Recently, pop star Selena Gomez announced that she would be taking time off from her tour and music career to focus on her panic attacks, anxiety, and depression — side effects from her battle with SLE Lupus. After Gomez released the statement, thousands of people flocked to Twitter and Facebook to continue to question her lupus diagnosis, believing the illness to be a convenient excuse for a rehab stint or alcohol problem. Whether or not this is the case, there's no way of anyone really knowing — and this is exactly why lupus is one of the most predatory of illnesses. Sure, you feel sick, but you don't look sick. It is an invisible illness; its name is derived from the Latin word for wolf, a disease that completely transforms a human in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways like a werewolf under the full moon.
Before you decide to debate whether or not a pop star has an autoimmune illness, take a step back and reflect on the illness itself. It doesn't matter if Selena has lupus. What matters is that 5 million other humans do. And it's up to if you want to educate yourself on it. If you do, keep reading.
If you do know about lupus, you probably know it as an autoimmune disease in which the body cannot distinguish between healthy cells and toxic cells. Your body treats itself as though it is a foreign invader; your antibodies are constantly at war on the inside. Joint pain, skin rashes, mouth and tongue sores, severe exhaustion, "fog" like thinking and memory loss — these are preliminary, initial side effects. For most, there is organ involvement, especially if symptoms were not noticed and surmounted over time: lung and kidney problems, heart and brain inflammation. Every snowflake is unique and so is lupus, morphing its ugly face depending on who wears it.
With lupus, you recover twice: Once from the illness itself, and a second time from all the medications. Your doctor gives you 8 different medications; each pill is Jekyll and Hyde — you have your cure, and your constant side effects. And when you've had lupus for over 9 years, like me, sometimes you aren't even sure wherein lies the difference between your immune system attacking itself and the pills attacking you, especially in terms of mental health side effects.
Living with any sort of autoimmune disease, especially one as unpredictable and sporadic as lupus, leaves one constantly on edge. Every chest pain, sore, migraine, and ache evokes a sense of urgency and fear. You are constantly in fight or flight mode. For many, what's worse than the constant state of unknowing is the inability to decipher what is a natural reaction to living with lupus, and what is an artificial emotion created by the handfuls of medication.
This leads me to prednisone, a corticosteroid used to decrease inflammation, that most people with an autoimmune disease are familiar with. On doses of eight milligrams (which is a miniscule amount, as some patients are on upwards of 60 milligrams a day), mental side effects are the norm. The first few side effects listed on the bottle are "mood swings," "increased anxiety," "depression," and "agitation." You pop a pill and for the first three hours of the day, the world is off your shoulders and you are carrying it in your hands; your exhaustion has shed itself and you are wearing a new skin, but the new skin is a chameleon, and as quickly as you felt euphoric, you feel enraged and irritable. The default emotion on prednisone, at least for myself, is racing thoughts. Predict the unpredictable.
And for all of those who contest whether or not Selene has lupus — and yes, there are many on Twitter and Facebook — I understand why you may feel the way you do. It may seem strange that a pop star, whose life seems so open and accessible for the public sphere, keeps something so massive hidden until its used to cover up a "rehab stint.” But here's the thing: It took me close to 5 years to speak about my lupus openly to friends, let alone strangers, let alone 1 billion people listening. Diagnosed at the age of 13, only my family and closest friends (who I had to tell about my lupus to explain why I was missing copious amounts of school) were the only ones to know about my autoimmune disease. No one else knew, nor did I know how to speak about it without feeling my throat close up and a rush of heat run to my face. After avoiding the topic for so many years, it wasn't until I entered college that I began to speak openly my disease. Telling your roommate why you take roughly 15 pills a day forces one to garner the courage to confront lupus in conversations. But even then, the courage is momentary and unstable.
After three years of remission (times where the disease isn't active, but you have no idea how long or little these remissions will last), my lupus reared its head during the last semester of my senior year. After a hospitalization and three months of intensive medical treatment (with a healthy dose of prednisone), my mental health, something that I thought I had mastered and kept under control, spiraled quickly out of control. Panic attacks begot panic attacks, anxiety rattled my brain, I rapidly returned to the self-harming habits I had sworn off four years prior. One minute I was fine and the next minute my thoughts were stolen, replaced by extreme bouts of crying, uncontrollable and unceasing. The worse part was I didn't even know what the source of the crying was. To this day, only my boyfriend and my immediate family know about my the drastic transformation lupus had on my psyche. Yes, my close friends knew I was in a lupus flare, but I could never bring myself to explain anything more than a muscle pain or a migraine. Not even my three roommates would be able to tell my physical, let alone mental, symptoms on any given day.
This is what it is amazing about lupus — not only it is a silent manifestation, but it has the ability to make the victim silent as well. Lupus invalidates you to the point of feeling as though you cannot talk about your pain at the risk of looking weak, defeated, pathetic, a victim. This is why I am writing this article: for all those people reading this who know someone with lupus, or anyone who will eventually meet someone with lupus, educate yourself on the oscillating and complex issues of the autoimmune disease, including its mental health complications. Yes, it's certainly possible that Selena Gomez went to rehab, but alcohol and substance abuse issues are intertwined and run alongside mental health issues, and to discredit her disease because you don't like how she talks about it (or doesn't talk about it) only continues to deter other Lupies from talking about their autoimmune disease, out of fear that they will be interrogated or invalidated.
I too was skeptical about Selena Gomez's lupus until her most recent announcement. It takes someone extremely brave and fearless to admit to the world his or her most barefaced vulnerabilities. If anything, Selena has showed me something I never realized in the past 9 years of living with lupus — never treat my anxiety, depression, or panic attacks as an insecurity or weakness. Nurture my mental health like it is simply another part of my treatment regime.
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Katie McCurdy recently graduated from Purchase College with a degree in literature and is a New Yorker living in Hyde Park, Chicago. She is known for the occasional (frequent) tangent about Big Pharma’s greed and corruption. Also loves a good celebrity gossip mag. If you speak to her for more than 15 minutes, she will read your astrological birth chart. Follow her at Mccurdywriting.tumblr.com and on Instagram @eitakmcc.