Facebook turned out to be my one safe haven on the internet. I learned quickly not to visit any other websites – the Poynter Institute was still conducting a poll on my firing – but my Facebook page filled with supportive posts (and Farmville requests, all of which I fulfilled).
Longtime readers wrote that they would miss me. Some even insisted that, boneheaded or not, I’m still a good person. It was sort of like being eulogized without having to die. I don’t know if I’ll ever get past throwing away my dream job by doing something so stupid, but a lot of people forgave me instantly. Some messaged me their own stories about getting fired (which triggered the compulsive crying again).
Unemployment insight No. 1: There is no nurturing, gentle way to be fired or laid off. No matter what the circumstances, it makes you want to not only crawl under the covers, but actually underneath the dirt. Not in a six-feet-under way; it’s more of a maybe-no-one-will-notice-me-underneath-this-layer-of-sod feeling.
At this point, I’ve got things a bit more in perspective. It wasn’t a tsunami or a health crisis. I know that. Let’s just file this one under “international embarrassment” and leave it at that.
Life goes on, no matter how weird and humiliating it gets.