Lose your job, lose your self? How unemployment hits men's self-esteem

Daniel Peña
·21-min read

On the road to Mooringsport, Louisiana, the billboards advertise, in a one-mile stretch, a pro-life pregnancy helpline, a Christian suicide helpline, and a Covid-19-era performance by Stormy Daniels at the Shreveport Hustler’s Club on 22 and 23 March. It’s late August, dawn, and I can’t tell yet whether this place is timeless or a time capsule. It is, to say the least, a land of contradictions – one where the life above ground was built almost entirely from the dead matter below it. Here, oil is king.

I’m on my way to meet Joshua Patrick, a recently laid-off 42-year-old “roughneck”, as he proudly refers to himself, and father of five. He says he’d seen the downturn of oil coming for years – “every boom seems to bring a bust sooner or later.” An aphorism, an axiom, an industry story in a single line. The edges are starting to show some fray.

In September 2020 255 oil rigs were operating in the US, down from 868 in September last year, which in turn was down from the 2011 high of 2,026 operating rigs. While the financial fallout alone is stark, such numbers also point to a looming mental health crisis among the industry’s men who kill themselves at a higher rate than workers in any other sector. Researchers have drawn a direct line between the collapse of oil, unemployment and epidemic despair.

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It would be an understatement to say oil is embedded in the local culture. The region sits atop vast deposits of Jurassic-era natural gas and petroleum. Texas and Louisiana combined are home to more than half of all extant drilling and extraction jobs in the US and roughly 15% of all refining and chemical manufacturing jobs. Depending on the price of oil, each state draws between a fifth and a quarter of its GDP from the fossil fuels industry. But this year, between Covid-19, the Saudi-Russia oil price war and the global transition to more renewable energy sources, the region has been hemorrhaging jobs.

Patrick is one of the more than 118,000 energy workers laid off nationwide between March and July of this year, when the sector shed roughly 15.5% of its workforce. In Louisiana, a quarter of employees in the sector lost their jobs. Combined with the downturn of 2014-2016, when the crashing price of oil led to about 200,000 job cuts, the losses are staggering.

Patrick laments the shutting down of well heads he knows are still profitable. He pins so many of his hopes on the re-election of Donald Trump, who he thinks might put the US back on track. He thinks the president has handled China well, for instance. He read in the news this morning that China is poised to consume more fuel as their economy reopens. “The [oil] price might tick up a percent or two because of that,” he says.

Post-layoff, Patrick fills his hours working on a Kelly green 1955 Chevy two-door Post, the quintessential suburban car of yesteryear. Today, he’s installing a fuel pump. He’d always believed that if you worked hard good things would follow. He could man a rig alone if he had to, he says. It’d be slow, but he could still do the job if the work was there.

“I don’t know where I fit in the rest of the world now,” he says.

***

When I meet Patrick, he wears no mask, though this is his home after all. He lives in a log cabin of sorts, easily the most valuable property in a neighborhood largely comprising mobile homes and ageing structures. As a former toolpusher – industry slang for the foreman of a drilling crew – Patrick raked in nearly $230,000 annually.

At his breakfast table, he sticks a pinch of tobacco into his lower lip. He wears a gray shirt and a pair of Levi’s tucked over the throat of his square-toed boots. A baseball cap covers the scars on his head. In April 2015, Patrick helped his colleagues spool up a two-inch, 1,500-pound-per-square-inch pressure-rated hose with 30lb fittings on either end. An ancillary tension cable snapped, breaking his right arm and lacerating his scalp in several places. “I have no recollection of it,” he says. “They said it was like a cartoon. I was just laying down and then all of a sudden blood just started going everywhere.” They closed his head wound with more than a dozen staples.

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Still, the work had been good to him, he insists. “I knew the oilfield would give me anything I wanted to do as far as providing for my family.” He cites the paycheck in recalling maybe the happiest moment of his life: taking his five kids to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in 2018.

Since the divorce, he has had them every other week. Their bedrooms are still intact from that era, though the kids are older now. His child support payments were set as a ratio to his former toolpusher salary, and between that and the mortgage, his savings are dwindling fast.

These days, however, his finances don’t trouble him as much as the silence in his house, the feeling of not knowing what to do with himself. His former job had him two weeks on-site at the oil patch, and two weeks at home. His ex-wife managed their social life, and in her absence, his circle is small. His father, from whom he inherited the Chevy, is serving a life sentence in Angola for second-degree murder of Patrick’s stepbrother in 2010. There is no stand-your-ground law in Louisiana, Patrick tells me, referring to the right to use deadly force in the face of a perceived threat. “If he were 10 miles west he wouldn’t be in prison,” he says, pointing toward the Texas border. Patrick elaborates: “When he’s had enough of your shit, he’s had enough of your bullshit.”

