It is much easier to tell people that I suffer from lupus than it is to admit that I also suffer from depression.
Even though an awful lot of people look at me bewildered when I say the word “lupus,” though less than I thought, which surprised me. People often know people that have lupus or know someone who knows someone, a cousin, an old high school sweetheart, that sort of thing. But they still aren’t sure what it is, not exactly, anyway.
“An auto-immune disease,” I say, trying to be helpful.
“Oh, I see,” they say, but they don’t. Eyes never lie and people don’t like to admit when they don’t know something that they think they should know. Like auto-immune diseases. Go figure. Now that would be a category for Jeopardy. “Alex, what is Systemic lupus erythematosus?” [Alex, smiling] Correct!
“My body is attacking itself,” I suggest. “I must have made it mad or it got bored or someone is asleep at the switch and dialed up “body” instead of “germs.”
They nod and I continue: “Or more specifically, knees, and my left thumb, and hips and my right foot. And my face gets a rash. And then my body gets all tired out from boxing with itself all day long and I have to take a nap.”
“You get to take a nap? That doesn’t sound so bad,” they say.
“With my kitten, who likes to lie on my chest and comfort me by purring, so I guess you’re right. The naps are good. Except when I wake up and have no idea what day it is or time it is and wonder if I am late for something important.”
“I see,” they say. “I See.”
“And they have me on an anti-malaria drug to deal with the swelling and to protect my organs from the possibility of damage during a flare up [insert very quizzical look here] because they found that this drug also helps with lupus. And they have me on drugs for stress because that can trigger flare ups, too.”
They nod. That makes sense. To everyone. Stress kills. We all know that then live like we don’t care or can’t do anything about it. Or C’est la vie! I’m not sure if I am technically lying when I say that; that they have me on medicine for stress. It is true, but that started months beforehand. When depression had such a tight grip on me I was constantly cleaning my glasses from the tear stains and paralyzed into inaction when facing difficult choices. Exactly how tears stains get on my glasses is still a wonder to me. One of life’s little mysteries. But there the dots were as if the tears had clung to my lashes and were sent flying about until SPLAT!, like insects on a windshield they left their mark.
Depression and lupus do this little dance together like they were made for each other. But which came first? The answer with a little research is “Yes.” Lupus can cause depression and depression can happen all by itself parallel to lupus and lupus like any auto-immune disease can lead to depression from the weight and wearing on of the symptoms. I’ll leave the arguments to the brain and body bio-chemists, because in the end, it just doesn’t matter. I would be taking the same small handful of pills every morning and evening regardless.
While I have been very willing to share with the congregation my lupus diagnoses and what it means for me and to welcome their prayers, exactly three people in the congregation besides my wife know about the depression: the Pastoral Care Team and a nurse who also heads up our Care and Concern Team. It is one thing to be open about being on “stress medication” for lupus and another thing altogether to say that it is for clinical depression. Even as public as I am about depression here, there is still a sense of stigma that I have not yet overcome. I don’t beat myself up over it, nor am I certain that I will maintain my in-public silence forever, but how much should I disclose to those I am called to shepherd is a question that I have not yet answered for myself. Maybe that is part of the healing.