“It looks like melanoma,” my dermatologist said casually as she biopsied a mysterious scar that had developed under my left temple. I was unmoved. I cried when my hairdresser found a bald spot the size of a silver dollar in the middle of my scalp while roller-setting my tightly coiled curls a month before. I cried when I discovered another bald spot at the base of my scalp while detangling my hair days later. I cried when I smelled my flesh burning during painful laser treatments to resolve another mysterious scar that had formed on my nose.
After crying for months over losing locks of curls and undergoing what turned out to be unnecessary laser therapy, I searched for tears to cry at the possibility of having skin cancer as the dermatologist traced the edges of the dark growth with her scalpel. I had no tears left. After nonchalantly suggesting that I might have cancer, she stitched me up and sent me on my way.
My friends and family were concerned about my health. I, on the other hand, had just about given up. I was oddly relieved that a cancer diagnosis would at least be an end to the endless online searches for a name to my mix of symptoms.
After the biopsy, my best friend called to check on me. Plainly, I told her that I would not mind if I went to sleep and never woke up. I was numb and did not think about how those words would land. Her voice broke as she asked me if there was anything she could do to help. “I’m good,” I said. I shrugged my shoulders, hung up the phone and hoped that the painless end I had imagined would come true.
My stitches were removed, the results from the biopsy revealed that I did not have cancer and I found a new doctor who accurately diagnosed me with an autoimmune disease: discoid lupus. Discoid lupus is medically described as a skin condition in which sores appear on the face, scalp and arms and can cause alopecia. I describe it as my skin telling me that something’s wrong and I need to chill out.
No one really knows what causes lupus. There’s no cure for it. Symptoms come and go, and triggers ranging from antibiotics to the common cold can cause a flare. My skin lashes out at me most when I am stressed. A lupus rash rings the alarm when my hours working outweigh the ones I spend living, when I let someone undeserving take up too much of my emotional real estate or when I do not take the time I need to recharge.
Three years after my original diagnosis, I have modern medicine to thank for helping me regrow my hair and control my lupus flares, but I have therapy to thank for helping me prevent my symptoms from returning in the first place. Twice a month, my therapist and I come up with strategies for managing life’s inevitable ups and downs. We do intense work not only to analyze my feelings but also to plot out, step-by-step, how I can live the best version of my life.
Of course, sitting on my therapist’s couch and venting did not cure my lupus, but working with her has helped me use what I once thought was a curse as a signal to make important changes in my life. To avoid lupus relapses, I regularly edit my life by dumping toxic relationships, establishing boundaries at work, and spending time in spaces where I am loved, celebrated and nurtured. When my skin acts out, I take immediate action to figure out what’s going wrong on the inside of my mind to help fix what’s happening on the outside of my body.
I did not take my mental health seriously until my physical health was affected. I did not know just how strongly my body was tied to my emotional well-being. Truth is, before I noticed any lupus symptoms, alarms were going off all the time; I just did not hear them. Sleepless nights, recurrent headaches, anxious thoughts and panic attacks had become the norm. Through it all, I was maintaining an active social life and excelling at work.
I had no idea that I had anxiety. High-functioning anxiety can be deceptive. For me, it looked like ambition, perfectionism or just everyday busyness. But underneath it all was tightness in my chest, constant worrying and fears that I just could not place. Going to therapy helped me put a name to what I was feeling, giving me the power to confront it, successfully manage it and eventually maximize my joy.
For years my anxiety hid itself from everyone, including me. Now that it’s out of the shadows, I am, too.