•••

Patrick joined the oilfield in his 20s. After displaying an aptitude for complex math, he scaled the ranks from floorhand to motorman to driller to toolpusher. People started calling him “rain man”. His reputation as a genius stuck, as did his no-nonsense way of running his crew.

A recovering addict and alcoholic, Patrick insists you have to be clean in the oilfields. Your safety (and everyone else’s) depends on remaining clear-headed. He’s seen too many ripped limbs and lost fingers from people who shouldn’t have been out in the field. “They drink,” he says of his colleagues. “If I ever had a hand that I thought was too hungover to do a good job I would work the fuck out of them.”

He blames his own injury, in part, for his divorce. It left him with whiplash and a concussion, and made him more aggressive, he says. “I’ve never hit a woman in my life, but I had a shorter fuse.” He began forgetting basic things about his job. He felt confused all the time. He couldn’t remember how the rig operated or how it was put together. Processes and their safe execution escaped him. He was tougher to work with, angrier.

As we speak, The Office plays in the background. He likes the group dynamic of the show, likes the situational humor. His favorite character is Jim because of his easy demeanor, the way he takes everything in stride. Maybe he was like that with his men at one time.

“They were part of my family,” he says. “We lived together. I spent more time with them than I did …” he says trailing off. “I had one crew of men that I worked with for three or four years. And we were just unstoppable.”

The turn and burn of crews, he knew, was inevitable with every gig, though he’d always landed feet first when the layoffs came. His old crew had survived the previous bust. But this one took him and everyone he knew by surprise. “This is the last true, to me, blue-collar middle-class job. It was like General Motors used to be,” he says. It feels so final. He’s not sure he can see a future.

***

Research has consistently found that unemployment is hazardous to men’s psychological wellbeing. More so than women, men equate work with self-worth, esteem, purchasing power and existential identity. It’s where they derive status, import and equilibrium. This loaded significance may help explain why unemployment is linked to increased risk for depression and suicide among men.

White men, particularly blue-collar workers, have expressed anxiety around the perceived erosion of their social stature and economic mobility. Compared with lower-income Black and Latino workers, white men express declining optimism and fewer outlets for meaningful social engagement. Meanwhile life expectancy is declining for less-than-college-educated men due to suicide and drug and alcohol overdoses. Further research suggests that pockets of male dissatisfaction tend to show up in places where industry is languishing and in places that voted for Trump in 2016.

These hazards are concentrated in the extraction or “upstream” sector of the oil and gas industry, which is 88% white and 78% male. The field already attracts individuals comfortable with risk who take pride in their ability to complete dangerous tasks. Between 2008 and 2017, 1,566 oil rig workers died on the job. Even as the US suicide rate has surged by more than 40% in less than two decades, mortality among men employed in oil, gas and extractives stands out at double the national average.

Though research on the long-term mental health consequences of the pandemic and recession is only just coming into focus, preliminary findings suggest deaths of despair among oil and gas workers are expected to rise – by as much as 20% according to new projections from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Austin, Texas. Dr Andy Keller, the institute’s president and CEO, says, “the signs are looking really bad.” Oil and gas jobs are disappearing, as are opportunities in other industries that in the past might have absorbed laid-off workers. “The longer it lasts the more damage is done and it’s not something that people bounce back from,” he says. “There’s a tipping point.”

Elaine Cullen Vandervert, a consultant and former occupational ethnographer for the National Institute of Health and Occupational Services, has spent more than three decades studying the culture of oil rig workers and employees in other high-risk fields, like mining. She describes rig culture as insular, hierarchical and emotionally closed off. “Everyday I go to work I could be killed,” she tells me, intoning the perspective of a worker. “And so my best chance of staying alive is doing what I should be doing and watching out for my own safety. But I also have to be able to rely on my colleagues.” As a result, there is a tremendous pressure to never appear to be the weakest link. Reaching out for help is not organic to the culture.

Cullen Vandervert suggests that for rig workers the loss of a job can topple identity. “Let’s say you have ‘roughneck’ tattooed somewhere on yourself or a great big bumper sticker on your great big pickup truck and now there isn’t any work. You can’t do that any more. Your family was used to you bringing in lots of money – now you don’t have any,” she says before trailing off.

“The price the families pay – that’s a high price.”

***

While extraction workers might be the face of oil and gas, the downturn is beginning to be felt in white-collar spaces as well. There is no city more tightly tethered to the fate of fossil fuels than Houston, the so-called energy capital of the world and home base to nearly 2,000 oil and gas sector companies.

