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How Anxiety Kept Me From Interviewing for My Dream Job

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Gagging. Short, quick breaths. The thought I was going “crazy” and could not take another moment of excruciating discomfort. This was me on my aunt’s driveway getting ready to go interview for my dream job. However, my anxiety apparently had other plans.

How did I get here?

At age 15, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. (GAD). Though this was my first formal diagnosis, I have been told and have early memories that give me the sense I had the issue long before reaching a psychiatrist’s office. Once, in second grade, I noticed my veins on my arm and thought they looked quite prominent. This apparently convinced me I had some sort of disease, and I retreated to a corner of the classroom and eventually home for the day.

My anxiety made me feel like I couldn’t take a good solid breath, sometimes for weeks on end. I also felt the need to breathe “manually” at times. There was even one time where I hardly slept for a full week. There were also numerous times I felt the need to be hospitalized.

I nearly dropped out of high school. Then, ditto for my undergraduate degree in psychology. After graduation, I felt the need to leave my home state. I wanted to feel something of a “fresh start,” and I chose to go to graduate school in Arizona. Things were going great for the first month or two, and I felt the happiest I had felt in quite some time. Then, yet again, anxiety reared its ugly head. I returned to the state of being unable to draw a solid breath for weeks at a time, and eventually found myself taking time off to go back to my parents’ home and attend intensive outpatient therapy (IOP) at a local hospital. For those who are unaware, IOP is where you go to therapy for several hours per day, sometimes five days a week. It was like having a part-time job (without any of the pay). Somehow, some way, I eventually finished my master’s degree in city planning.

My last year of graduate school, I hit the ground running looking for jobs. My job search started pretty early because I knew one thing about my anxiety: during time periods where I had little activity (like summers growing up), my anxiety would flare up. My goal was to have an offer ready for me to walk right into after graduation. This did not happen.

On graduation day, I was actually nowhere near a stage or cap and gown for that matter. I took a flight to New York City for a conference, where I intended to network and just generally enjoy myself in one of the world’s great cities. Travel made me anxious, but it was really not much of a problem.

I came home and continued job searching. Pretty much all I did was write cover letters, adapt my resumé, and go to interviews. However, week after week, I could feel my anxiety build just like it did between school years as a child.

One day scrolling through job listings, I saw something I was sure was a typo. There was a job opening for a high-level city planning position in my dad’s hometown. Not only did my dad grow up there, but this city was like a second home for me growing up. My family spent nearly every weekend there visiting my grandparents, aunt and other family members. And unlike lots of entry-level positions in my field that required new graduates to have several years of experience — unbelievable, I know — this was a job I was fully qualified for. By this point, it had been several months since graduation, and I was feeling my anxiety on a high level daily. All the downtime had started taking a toll. However, when offered the chance to fly out for an interview, I knew it was something I could not turn down. After all, if I did turn it down, I just know I would have had a pretty tough time forgiving myself. Though I didn’t feel confident in my ability to get through the situation, I forced myself to go.

Leading up to the day of my flight, I started to feel my anxiety gaining more momentum. I could hardly sleep. Eating became a chore. I anticipated a rough journey, and that turned out to be a correct assumption.

I arrived in my dad’s hometown and was slated to stay with my aunt who still resided there. By this point, the lack of sleep and my anxiety in general had ravaged my body so much that I developed an actual stomach bug. I went from eating less before my flight, to actually not eating at all once I arrived. Not only was I feeling increasing anxiety, but my body was also not fully cooperating.

Though I had flown across the country just a few months before, I was shell-shocked by the amount of anxiety I felt this time. It felt like I was on Mars without an oxygen mask. Something just felt inherently “off” about being so far from home. I was on pins and needles, on the brink of panic pretty much the whole time. I think the fact I was interviewing for a dream job combined with my deteriorating mental state from too much free time since graduation were the main culprits.

The day of the interview came. It was time for my aunt to drive me to my interview, and the panic finally broke free. Pinning myself against the wall of my aunt’s living room, I started to crumble. She directed me to take some deep breathes, and I complied. Gathering myself, we started to walk out the door to her car. At this point, I felt like I just couldn’t go. I started to gag and convinced myself I would soon throw up. Upon later reflection, I realize I was so fearful, my gag reflex was completely made up by my mind. Yes, I had a stomach bug, but at that point I was not physically feeling like I needed to vomit. I gagged so I could have an “excuse” that was physical and not mental which would “allow” me to not go. My anxiety caused me to mentally make the decision that I needed to find a way out of the situation, no matter how “crazy” I looked doing so.

Retreating back inside the house, I sent an email to the people set to interview me. I asked if I could reschedule for a few hours later in the day to which they accepted (though they were not thrilled about it). Immediately, I reached for my “emergency medicine” and told myself I would take some and make it there in a couple of hours. Yet, to my surprise, even my medicine couldn’t get me to hop in the car and go to the interview. When the time came to go, I was slightly more relaxed but absolutely beaten down mentally. I sent one final email canceling and waited to eventually drift off to sleep. I laid on the couch, waiting for the agony to finally cease.

