A Lot of Bad Signs

On Being Laid Off in the 2001 Dot-Com Bust, Crying at Work, and Navigating Back From A Crisis of Confidence.

Marissa Maciel
12 min readNov 28, 2023

By Marissa Maciel

Two years after I graduated college I landed my first “real job,” with health benefits and a 401K program. I was hired as an entry-level recruiter for a tech startup, joining a department filled with fairly young, recent college grads. My boss was the same age as me. I was joining a group of bright, ambitious people who were there to find other bright, ambitious people.

We had free snacks — Twinkies and Cup Noodle. There were foosball and ping pong tables. We had a gorgeous women’s restroom — beautiful tiles, very flattering lighting. There was a hairstylist that would come twice a month to our office complex, a sort of Mobile Tech Groomer. We also got a free membership to a local fancy-shmancy gym. Back in 2001, these were the basic necessities for a mid-sized tech startup in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The third week into my job, our company gave my department a paid week-off. As we were told about this, I broke down into tears. I tried my best to look like I was just staring out the window: Just checking out the parking lot, hiccuping and sobbing! Don’t mind me! I couldn’t say it out-loud at the time, but something in my head told me the week-off was a bad sign. Something else told me that being the only one in the room who thought this was a bad sign, was also a Bad Sign.

We were given a free trip to a nearby theme-park, Great America, the next day, as a sort of going-away present. I was wearing my prized baseball hat, one my dad had bought me from his alma mater, years before I started college at the same school. I lost it on a roller coaster (The Demon). One of the other recruiters sitting behind me on the ride scoffed, “Who wears a baseball hat on a roller coaster?” Bad Sign Number 2.

After our free week’s vacation, the divisional manager called an All-Hands meeting. He said to the group of about fifty people, “We took the last week to re-organize and re-structure some business procedures. We’re going to start looking for ways to move smarter and faster. This is business! This is nothing to cry about!” I heard the fabric of people’s shirts swish as they turned their heads to look at me (Numero Tres).

Who cries about business?!

Thanks a lot, asshole.

I smiled a tiny smile. I vowed to not be embarrassed; I vowed to do my job and get noticed for that, instead.

Junior Recruiters were trained to scour websites and search engines for people with the technical buzzwords and experience we sought. We would come up with a list of names and numbers and cold-call them. These were impromptu interviews and, again, back in 2001 this was the norm. If you had the right words on your resume coupled with the right kind of experience, you only had to wait for people to find you.

I started getting really comfortable with my cold calls. I enjoyed talking to people, and I enjoyed grilling them, too. I especially liked the idea that someone was waiting for me to call, and I could give them the opportunity they were waiting for. I fed off of the nervous energy my targets gave me, and it started to show.

One day I was really in a groove, and started laughing with a potential recruit. The cubicle farm started to stir, and people came by to watch. I put my feet up on my desk and started making dramatic/ridiculous faces for my audience’s benefit. “Closed Captioning by Marissa.”

“So, you have enterprise experience, yes?” Look to the crowd, nodding, nodding. “Tell me more about your Linux experience,” write some notes down in a flourishing manner. “We don’t really cater to Oracle clients,” roll eyes to coworkers, ha ha!

When I hung up, some of the senior recruiters applauded me. I laughed in that embarrassed way; staring at my lap, brushing the hair over my ears. Inside, I was high-fiving myself.

This is how I do business.

I handed that recruit off to one of the senior recruiters. He came back to me the next day to tell me that the guy really didn’t pass his muster, and he wasn’t really sure why I decided to pursue that target. He stared at me with a puzzled look.

I told him that the recruit had answered the questions I had for him with the exact replies I was trained to looked for. Apparently, he just couldn’t make it through deeper questioning. That’s why we had two levels of recruiters — Junior and Senior. The senior recruiter scoffed and marched away. Obviously I was still The Crier in his eyes, I thought. (B.S.4.)

The week before I got called into my boss’ office, I was given my 6 month review. “You’re doing really good here; you could probably get a job at any other firm with the skills you’ve honed here.”

“What do you mean by ‘any other firm’?”

“Oh nothing, it’s just always good to have your ducks in a row.”

Repeat after me: C’est la mauvais signe cinquième.

The ship was already sinking around me, but I had been hanging in there like any good ship rat would, gnawing away at free Twinkies, and vowing to use that gym membership “soon.”

