Interviews rarely scare me. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs over my working lifetime and gone on dozens of interviews. This is not hyperbole. One could argue this has largely been a waste of time, and sometimes it has been, but it has also helped me amass a ton of experience answering and asking important questions and diffusing the nervousness inherent in such meetings. Most of the time, I feel so practiced and familiar with the questions because they are often predictable ones I’ve previously tackled. I seem to be diabolically self-aware: uncannily so in certain aspects of my life and beyond blind (if such a condition exists) in others. Luckily, the former tends to apply to employment-related screening questions. Akin to how I study, catalog, and memorize social behaviors and expectations, I readily store and retrieve informative and eloquent responses to questions I’ve previously encountered. Even under pressure, I can grab from memory and regurgitate an appropriate response. For this reason, interviews don’t rattle me. Usually.
Yesterday, was an exception. I was confidently navigating a video conference interview for an interesting part-time job I happened upon in my current job search. (Even though I have a job that I love, I usually keep my eyes out for appealing and potentially viable opportunities because I’m an independent contractor so one of the few downsides of my position is its lack of security.) The questions were clear and I answered them comfortably. Admittedly, I did have more anxiety surrounding this interview than normal because the employer is a professional I’ve looked up to for a long-time, unbeknownst to him. His work is iconic in his field and he’s as much of a celebrity to me as Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston is to most (or whomever is hot these days!). I’ve followed his work religiously over the years and so to actually connect one-on-one, even in interview style, felt like an amazing and exciting opportunity. Of course, he knows nothing of me because I have no measurable public persona or impact, and certainly not one that would have spread to him. After the initial fangirl nerves reflective of being in the (virtual) presence of my guru were swallowed, I felt giddy and lucky to have the time to connect. This excitement lent a palpable energy to the conversation and somewhat of a natural rapport was quickly established. I figured this would bode well for my candidacy for the position because I seemed engaged, attentive, and genuinely eager, which I absolutely am. Then, things rapidly veered South: an unprecedented question.
“Tell me one thing about you that I can’t get from your resume or cover letter?”
It seemed like a fair, and interesting question, but it caught me off-guard. While I had been all too quick to answer the other predictable questions rather expressively and confidently, I took my first long pause and inserted the time filler, “hmmm…good question…” then repeated it as if asking myself the same thing.
I knew what I wanted to say (perhaps the elephant in the room of being autistic or my crippling PTSD and anxiety?), but I felt that would instantly quell my chances at the position and was too complicated to divulge without ostensibly trying to defend myself as still a capable worker (it’s amazing how the prevailing opinion is that these “issues” would make me a subpar employee).
It may have been the pause, the flash of panic that graced my face, or some tell sign I obliviously revealed earlier in the interview, but in my pause, he added, “you know, anything personal like a challenge or condition you face or something you’ve learned about yourself.” Does he already know? Is he goading me to self-identify? I wondered. My face instantly glowed a hot red, like when your using the Paint app and select the “fill” or “dump paint can” icon and the entire figure is flooded with color. Don’t blow it, I pleaded. My entire operating vocabulary was suddenly locked up and the only words floating within reachable grasp were those that most hopeful job candidates would keep far from any resume: autism, anxiety, weirdo, PTSD, raped-and-ruined, depression. With each half-second that passed, I could feel my mutism mounting an aggressive offensive, so I picked the least “incriminating” of the limited options still available to me, “depression!” I blurted out as if it were the solution to the final puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. Say something else, I begged of my brain. “Uh, I have chronic depression.” That doesn’t sound good I thought. I was afraid to watch his reaction on the screen but forced myself to make momentary eye contact with his video. He shifted, perhaps uncomfortably, and waited to see if I was going to say more. Nothing. “Oh,” he added, as if hearing awkward news on a first date when you’re trying to be polite but secretly disappointed or disgusted.
The energy from the entire conversation plummeted and was swallowed by each of our computer screens, leaving a vacuous and stale hum of the remote connection. Whereas before, we were volleying eloquent ideas and relaying enthusiasm with each pass, the silence now was stifling. I seemed entirely unable to even formulate a coherent sentence to thank him for his time and end the call. I considered simply x-ing out of the window and blaming technical difficulties, but God threw me a bone. I took a few deep breaths, aware that my back was now sweating under my sweater, and found my voice: “yeah, I have chronic clinical depression and it’s something I battle on basically a daily basis, but I’ve learned to cope and keep it at manageable levels.” Good start, I thought. “It’s like any problem. It’s simply a challenge that I’ve been dealt but it makes me stronger and as I’ve matured, I’ve discovered productive ways to handle it.” Give an example, I encouraged myself. “Like my dog,” I offered. “I’ve found so much joy in spending time with her and I feel like I connect with her in a meaningful way. There’s something very grounding about pets and caring for her brings me happiness.” Call in the generators. It was as if I summoned the energy back and resuscitated the conversation enough to at least give it a moonshot of a surviving chance. “I love my dog too,” he offered. “What kind do you have?” “A golden retriever!” He said. “Awesome!” I said, which, although not the most prolific response, was better than nothing.
Shortly after, we wrapped up the meeting in a slightly less awkward fashion. What I figured was just going to be a rote interview, turned into more of a stressful stimulus that I envisioned. My uncharacteristic nervousness left me surprisingly sweaty and I had to rinse off and completely change outfits before moving on to the next thing!
The whole experience made me wonder why it’s so hard to share personal information about the struggles we face. Everyone has some challenge, so I’d think it would feel more natural, or at least less mortifying and self-sabotaging, to admit them. I partially blame my self-esteem and imagine it’s never as opportunity-killing as I imagine it to be, but I think the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and autism is still a reality and such information can hurt one’s chances for a job or a second date or whatever the objective might be (save for therapy?). I have vowed to be more upfront and try to increase awareness, so I’m hoping that if this job doesn’t pan out, or even if it does, down the road, I can be more open with any self-identifying questions and not fret so frantically about the implications. Especially if I wait until I’ve demonstrated my value and command of the position, it shouldn’t hurt my reputation and instead, hopefully would dispel some of the incorrect perceived weaknesses or conflicts with my viability and merit as an employee and person.