Hidden in Plain Sight: No Fade to Black
by Jen Ehrlich
Here it was; the e-mail I feared. I had aimed too high. Competing with applicants from around the world, candidates offering far more experience than I, there was no way that I would be selected.
I couldn’t ignore it forever, though. Someone was sure to ask me about it.
I’d applied for an internship at a very distinguished San Francisco publishing house. I was pretty sure that a sophomore who had only just changed her major to English wasn’t exactly a hot commodity, but “you can’t win if you don’t enter,” so I did.
The e-mail read: “Hey Jen, We’d love to have you on board as an intern this summer.”
Thus, a happy ending to the story, no? Screen fades to black, credits roll to lively and celebratory music—Queen’s “We are the Champions” or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” But that would be too simple.
As followers of this Blog know, I have a serious chronic illness that leaves me with limited energy and consumes much of that which I do have. During the school year, I end up with five or so good hours in a day. This works out living on campus, attending classes only two or three hours a day, carrying a somewhat reduced courseload and taking breaks when I need them. How, though, will it work in an office where I have to be “on” all the time? And how will I navigate the challenging commute from Campus, since my situation makes finding a suitable short term apartment in the City almost impossible?
You might ask why I applied to this internship knowing full well my physical limitations and the problems they might cause. The answer is simple. Years ago, when I fell ill, before I was diagnosed, before the doctors had any idea what was wrong with me, before I knew what the words “chronic illnesses” meant, I made a promise. I promised myself that no matter what happened to my body, I wouldn’t let it keep me from accomplishing as much as I would have healthy. This determination pushed me to finish high school despite immense difficulty and pain. It propelled me to Stanford. It keeps me here, despite the fact that if I pushed less hard and attended an easier school, I would suffer less and be healthier. But I don’t care. I want to be a writer. I want to use my experiences to help others. To provide the comfort, hope and entertainment that other artists gave me. That’s why I applied to this intense internship and that’s why I’m determined to complete it.
But this wonderful email of acceptance contained absolutely no information about how many hours I would work, how many days a week, or what my responsibilities would be. Working at a computer would be a lot different than running to Starbuck’s to buy coffee for the entire office or rushing packages to the post office at the last minute.
My application letter mentioned my battle with illness, so presumably those in charge of the internship program understood that I presented a unique situation – but what if they didn’t read that part very carefully or assumed I would be fully recovered by the summer? My brain is fine, I can read/write/edit/study for hours at a time. I can be as productive as any other intern. But being in a hot, sunny room where I can’t control the temperature, sitting upright in tight and constricting clothes, putting on a smiling face and making light small chat might be required in an office—and that takes a different, more active type of energy. An energy of which I don’t have an abundant amount.
How to broach the subject? What if they said they hadn’t realized there was an issue, and thus wouldn’t be able to honor the offer? What if they thought I was a slacker, who wanted the cachet of having worked there but didn’t want to put in any effort? I wrote suggesting a meeting to discuss how I could be most useful and productive in light of my situation. They’re very busy however, so I was told just to show up at the orientation on June 9th. They did tell me, “There is no specific hour limit for interns, but most interns find that they get most out of the internship if they are working 20 hours or more. The more you are in the office, the more interesting work you will be assigned.”
Twenty hours sounds reasonable, no? Add in, though, another ten or more of commuting plus the ungovernable tendency of my body to unilaterally turn itself off when it’s overloaded, and the problem becomes more difficult. How to ask about telecommuting without sounding like a lazy bum? I didn’t know. I don’t know.
And thus, as summer approaches, I’m equally elated and terrified. Usually people apply to dozens of internships, get one, and then celebrate—but as with many things in a life with chronic illness, there’s a bittersweet taste to this good news. I don’t know if I will be able to spend 20 or more hours a week in the office. I don’t know if they will allow me to do some work from home, or if that would hurt their impression of me. So, with a smiling face I tell friends about my great news, while in my head all I hear is “yes…..but.” I don’t know what’s going to happen.
All I do know is that I will try. I will be there on June 9th, dressed in business casual with my dad’s old briefcase and a large, genuine smile. Despite my fears and doubts, I realize how lucky I am. I’m able to get out of bed and try. I’m healthy enough to attempt this adventure. I’m going to be working at an amazing company in my dream industry. I’ll meet incredible professionals and students from all over the world. I will learn and contribute as much as I can for as long as I can. I will push myself to my limit and beyond—but only a bit beyond, because a world-class internship means nothing if you are too sick to learn from it.
When I found out about my illness, I promised myself it wouldn’t keep me from accomplishing as much as I would have if I were healthy. I intend to keep this promise to the best of my ability.Tags: Jen Ehrlich