The first thing that happens is your telephone calls aren't returned.

I was laid off at age 53, one month shy of my 33rd anniversary of joining United Press International. My performance had been solid, perhaps even top-flight. I had covered three presidential campaigns, had been UPI principal on Watergate, had covered the White House during part of the Ford and all of the Carter administrations and had capped it off with three years as UPI manager for Israel and senior Middle East correspondent. I had just returned from a year at Harvard, where I had been a fellow at the Institute of Politics.

But UPI was failing and I got caught.

I soon learned a layoff can be one of the most devastating experiences a person can endure.

It started with the Monday morning telephone call from my superior telling me not to come in. Four days later came the letter written in the most terse fashion: "This is official notice of your termination," it began. Not one word about my contribution to the company. It was signed by someone whose name I didn't recognize.

UPI took a tough line. Even though I had returned from the Middle East more than a year earlier, I had gone on leave and thus hadn't actually returned to work. The company took the position I was still overseas and thus not entitled to the union protection offered stateside employees.

I'm resilient. So I thought, "Great, I'll land a job quickly," and even though the severance payoff would be meager, I'd wind up with more money than I would have earned had I gone back on the payroll. So I thought.

My first round of inquiry calls were quickly and graciously received, and the conversations were easy and pleasant. "Absolutely not, I don't need a re'sume' from you," several said. "Get back to me in two or three weeks," they would say. Two or three weeks? I expected to be working by then.

But none translated into job offers. I had several lunches with old friends, now prospective employers. They, too, said, "We would like to have you, but there's a job freeze at the moment. But keep in touch."

I did. But on the next round of calls, few were returned. I tried to limit calls so as not to be a pest. I called no one more than two or three times except a couple of people I also considered close friends. But when the calls started not being returned, I would hear them telling their secretaries, so I imagined, "There he is again. Just take a message."

This led to the second, and more insidious thing that happened to me. Slowly, subtly, my self-esteem took a battering and paranoia lurked: "If I'm so talented why am I not getting offers? There must be some blot on my record. ... Is somebody giving me a bad review?"

Intellectually I knew why the calls weren't being returned. There probably were no jobs available in their organization, and they didn't want to be the bearer of bad news.

I tried the want-ad section of the newspaper. Out of 40 or 50 letters that I mailed, I got only two or three replies. They were negative, but by then I appreciated getting any kind of a reply. One failure to reply I found especially hard to understand: I had applied at the American Psychological Association. No reply. "They, of all people, ought to be more sensitive," I thought bitterly.

Again, I understood intellectually. So many people applied that prospective employers were inundated. That may have explained it from their perspective, but it didn't help me as I waited in vain by the telephone and mailbox.

What hit me hardest was when I heard about a prospective employer who had turned me down because "we're in a job freeze," then hired someone younger. It happened three or four times.

A handful of friends and colleagues checked in regularly. I always will hold them in deep regard. Some had good suggestions. Some said things that were meant to be supportive. I didn't want consolation; I especially didn't want friends cluck-clucking about my plight.

I developed a standard reply to inquiries about my status. "Well, I've been working on a couple of manuscripts. Those are finished now, so it's time to get back to work," I'd say blithely. That was accurate, and I did finish and publish two long-standing manuscripts that year.

The most empathetic response I got was from a colleague who had gone through the same experience. "I hated it," he said. "I'd place my calls in the morning and then get back in bed and pull the covers over my head." I understood completely.

I kept busy. I cleaned the garage, fine-tuned the arrangement of books in my library, updated my files, put in a garden, limed and fertilized the lawn, spent long, joyful hours with my children. I slept soundly at night.

Finally, 4 1/2 months later, on my birthday, the phone rang, and then rang again. Two unsolicited calls that wanted to pursue talks with me about a job. But there is a certain centrifugal force to being without work that is not easily turned around. So another 7 1/2 months were to pass before I actually returned to work.

When the certainty of a job finally came, one year to the day after my layoff, so did the letdown. I felt depressed, testy, joyless. I had seemed to fare better during the actual joblessness. Now I began to awaken at 3 a.m., and lie awake for 60-90 minutes. It was hard even to feel gratitude for the new job, even though I was told the average turn-around period for a professional is 6 to 9 months, almost as long as what I had to go through. The return to normalcy was long.

That was two years ago. Today, UPI continues to struggle. Friday, employees accepted a 35 percent pay cut for 90 days. In the event of more layoffs, I am offering some suggestions for coping:

Call everybody you know in your business and ask them to keep their ears and eyes open. I guess the jargon for this is "networking." It helps.

Don't let your self-esteem suffer. This is a tall order, but one way to do it is not to personalize the unreturned calls and unintentional slights.

Don't leave a single stone unturned, and keep pushing ahead on all fronts. I made the mistake of easing up a bit when I found myself on the short-list of applicants for a couple of jobs I particularly wanted -- and then the job went to someone else and the time I had waited turned out to be wasted.

If you're a prospective employer, one tip only:

Return those calls, even if it is only to say no.

Wesley Pippert is director of the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Washington Graduate Program.