Life with two autoimmune diseases: how I learned to embrace failure

I redefined what success means to me and so should you

By Brandon Yu

Failure (noun): a feeling of inferiority, disappointment, and shame. A feeling that we let down those around us, the people we care about, and most importantly, ourselves.

This fear of inadequacy is etched into the minds of every individual without discrimination and constantly haunts our thoughts and precedes our actions. For the majority of us, failure isn’t a good feeling. It discourages us and makes us question our self-worth. As students navigate the waters of life — trying to balance school, family, relationships, extracurriculars, and careers in the midst of a pandemic — feelings of inadequacy are bound to catch up with us.

I know failure all too well. As a second-year student at the University of Toronto studying neuroscience and immunology, I am not immune to the pressing thoughts of defeat. As I constantly compare myself to the utopian presentations of other students, I indulge in the self-doubt that’s shared by any student and, frankly, human on Earth.

Beyond failing to meet my academic expectations, I’ve also experienced failure in an unique way, one that’s shared with two million other Canadians.

I was only 14 when I had my first episode of pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). PANS is an autoimmune disease that heavily impaired me neurologically. I had severe obsessive compulsive disorder, a complete personality shift, hallucinations, severe separation anxiety, and absolutely no control over my thoughts and actions.

This episode lasted about two weeks, of which I only have a few minutes of recollection. It’s impossible to express the gravity of this experience; it was a complete metamorphosis into a version of myself that I had never experienced before, and the only one responsible for this was my own body.

This was the first of three episodes of PANS over the course of the next three years. Fifteen months after my last episode, I was diagnosed with another autoimmune disease: immune thrombocytopenia purpura, a platelet disorder that leads to bruising or bleeding. My life was put into an immediate halt as the diagnosis stopped my involvement in competitive basketball and high-level trumpet performances and confined me to my thoughts about a life-threatening condition.

This lasted for nine months, during which time I routinely found myself in hospitals, getting blood drawn and enduring treatments like a bone marrow biopsy testing for cancer, surrounded by patients who were also ‘broken’ like me.

This experience, in all its entirety, was a total physiological malfunction. A complete negligence and inability of my body to complete a fundamental task: preserve my health. So yeah, I guess I know a little bit about failure.

Hannah Fleisch/The Varsity

Defining what failure means

‘Failure,’ to me, is a subjective term — being unable to fulfill a relative expectation. It’s when an individual falls short of a perceived or expected result. But who defines that expectation? Deconstructing this notion of inadequacy, especially as a student, would be valuable to shed light on what is arguably one of the most prevalent feelings.

There is an intangible standard by which we all judge ourselves and aim to fulfill or exceed. What’s funny about having this standard is that it varies. For some people, the standard may relate to living up to a certain socioeconomic status, following a certain career path, or achieving a specific level of education. For others, the standard may relate to daily survival, like paying the bills, having enough food to eat, or getting basic education.

There is no single standard of success, but we don’t usually internalize this fact. Instead, we experience a sense of insufficiency when we chase the idea of a general standard of success. And then, when we see somebody else with attributes that better match that general standard, we feel like we’ve failed.

Failure comes from comparison, as we juxtapose ourselves to an arbitrary value or standard that our society influences us to perceive as a worthy aim.

Prior to the diagnoses of my autoimmune diseases, I had a very limited perspective on success. I deemed a ‘respectable’ student as one who has high marks, top performance in sports and arts, and an impressive social life. I felt inadequate if I didn’t amount to that.

This was my world — a world that was shaped by the interactions I had and the people I surrounded myself with. This exposure defined my standards and my goals, which in retrospect are quite superficial in comparison to what I would later medically encounter.

Grounding yourself in materialistic and superficial standards is a recipe for constant dissatisfaction and an increased likelihood of disappointment. If you broaden your horizons of failure and success, this can serve as a gentle reminder that the world is so much bigger than you think.

Hannah Fleisch/The Varsity

Redefining failure

So, why do we fail?

Well, let’s walk through this. Before we can fail, we must set up a standard to hold ourselves to. This begins with the inspiration and formulation of a goal, one that we deem worthy enough to achieve. What we consider worthy is likely influenced by our immediate environment. Then comes the work that we put into achieving this goal, which, despite our best efforts, may still fall short of where we wanted to be.

Looking at this common cycle, failure is a certainty at some point in our lives. There is always potential for this.

Erik Eriksons’ stages of psychosocial development claim that children may “begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive” if they are criticized or controlled. From this, we can understand that failure is biologically natural, but the narrative of failure we craft does not have to be.

Through all of the deterrents we face, we develop and improve. Without having a goal, without having a potential for failure, there would be absolutely no incentive to become better.

Failure should be viewed proudly as a sign of progress, a personal declaration: even though this goal post was just a little out of my reach, I still attempted to go after it. I still reached.

I’ve had two different autoimmune diseases throughout my life, and there may be more to come. It would be so easy for me to say that my body failed me, and it would be absolutely true. Those experiences were complete embodiments of physiological defeat — an absolute malfunction of my body.

But these experiences have also become the most pivotal moments of my life. They shaped me to be the person I am today — and only because I chose to view these obvious ‘failures’ in a positive way.

These experiences have propelled me to explore the fields of medicine and immunology. More importantly, they have dramatically expanded my outlook on life. I no longer cling to my old superficial standard of success derived from the expectations of others. Now, it’s my interpersonal impact and future hopes of giving back to communities that drive my aspirations.

Now, I wake up in the mornings excited to learn and question the principles of science, not with the sole hope of achieving a high GPA, but to educate myself on a field that I aspire to contribute to in the future. I play basketball, not with the sole purpose of being the best player on the floor, but as a means to connect with people from different backgrounds and compete in a way that exemplifies resilience.

After all, failure is the foundation of success, and a prerequisite of being human — I have embraced it and so should you.