After a short nap, I woke up as anxious as before. At this point, the constant anxiety was taking its toll. I could no longer take it. It became my immediate priority to fly home as soon as I could. The drive to the airport and the flight itself back home were nearly unbearable.

But the story doesn’t stop there.

Once I got back home, the anxiety continued to my surprise. It was so bad, sometimes I had trouble moving across the room (an anxiety wave would hit me every time I turned to do so) and I could not even watch television except for certain episodes of specific shows — I was really overemotional about characters in the shows, for whatever reason. This lasted maybe three or four days, and I slowly got back to “normal.” It was time to move on and look for a job closer to home.

Yet, my experience and the aftermath did not end with this so-called return to normalcy. I ended up going on an interview for a pre-entry level job with a local city I had done some work with during graduate school. The interview was going well until the lead interviewer mentioned he had gotten a call from the place with whom I had missed the interview.

As it turns out, this person was one of my references, and they had called him to ask about me and my prior work. He asked me what went wrong as it sounded to him like they really wanted to hire me. When I heard this, it was as if a thousand people with black belts kicked me in the stomach simultaneously. I grew extremely depressed in mere seconds, and absolutely tanked the rest of an otherwise promising interview.

Even today, over a year later, I deal with intense shame over what occurred. I find my brain remembering the experience and saying, “You were right there! No excuses, your dream job was right there in front of you and you failed.” And every time those thoughts roll through, the painful feelings are as raw as can be. It is as if my brain completely forgets the intense anxiety and panic I felt and just remembers the result of not actually making it to the interview. It follows me. It taunts me. It just plain hurts on a visceral level. It sometimes keeps me up at night even when I am tired and desperately need some rest.

Yet, as painful as this experience was and remains to this day, I think I learned a lot from the situation which I would like to share. My hope is that not only will this experience help me to learn and grow, but that my sharing of the story will reach someone out there who has felt similar feelings — feelings such as regret, shame and self-directed anger as a result of their mental illness or illnesses.

The first thing I learned is that mental health issues can hold people back just as much as physical problems. This point is extremely important to stress. Would I feel bad if I had a physical malady that prevented me from traveling? Would I have felt as judged by the people around me (whether they were or weren’t actually doing so)? Probably not. I would have just accepted the fact I had an ailment that wouldn’t make a job far away from home a good fit for me. I feel extreme shame over how the whole situation unfolded but that goes away sometimes. It goes away when I start to feel extremely anxious. Why? It is because I remember how I was feeling that day, and how much it can hinder my ability to function.

Another lesson learned is that it’s usually good to push yourself but always trust your instincts. I knew going into the situation (or at least had a feeling) that I may not make it all the way through the travel/interview process. But I was intent on pushing myself. And I am still happy to this day that I did that. Yet, when things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to, I felt like I had failed. All of the lower expectations I had instinctually felt prior to the interview went out the window. It was a pass/fail system in my head and I did one thing: I failed. Now, I try to think of things the following way: I knew going and acing the interview would have been amazing, but not very likely. That is what my instincts were telling me prior to the situation unfolding. So the fact I made it all the way across the country and was slated to place myself in a high-pressure situation is a testament to my strength and character, not a refutation. I exceeded the expectations I had for myself and put myself out there in an uncomfortable situation to chase my dreams. At the end of the day, I didn’t get the result I wanted. But, I put the work in and did my best under the circumstances.

I also learned a lot about regret. Regret should only serve one purpose: to help you prepare yourself better for the future.

Without that function, it is a pointless emotion to have. When I get regrets now, I try to do two things. First, I acknowledge and accept that I may not for a while (or ever) get these feelings to go away completely. So, I let them in and accept them for what they are. Second, I try and think of ways the experience helped me grow and ask myself what I can take from it in terms of learning about myself or my abilities. How can my experience help me grow? How can I share and inspire others who may be going through or may have went through similar experiences? Essentially, I try to look toward the future even when my obsessive brain wants to drag me back down the dark alley of the past.

I sincerely hope that anyone who reads this post, and can relate to feelings of shame or regret, feels like they aren’t alone. I encourage everyone to be honest with themselves about their abilities and the effort they put into whatever it is they are doing. If you honestly assess you aren’t doing enough? Step up your effort and investigate what the root causes of that may be. However, if you honestly assess that you did your best and came up short? Step back, take a deep breath and plan for how to improve instead of constantly looking back over your shoulder.

As for me, I plan on turning lemons into lemonade by writing pieces like this and ultimately, one day, potentially authoring a book. I choose to look forward and leave the past in the past where it belongs. I encourage anyone reading this to be kind to yourself and do the same.

Pexels photo via Demeter Attila.

Originally published: February 15, 2019
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