Editor’s note: The author’s identity has been withheld by the Editorial Board due to the sensitive nature of the piece.
February, 2018. The final scores of my physiology class had been released.
I stared at them in shock and disbelief. Every single cell in my body went numb as if I had bathed in my personal concoction of lidocaine, propofol and midazolam. My thoughts became still, running at the speed of a freight train only seconds before, but now frozen in place. Everything around me fell silent and the only thing I could hear was my own heart beating. But then, my mind started to warm back up, my thoughts started to race again and I realized this was not a dream.
I refreshed the page over and over again, thinking that a different number would magically appear instead, but it never did. I then picked up the phone to call my mom.
I choked out the words, “I failed out of medical school.”
And all she said was, “Come home.”
Failure is like a hurricane whose winds know no bounds, whose sounds rip and roar through the vast, open space and whose unrelenting multi-directional force is felt with every step forward. Her winds began to wrap themselves around me like a vine slowly suffocating me as she made every twist and turn around my body. As I struggled more and more, her grip tightened, and I began to think that I may not survive.
The next morning I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my hair in disarray, my eyes swollen and bloodshot and my face overcome with exhaustion.
Who was this person staring back at me?
Where did I go?
How do I get that person back?
I looked in the mirror each morning and asked the same question:
Is this a nightmare?
My mind never rested — torturing me with taunts and horrific slurs throughout the day, leaving me with no peace. Feeling crippled by failure and battered by its high winds, I decided I must take responsibility for my thoughts and quell feelings of despair. Slowly, my thoughts started to shift, and one morning I looked into the mirror and finally said:
I do not deserve this pain.
In order to overcome the overwhelming power that failure had over me, I realized one thing:
I needed to stop fighting.
I had to lean into failure’s high winds. I had to stop struggling against her force that grew seemingly stronger with every breath I took and every movement I made. I had to turn to failure, stand still, look at her right in the face and embrace her fully. Only then could I begin the process of rebuilding.
A week after I failed out of medical school, I entered a room with a ficus in one corner and a red chair in another. I looked up and saw a poster that said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
I could smell the strong scent of firewood coming from a lit candle. I sat in a chair across from a therapist; she handed me a blank piece of paper and asked me to write. I sat in silence for a few moments before I picked up the pen and began to press the ink to the page. I wrote down the self-deprecating mantra that was playing on repeat in my head. As I wrote each word, I pressed harder and harder onto the page, and tears rolled down my face as I looked at the statements staring back at me:
I was never good enough.
I won’t make it if I try again.
Why has God left me behind?
On and on I wrote. I wrote. I wrote. The therapist’s candle continued to burn until the wick was inundated by wax, the flame was extinguished and the smell of firewood had faded.
She lit another candle before asking me to think about who I wanted to be and my future goals. She gave me a fresh sheet of paper, and I wrote down that I no longer wanted to feel fear, despair, insecurity and isolation. I desired that the violent winds should calm so that my mind could be at peace, assured that every force was not working against me. I had to believe that when I could no longer withstand this hurricane on my own, God would give me the strength to get back up and face the piercing winds.
I went home that night desperate and lost, and I put my hands together and began to pray. God responded as if He had been waiting in the wings all this time ready for me to lean on Him. He showed me that the length of my resume or any other worldly accolade does not hold significance and does not equate to self-worth. I let go of long-held beliefs of who I was and began to create my identity by focusing on the values and character that resonated with my true self.
With each passing week, I could feel more energy flowing through my veins and the negative thoughts continued to turn into positive ones that I actually believed in. I decided to repeat my first year of medical school, and before classes started again in August 2018, I spent a couple of months attempting to discover new, effective study strategies. I crossed my fingers and took a leap of faith.
My first anatomy exam in August appeared suddenly; much too soon, I was staring at a cadaver with a tag sticking out of him. With utter confusion, I went from table to table. I had no idea what I was looking at.
Is this a nerve, artery or vein?
I looked up at the ceiling and hoped that God would whisper, “It is the brachial artery.”
But that unrealistic wish did not come true; instead, it was just me and this body. All I saw was a flickering, fluorescent light that threatened to expire at any moment. My hope of becoming a physician seemed just as fragile as that light, and each flicker made my dreams of success appear to fade further away into the darkness. The bell rang and brought me back to reality. Time was up. I left the anatomy lab convinced I would again fail first year and would no longer be able to pursue a medical degree.
When the exam results were released later in the day during class, the students in my group quickly checked their scores and were talking about how well they did. I could see the pride that shimmered off of their glistening, unscarred skin; and there I sat in dread and silence.