The night before I got called into my boss’ office, I put my resume online, on Monster.com (lol, 2001).

That morning, a Friday, he summoned me and another woman to his office to let us know we were being laid-off due to budgetary reasons. I thanked the heavens that I wasn’t alone, and this goddess had done her homework. While I sat there, my stomach clenched and my head spinning, she peppered him with questions: “What percentage of employees were being laid off? Would we get a severance package? How long did they know about this?”

I did not cry.

We sought refuge and collected our thoughts in the bathroom. That gorgeous bathroom was filled with other women who had been summoned. Divisionally, one dozen of us were getting laid-off that day, and at least one of us (me) had to take a dump. I announced this to the room. My sisters told me they understood.

I cleaned out my desk while my ex-coworkers came to wish me good luck. The divisional manager was crying. That felt like a victory, so I smiled. I thought about saying, “This is business, there’s nothing to cry about,” but I had another thought about potential reference checks down the road, and just gave him a hug.

Some of us went to a bar after the meeting with Human Resources. Some of us were too upset to go. I wasn’t! I was there sipping on a Fuzzy Navel and yukking it up with that Skeptical Senior Recruiter, who didn’t get laid off — at least, not until a few months later when the whole department got cut down to one person. I apologized to him for an unfortunate misunderstanding that happened months earlier (let’s call it Bad Sign Number 4.2)…

Back in December, we had done a Secret Santa type gift-exchange in our department — which are just the worst and should be banned. Nobody really cares about getting a gift from a coworker, and the gifts are usually awful. Save your money for your family. Down with Secret Santa, is what we should all say. Anyway.

I went shopping the night before and found something I thought was really cool, that I would like to play with if I were a Dude in Tech. It was a big toy gorilla, 14” tall. Push a button and it growled, and its eyes glowed red. Cool, right?

I missed the crucial bit of information about these gifts: These were supposed to represent some aspect of the recipient’s personality that we really admire. These were Gifts With Meaning. I found out about the purpose of the gifts as people were exchanging them, during Secret Santa.

I was paired up with Skeptical Senior Recruiter.

“This is for Carol, because she’s always bringing cookies to work and she’s a super-star! It’s a ceramic star-shaped cookie!”

“This is for Tom, he likes basketball and beer, so it’s a basketball-themed beer can holder.”

Ugh, these gifts…

It was my turn and I just made some bullshit up that I thought was funny.

“This is for Skeptical Senior Recruiter, because I always hear him telling his Junior Recruiters to, “Shape up! Get focused!” So, here you go… [angry gorilla toy handed over].”

He looked genuinely saddened. He stared at it and wrinkles appeared on his forehead. I could almost see him thinking, “Is this what people think about me?”

Merry Christmas, from Bad Sign 4.2.

Back at the bar, I came clean and told him it wasn’t a gift based on his personality, “It was just a cool thing I found! I only bought it the night before! No hard feelings! I insist!” He looked at me like I was peeing in his favorite potted plant. I just could not connect with that guy. Oh well, I wouldn’t have to try anymore, anyway.

After that, I walked out of the bar and into a nearby movie theater to watch The Wedding Planner (come on, this was 2001, guys. Don’t judge me.). There was a large group of about 15 tech people seated together, being silly and laughing, out for a movie during their 2.5 hour long lunch break, I guess. Dressed in button-up shirts tucked into khaki pants, identity badges swinging prominently, they looked so happy. So blissfully happy. Unaware of the fact that the company down the street was letting about the same amount of people go. I was probably in the room with H.R. and several crying people, getting the “Here’s how you apply for unemployment benefits” talk, while they were all deciding what movie they would go see. And then, they picked the fucking Wedding Planner.

In my head I pointed at them, saying, “Free movies and trips to Great America can’t last forever!” I left right after Jennifer Lopez’s character didn’t get hit by the truck when her shoe got stuck in the street.

That drive home, with my desk in a box, was the start of my downward spiral. I cried in my pillow, I cried on the phone, I cried in the shower, and then in the pillow again.

I cried so much I started staring at myself in the mirror while I cried, which made me stop.

I had moments when my chagrin would get tempered by cold reality. I went to the very crowded and drab EDD office and signed up for my benefits. I thanked my mother for letting me live with her this whole time and not charging me rent. I looked for work online, and left my resume to wilt and rot on Monster.com.

