At the time of year when many people's minds turn to tinsel and trimmings, Mary Bodeson can't stop thinking about the help wanted ads.
The Ripon resident has been out of work for 16 months, when the medical office where she worked for 18 years dissolved and laid off all its employees. Since then the 57-year-old has kept a steady ritual checking employment ads in the newspaper, online and medical specialty sites.
The former medical billing supervisor estimates that she has applied for more than 1,000 jobs since being laid off. She's received maybe 15 interview requests.
"I'm a little more discouraged and a lot more nervous (this Christmas)," Bodeson said. "I am not sleeping well and it's on your mind all the time."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
This season, more than 114,000 people in the Central Valley and foothills will spend the holidays unemployed. For some, like Bodeson, it is their second Christmas of the recession without work.
The figures in Stanislaus County remain grim, according to data released this month by the state Employment Development Department. Unemployment climbed to 16.6 percent for October and is expected to rise through the winter months.
Statewide, nearly 2.3 million Californians were without work last month. That number does not include the nearly 500,000 workers who have taken low- paying or part-time jobs because that's all that was available, or the 109,000 people who have given up looking for work, according to the state.
Mental health experts said being unemployed can make what is already an emotionally fraught time during the holidays that much more difficult.
"You have all the same problems, but on steroids during the holidays," said Modesto psychologist Jim Henman. "Expectations are probably one of the biggest problems. This season sucks, you don't deny that; it's important."
Henman, who has been in practice in Modesto since 1976, said this is one of the worst periods he has seen in terms of the recession's impact on people's everyday lives.
"I have never seen it like this," he said. "Even though there were comparable (downturns) in the '70s, the collateral damage with this economic downturn in the valley particularly is just, well, I've never seen it this bad."
Longtime, skilled workers hunting
The wave of unemployment in the valley has put people back in the hunt decades after their last job interview.
Modesto resident Linda Detwiler has worked nonstop since she was 16. Now 60, she has been looking for another job since June when the bank she worked for, Wachovia Securities, was bought by Wells Fargo and her job was eliminated.
"There are no warm fuzzy feelings this season," Detwiler said. "We've decided instead of everybody buying for everybody, each of us will get one gift. We are cutting back, we don't really have a choice."
Detwiler said her family will still celebrate at her and her husband's house. They'll decorate and put up a tree. But they won't add anything.
"We're gathering together for Christmas, and that is the important thing as long as we are together," she said. "The gifts don't really matter."
Health care professionals such as Henman agree that one of the best ways for the unemployed to take the pressure off the holidays is to let go of the material aspect and embrace the familial.
One of the worst things they can do is act like nothing has changed.
"Ignoring the fact they are unemployed is called disaster," Henman said. "Then they're going to have all this debt on top of everything else."
To ride out difficult times, it's key to manage one's expectations and be realistic about what we can control.
Henman has made a modified version of the serenity prayer that he encourages his clients to follow. It reads: "Allow me to have the serenity to change what I can change, the freedom to release what I can't change and a growing wisdom to know the difference."
In a job market as tight as the Central Valley is experiencing now, job loss shouldn't be seen as an extension of self worth, but simple, unfortunate happenstance.
"It doesn't mean that there is something wrong, it's just life isn't fair," Henman said.
Staying social, communicating and keeping in touch with friends and family can help keep things in perspective. But many people choose instead to withdraw, especially around the holidays.
"What you are dealing with is a circular process," Henman said. "If I've lost my job and I'm drowning in self-hate and shame, I will avoid being around my friends who have jobs. At the same time, friends who have jobs will feel awkward in how to feel supportive. But a person is no different than they were before they lost their job."
If possible, Henman said people should use the time to help deepen those relationships.
Family, friends bring support
As a single woman, Bodeson has looked to her family and friends as a support system. She meets regularly with a group of seven friends she has had since high school. About half of them also have recently lost their jobs.
Bodeson's younger sister, who worked with her at the medical office, also has been out of work since it closed.
"My family is my support group, my safety net," she said. "When I am with my family I am OK. But when I go to bed at night, it's always with me."
Her extended family plans to meet at her 82-year-old father's Ripon home, as they have for years, to celebrate together.
Creating new traditions, or reaffirming old ones, can help people manage the stress that can build during the holidays.
Instead of buying gifts, families can make gifts. Instead of shopping trips, people can spend time together playing games or watching movies.
"There is a lot of living out there that doesn't cost a penny," Henman said. "If you are unemployed and just barely getting by and losing ground, Christmas can take on a whole new meaning. It doesn't have to be material. It can be people creating things to give to each other. And actually that is a superior Christmas."
Bodeson, whose whole family lives nearby in Ripon, has had one silver lining through her many months of unemployment: She has had more time to spend with her 6-year-old granddaughter.
"My grandbaby, she helps me," she said. "You don't have time to think about anything when you are with her. She keeps you hopping and that's a delight."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.