Post-Non-Profit Survival: How Unemployment Benefits Improved My Mental Health

Photo by Deveney White

Photo by Deveney White

CN: mention of sexual assault


I still don’t know what to say when people ask me what I do. Sometimes I tell them that I used to work in rape crisis. That doesn’t feel right. Sometimes I just tell them that I’m not working right now, but that doesn’t feel right either.

I was fired from my first full-time job out of college last year. It happened the day I came back from my first long vacation since starting my job a year ago. It was shocking and painful. I cried for a few days, but the blessing that came out of it was that I was forced to finally realize how beaten down I was from the work. (I even wrote a poem about it recently.) I finally acknowledged how exhausted and overworked I was, that I was suffering from secondary trauma.

At the point I tied up a lot of my self-worth to the work that I did. It was work that I was very proud of: training volunteers to support survivors of sexual violence, giving community workshops and trainings on responding to sexual assault, and supporting incarcerated survivors. At the point when I was fired was when that link had to be cut and I had to find other ways to view myself as a whole person.

I was exhausted. What I mistook for “love” for my job was actually human willingness to support others being taken advantage of by the non-profit industrial complex.


What is Self-Care Under Capitalism?

I remember hearing discussions about self-care in the office from management. I didn’t care then and I definitely don’t care now because non-profit organizations continue to exploit their workers. By placing the responsibility of care on the individual, they are continuing to perpetuate high rates of burnout. And I’m not saying this in a capitalistic sense where I think we should all more productive and happy workers. The space that I’m coming from is that I literally had to get up in the middle of the night and assist survivors and still have to go to the office next day, while I was being underpaid. Meanwhile the only person who actually cared about my mental state was the other medical advocate in the office.

After I was fired, one of my friends told me how life-changing it can be to be on unemployment benefits. It frees up so much stress you’ve been carrying. It feels good to take a breath.

Multiple people have told me that they wish they had taken benefits when they had the opportunity, but instead they pushed themselves to get the next available job. From what I have experienced, there is a lot of stigma related to accepting benefits and living off those benefits.

Those living on SNAP and utilizing living assistance are not only frowned upon, but constantly shamed in the media by politicians and even celebrities. And despite the fact that these government assistance programs largely serve white people, it is people of color – and in particular Black people and immigrants – who are stigmatized for using them. Accepting that stigma, as well the trauma of poverty attached for folks who have been poor or working class, can be too high of a price to pay.


Saying Goodbye to Non-Profits

Once I began to receive my benefits and disconnected myself from the idea that I needed another non-profit job to mobilize my career, I started to let go of the pain and betrayal I felt from being treated disposably by my employer. I began to distance myself from an idea that productivity defines whether I am deserving of respect. My humanity can’t be validated by any job. Growing up, I remember my parents repeating stigma about other people who don’t work, saying it must be because they are lazy. Our worth in a capitalist economy is directly tied to the work we produce. I want to be open about my experience on benefits because of the stigma as a way to confront this harmful idea that if we are not constantly working we can’t survive.

My six months receiving unemployment benefits allowed me the space to rest and take my time recovering from the stress and the secondary trauma of working in rape crisis. I was able to take my time processing the damage of working in this field for over a year, and it also allowed me to process the ensuing effects of being fired without warning.

Being forcefully removed from my position at a non-profit, a position I was so convinced was meant for me, snapped me back into reality – a reality that acknowledges that employers, regardless of the field, are not looking out for the best interests of their workers or of the community. I also understand that being able to take time off was a huge privilege. Not everyone has access to unemployment benefits. Undocumented workers, contract workers and self-employed people don’t necessarily have access to this. However, I am so glad that I was able to take time to breathe and recover from the trauma of capitalism and the secondary trauma of working in the sexual assault field.

I am no longer in such a rush to feel accomplished. Now more than ever, I see how climbing the ladder of non-profit leadership is a false feeling of accomplishment. I have witnessed so many non-profits turn their backs on the communities they claim to serve. Thanks to the ability to pause, I now know that this is not the path I want for myself.

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About Eliana Buenrostro:

Eliana Buenrostro is a queer Chicana writer from Southern California based in Chicago. She is a pop culture nerd, a lover of new wave and a firm believer in liberation for all working people. Her writing has been published in Solace: Writing, Refuge and LGBTQ Women of Color and Basta: 100+ Latinas Against Gender Violence.

About Deveney White:

Atlanta-based agender/queer photographer who specializes in natural, ephemeral, timeless moments. Lover of the cornflower blue crayon, 90s culture, Lisa Frank, and social justice/human rights. They daydream frequently and play the ukulele. Follow @deveneywhite on Instagram.