Chuck Welsh (name has been changed, the subject requested anonymity) is one such white-collar professional. He runs between three and seven miles every morning in Terry Hershey Park near his home in Houston. A white man in his early 50s, Welsh spent most of his career overseeing oil and gas supply chains, most recently for Archrock, a Houston-based natural gas compressing firm. The company profited from the fracking boom but between Covid-19 and the sheer drop in the price of oil this spring it was highly leveraged and slashed expenses to remain solvent. Welsh was laid off.

It’s not the first time he’s been let go. Welsh has weathered the swells of opportunity in the past. But he can’t parse the future now and has been contemplating suicide. “It feels like you’re useless,” he says. “Like you’re semi-retired and you’re not ready yet. Like you’ve been put out to pasture.”

He admits that his job, as it is for many men in his industry, was central to his identity. In the absence of work, he struggles to make sense of who he is. Running is a way to stave off the uncertainties.

He’s losing weight, he says. Making progress. He credits running for his quick recovery from Covid-19. Welsh and his wife, an accountant, were infected when their sons brought it home after hanging out with friends around the Fourth of July.

Post-layoff, Welsh feels like a stranger in his own home. “It’s freaking embarrassing to be looking for a job with my boys upstairs hearing me,” he says. His wife has the office. His boys have taken over the upstairs. Welsh has claimed the kitchen table where he spreads out and hunts for work. He has applied to more than 300 positions. Some roles receive hundreds of applicants. Recently, he was rejected for a night-stocking job at his neighborhood grocery store.

He knows he’s a casualty of the market, and yet he can’t wrest himself of a sense of failure.

“I used to be a Republican. I used to think black and white about, you know, you are how hard you work and all of this stuff. I think a lot of us, as we get older, we realize life is not that simple.”

Welsh is a Democrat now, but he’d never admit that to anyone in the industry. You just can’t be an openly progressive man in the oilfield, he insists. There’s a certain prejudice against progressives, though outside of the culture of oil and gas there’s a prejudice against oil and gas workers too. It’s a scarlet letter in the job market, he thinks. So he returns to the trails.

He’s bewildered by what is out of his control. The job market, this industry, the future of the country, the widening gap between him and his wife. He can’t help lately but feel like she’s pushed him aside. Running is the only variable he can focus on. Running is the thing he can control.

***

When I visit Louisiana, two tropical depressions are forming in the Gulf of Mexico. In 10 days, the entire area will lose power as Hurricane Laura plows up the spine of Louisiana with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. It will be the most powerful hurricane to ever hit Louisiana, besting even Katrina which, though more deadly, arrived onshore with 125mph winds.

Between raging fires in the west and increasingly frequent super hurricanes battering the Gulf and east coasts, it’s apparent our reckoning with fossil fuels and their role in climate change has arrived.

Even as the oil and gas industry has begun to concede its role in climate change, major players are heavily betting on the so-called “plastic pillar” to shore up losses following Covid-19, renewable energy and consumer interest in electric vehicles. Plastic is the second largest and fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions according to a recent report from the Center of International Environmental Law, and is set to be the primary driver of the oil and gas market in the coming years. Companies are spending billions of dollars to create virgin plastics from petroleum-based products, but data shows that demand is set to peak within the decade. As for right now, it’s looking more like a Hail Mary pass than a viable business strategy.

In 2016, Patrick’s home took on four feet of water when a tropical storm stalled out over the midwest and caused what is now referred to as the great ArkLaMiss flood. The system dropped more than 15 inches of rain over Mooringsport, flooding Caddo Lake which backs up right to his property. Patrick says he’d never seen the water rise so fast. He shows me a picture of his home gutted of walls and wiring and cabinetry. He shows me a picture of his son catching a fish on the driveway.

He doesn’t resent the lake that flooded his home or the oil industry that fuels global warming. “I do believe in climate change, absolutely,” he says. “Exactly how much is humanity’s fault, I can’t quantify. Floods happen and have happened all throughout recorded history.”

Patrick admits that he’d work a solar farm if they asked him to. Even a wind farm like those cutting up the skies of west Texas, which help produce about one-fifth of the state’s overall energy portfolio. But the opportunities just don’t seem to be here. “Who’s hiring? Let me know,” he says with a wry smile. He knows the industry is slow to change. The safer bet, he thinks, will be to wait on oil.

***

On the engineering and refining side of the industry, the future doesn’t look as bleak. Even as oil remains suppressed, there are emerging opportunities in renewable energy production and storage on the horizon. The infrastructure needs building.

Arturo Curiel (name has been changed, the subject requested anonymity) works in the “plastic pillar” that has oil and gas on life support as a structural engineer in the refining and processing side of the industry. If his project isn’t renewed, it could upend his life and send him back to his native Mexico. While waiting on oil’s comeback, he’s open to work in other sectors and other countries. He knows his skills are portable and his identity is not bound up in the myth that the boom will last forever.