I gathered up the little strength I had left and checked my score.
I stared at it in shock and disbelief. Every single cell in my body went numb as if I had bathed in my personal concoction of lidocaine, propofol and midazolam. My thoughts became still, running at the speed of a freight train only seconds before, but now frozen in place. Everything around me fell silent and the only thing I could hear was my own heart beating. But then, my mind started to warm back up, my thoughts started to race again, and I realized this was not a dream.
I refreshed the page over and over again. I thought that a different number would magically appear instead, but it never did. And then I picked up the phone and called my mom. I hesitated, still unsure if the score was correct, and said, “I passed.”
She muffled her cries and said, “This is where you are meant to be.”
I took another 10 exams that semester; before each one, I had flashbacks of failing the previous year’s exam. And as I sat there waiting for the score, I wondered if I had failed again. Failure had been so prevalent in my life that it was as natural as breathing. And so when I began to experience success, I was unsure if it was really even mine. As I continued to pass exam after exam, I anxiously waited for failure’s sharp winds to wrap themselves around me again.
My lip began to quiver as I tried to answer question after question on the first immunology exam. I became more and more anxious, and my mouth began to feel dry. This familiar feeling presented like a setback. I did not know a single answer, and I could not even make an educated guess on the basic principles of innate immunology. I wondered how I would ever come back from this. I read the questions over and over again, but all I heard was:
I was never good enough.
I won’t make it if I try again.
Why has God left me behind?
I got home, sat in my chair and stared at the wall in the dark. I felt this imaginary penetrating wind surround me growing stronger with every breath I took. I tried to think of all the ways to calm these winds, but my mind drifted to the poster in my therapist’s office reminding me that I could achieve my goals if I just dreamed about them.
Oh, how I had dreamed about wearing a white coat, placing my stethoscope on a child’s heart and monitoring its every beat. I dreamed about rushing in, looking frazzled but still composed in a controlled chaos, saving lives before they drew their last breaths. But I must not have dreamed hard enough. I must not have wanted it enough.
As I sat immobile in my chair, I felt doubt’s thousands of hands around me pulling me into the darkness I had fought so hard to leave. But I did not let these hands take me there.
Instead I asked God, without much hope, to lift me up, calm the high winds and free me from the grip of this terrifying doubt. My strength intensified and coursed through my veins; I got up from my chair, flooded my room with light, grabbed a pen and began to write. I wrote about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to see in my future. I wrote down the study strategies that I used to study for this first test. And then I wrote a list of new study strategies to try for the next test. I would continue to reflect and make changes in order to find success. I would not collapse under failure’s gale-force winds, fall to my knees and accept defeat; instead, I would look her in the eyes, accept my reality and walk alongside her.
A few weeks later, at the beginning of the next immunology exam, I typed in my username and clicked “Start unit two exam.” I let myself smile as I answered question after question.
It was the morning of my last final exam in May 2019. The sunlight peeked through my curtains and shined on anything its beams could reach. I fumbled inside my bag trying to find my rosary. I ran my fingers over the cold beads and the familiar edges of the cross. I bore my authentic self in order to build strong bridges that helped me connect my soul to others’, be they of friends, colleagues, or patients.
God took away all my feelings of shame, guilt and humiliation so that I could rebuild. He sewed all of my devastating experiences into badges to wear with pride. I came to each individual unfiltered, unaltered and raw. It was in these moments of failure, reconstruction, doubt and courage that my relationship with God began to develop. And I found what was truly unshakable: my faith.
I ran my fingers over the cold beads of the rosary one more time before putting it back in my bag. Thoughts of taking the last exam of my repeat first year of medical school caused my heart to beat faster and faster. I bent down and slowly laced up my shoes. I imagined getting ready for a race and seeing a crowd of my family and friends who had been in the stands for every practice. They got louder as I approached my mark and released this energy that reverberated around the track. It reached deep within my bones, and it was the only thing that kept me grounded and reminded me of where I was. I stretched my legs. I loosened up. And I leaned in.
Embracing my failures gave me the opportunity to begin again with fresh eyes, a calm mind, and an open heart. And as I walked through the school halls, I realized that people began to see what I should have seen in myself long ago: great strength. Unsettled winds exuding immense power still whip through those halls, but they have morphed into my muses and now inspire me to achieve the unthinkable. It was with failure that I understood who I truly was, who I am now, and who I can be in the future. When I wake up every morning, I no longer ache and ask the question,
Is this a nightmare?
I wake up feeling at peace and ask,
Is this a dream?