But, nobody called me. Nobody was out there scouring job sites and search engines for my keywords and experience. I never got a cold-call interview out of the blue, and I felt like a failure.

So, then, after a while I felt guilty for leaving the house to do anything. Shopping, walking my mom’s dogs, taking the garbage out, all made me feel like a creature unfamiliar to daylight, shrinking in my skin and wanting to just sit at home, unnoticed, unobtrusive, unbothered.

Now I can look back and say, “I was depressed.” But the pronoun seems wrong.

“You were depressed,” feels better.

You, back there, at your mom’s house: Why did you let yourself get that way?

Just take a fucking shower and leave the goddamned house for 30 minutes.

And stop playing The Sims.

And stop ordering pizza every time your Sim orders pizza.

I started getting anxiety attacks. I ran out of the mall once, crying all the way to my car. I had an anxiety attack through a first, and then a second, interview with a company, and when they called to give me the job, I waivered. I wondered if I could set foot in that building without feeling like I was suffocating. “Can I have 24 hours to think about it?” I asked, completely within my rights. To them, this was a Bad Sign. I got a voicemail 18 hours later, telling me that they thought my “lack of enthusiasm” was an indication that I wasn’t a fit, and they’d be in touch if candidate number two didn’t work out. I never heard from them again. That really helped with the whole Feeling Worthless situation.

I was watching my self-confidence drain out of me. Why would they kick me out when I held-fucking-court at my job? If I couldn’t keep that job, what job could I keep? Was I just a fake? The anxiety and the depression were opportunistic infections; settling in when I had been knocked-down.

Of course, those who remember the Dot-Com Bust know how the market nose-dived around this time; that company was probably bleeding money long before I was hired. I stalked around the company chat rooms before they took away my VPN access, long enough to see that the techs were also getting the boot (or jumping ship). It wasn’t just us Social Science majors being tossed in the heap! But my mind was too weighed-down to see that being laid-off wasn’t a reflection on me.

My mother talked me into seeking help, and I went to one therapy appointment with a doctor who told me that what was happening was a short-circuit in my fight-or-flight response. He wanted to see me again, but I couldn’t stomach the agony of another panic attack in the waiting room.

I started to fake feeling normal. I white-knuckled everything, and eventually I got another job. And the white-knuckle method worked for a while, until I had a major panic attack. This one lasted 24 hours. It was like being at the bottom of a valley, where the walls were too smooth to climb and too high to let the light peek through. My heart was about to pop out of my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was going to die.

I went to the doctor, and she took me seriously.

I called the help line and they took me seriously.

A therapist called me — I finally got my cold-call! — and coerced me into seeing her.

These were Good Signs.

It took several years of trying (years!) to finally stop the panic attacks, to feel worthwhile. So yeah, there were bumps in the road. The therapist told me at one point that I was so stubborn in my thought patterns that I might need more help than she could give me. I worried about what my colleagues would think of me for having anxiety issues. But I vowed to get better, and my family and my doctors were so supportive.

I knew things were improving when someone said, “I don’t think you really need therapy, you seem alright to me.” I knew better, but it was nice to hear that I was at least appearing normal. I wasn’t going to be The Crier for the rest of my life, after all!

Eventually, I could tap-into the time before I was anxious and depressed, when I took trips on a whim. When I was easy going, and funny, and liked to make people laugh. I got another job that was challenging and fulfilling. I started writing, and sought ways to get published so I could make more people laugh. I was goal-setting again, not just to prove to other people that I mattered, or that I wasn’t just The Crier.

I was, and am, finding purpose in my life, going beyond finding a purpose in life, if that makes sense.

The aim nowadays is not to hold-court at work, but to work where I’m appreciated; and not just by getting free snacks or a convenient haircut. I’m also building an identity outside of my working life, something I knew very little about back when I was mumble-mumble years old.

I’ve learned to trust my instincts, and the difference between personal failure and institutional failings.

Also, never wear a baseball hat on a roller coaster.

And fuck Secret Santa.

Marissa Maciel is a writer and illustrator whose works appear in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New Yorker Daily Shouts, The Belladonna, Humorist Weekly, and many more publications. All work posted at marissamaciel.com.



Marissa Maciel

Writer, Illustrator. Work in Points in Case, Weekly Humorist, Entropy Magazine, New Yorker Tiny Shouts, McSweeney’s, and more! All work -> marissamaciel.com