Curiel arrived from Mexico City to Houston in 2008 on a TN visa, which gets renewed every three years if he has a project to work on. While visas granted to Mexican oil and gas field workers have decreased dramatically under the Trump administration, putting significant strain on oilfield service providers everywhere, TN visas for specialized workers from Mexico and Canada, like Curiel, have increased in recent years. Though that trend appears to be changing as projects like Curiel’s are increasingly week-to-week.

“The projects have to pick up sooner or later. Energy is needed to live. To make materials – plastics, computers. Everything that makes the world go around depends on energy.”

In his early 50s, Curiel has still got a full head of jet-black hair. His eyes match the directness of his voice, which is deep and authoritative, measured and firm.

He graduated from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the early 90s and lived on the outskirts of the Ciudad Universitaria in the Mexican capital known for its cheap eats and student-centric vibe. It’s a far cry from his hyper-curated neighborhood in a suburb west of Houston. His home has a long driveway and the same brown-red brick of all the other homes.

For his salary, it was a cheap house. He paid it off quickly. If his TN visa were to expire, he’d gladly sell it for profit and return to Mexico. He says he’d give the money to his daughter to see her through college. She’s taking the prospect of his probable return to Mexico harder than he is.

“I never wanted to stay here,” he says. He splits up Mexicans who come to the United States into two groups: those who came out of necessity and those who came for a specific opportunity. He thinks of himself as part of the latter. “When one comes here, you always know it’s possible that you’re not going to stay,” he says. “Even still, it’s a kind of terror. If you have your house, your life, your kids are in school here – it affects your kids.”

He thinks his daughter has bought into the idea of America more than he has because she grew up here. This was always just a geographical place for him, not an aspiration.

“Houston is a good place to work. But not to live your entire life,” he says. “If I had to become American, I’d do it more out of convenience than conviction. I’d never abandon my roots. My roots give me identity. I’m a mix of Spanish and indigenous. I’m not Anglo-Saxon. You can’t hide your roots in the American fabric anyway.”

In this way, he draws a line from Trumpian anti-Mexican sentiment to the Black Lives Matter movement to American racism in the oilfield as well as the laboratory where he works.

“Racism is not allowed explicitly, though it’s not like you don’t feel it. It’s there. You’re aware it’s working inside of them,” he says of his colleagues.

Curiel suggests the great brain drain from the fossil fuels industry is already here. And there will be a demand from foreign companies and governments needing specialists to help them transition into the step-shift toward renewables in the great beyond.

As American-based companies, and even multinational firms like Exxon Mobil double down on fossil fuels, even at the expense of falling from Dow Jones grace, Curiel suggests this century is America’s to lose.

“Americans are the biggest promoters of the free market in the world,” says Curiel. “But suddenly when there is a competitive adversary in that free market, the United States likes to change the rules.”

As for him, he knows the next gig is on the horizon. In America, sure. Or Mexico. Or Europe. Or China. The renewable world is going to need structural engineers too.

**

In Mooringsport, as in countless other towns in the Gulf states, oil is an omnipresent institution: from the Mooringsport elementary school’s mascot (“Home of the Oilers”), to civic festivals and parades like Gusher Days, to the Boom or Bust Byway, to even the Caddo parish seal, which manages to concisely synthesize, in a single image, an entire mythologized past that draws a thru-line between the Caddo Indian nation, the Red River and the oil industry itself.

In it, there are somewhat problematic echoes of the struggle between man and wilderness. The oiler as frontiersman. The oiler was a civilizing force. But also the primordialism of oil itself and the latent message: if oil has always been here, it must always be here. Yesterday, frontier lamps. Today, fuel, toothbrushes, chewing gum, computer parts. Tomorrow, everything.

But what now?

Patrick lumbers his pickup next to an abandoned well head in the wilderness outside of Mooringsport. In the mid-distance, the hull of a rusted-out, abandoned oil tanker truck sits in an overgrowth of weeds. He can still make out the nuances of the engine compartment like he can in his father’s car. He likes being good at things. The fuel pump is coming today, he reminds me.

A large pump jack and tank loom over the landscape. The horizon is crossed by power lines that will be all but snapped in two weeks as Hurricane Laura sweeps through. There will be no flood this time. There will only be wind and rain and the haunting of what could be.

In his darkest moments, Patrick thinks of death as an escape hatch. In other moments it is something like this, he says. Just him treading through a green field into the pines of Louisiana. A well head capped, no longer producing, but the ground still firm beneath our feet.

Daniel Peña is a Pushcart prize-winning writer and assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. He is the author of Bang: A Novel.

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.