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What We Need to Remember About Lady Gaga's Fibromyalgia Diagnosis

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Paige Wyant, The Mighty’s Associate Chronic Illness Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

Ever since I heard “Just Dance” on the radio back in 2008, I’ve been a huge fan of Lady Gaga. I loved her dance-worthy music, outrageous fashion choices and inclusiveness of people of all races, genders, beliefs and abilities. She has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and is open about her struggles with depression, sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As I struggled with depression, anxiety and an undiagnosed autoimmune disease throughout high school, I often turned to Gaga and her music as a source of encouragement. She may not know it, but she played a tremendous role in helping me to believe in myself and embrace myself for who I am. For years I have put on her albums to help me cope on tough mental health or flare days.

Recently, Gaga has also begun to talk about her struggles with chronic pain, and just today confirmed her diagnosis of fibromyalgia.

While more and more celebrities have been opening up about the challenges of mental illness, it is rare to see one (especially as famous as Gaga) talk about having a chronic illness. And it leaves me with a lot of mixed feelings.

Although I would never wish illness on anyone, part of me felt strangely excited when Gaga confirmed her diagnosis. Celebrities can often seem like these flawless, impenetrable icons, but seeing Gaga be vulnerable and open about her health issues somehow makes her seem more human, more relatable. As someone who also battles chronic and mental illness, it’s comforting, in a way, to think, She gets it! One of my role models really gets me.

It is also heartbreaking, of course, to know Gaga has an incurable illness; and yet there is potentially so much good that can come from a celebrity like her speaking out about the realities of chronic pain. I am sure there are many people like myself who feel validated and less alone, knowing someone out there is facing the same battle. Plus, Gaga has a huge platform from which she can advocate, raise awareness and help spread understanding about chronic pain. People with chronic illnesses are so often judged or disbelieved, but with public figures like Gaga speaking out, perhaps these conditions will begin to receive the recognition and understanding they deserve.

However, as the knowledge of Gaga having fibro continues to sink in, I’m left with a funny feeling that’s not 100 percent excitement for the future.

Lady Gaga is a performer – an extraordinary one at that. Her Born This Way Ball was the first concert I ever went to, and it set the bar really, really high. She is not just a phenomenal singer and dancer, but the overall performance (including the elaborate theatrics of it all) is so over-the-top in the most unforgettable way.

At the beginning of the concert I attended, Gaga told us she was hurting and having some health issues (she didn’t go into specifics), and unfortunately her performance would be a bit scaled down. As I watched her, mesmerized, for two and half hours, I had a hard time believing she was in pain. I still cannot fathom how the performance she gave was a “scaled down” version. She was unreal.

After seeing her posts on Instagram about undergoing treatment for chronic pain and now, her Tweet confirming the fibro diagnosis, I think about all the performances she has given over the years and, knowing what it feels like to have a chronic illness, I can’t help but wonder, How?

How does she do that? The vast majority of people I know with chronic illness and pain aren’t able to dance around on a stage all night, every night. If she has fibromyalgia and can do all that, why can’t I?

It’s wonderful to be able to relate to celebrities, but by trying to find common ground with them, sometimes we realize how different we really are. Then we run the risk of playing the comparison game – something that never ends well.

What we all need to remember in regards to Gaga (as well as other celebrities) talking about chronic health conditions is this:

1. For starters, everyone is different. Just because one person with fibromyalgia is able to do X, Y, Z doesn’t mean another person with fibromyalgia can also do X, Y, Z. (Maybe they can do A, B, C instead!) Just because Lady Gaga performed at the Super Bowl doesn’t mean everyone with fibro can leap off the roof of a football stadium (or have a job, go to school, or any other activity society thinks they “should” be able to do) if they just “put their mind to it.” People are unique, and so are their conditions and abilities.

2. Celebrities tend to have far more access to money and resources than most of us do. They may be able to afford more expensive doctors, treatment options or medical equipment. They may also have access to luxuries such as a private chef, for when they don’t have the time or energy to cook, or personal trainers, who can modify a workout regimen according to their specific health needs. They just lead different lives.

3. We don’t always know what goes on behind the scenes. It can be easy to focus on the incredible performance Gaga just gave, but what happens after she exits the stage? Maybe she goes to an after-party, maybe she has to lie down and apply heating pads or ice packs or take medication. We just don’t know. Many of us are masters at hiding our illnesses and putting on a smile, so perhaps Gaga does the same. (I look forward to watching her new documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two” and being able to better understand what does go on “behind the scenes.”)

Beyond the chronic illness community, I am also concerned about what will happen if/when Gaga becomes a sort of “poster child” for fibromyalgia. If all people know about fibro is that Lady Gaga has it, they are only seeing the “celebrity version” of the disease. They may develop misconceptions about the illness, and this could perpetuate the lack of understanding rather than reverse it.  

Ultimately, a celebrity opening up about a chronic illness is a double-edged sword. While it’s fantastic for a public figure to use their voice to raise awareness and shed some light on an often misunderstood health issue, it can also be frustrating for those who have been struggling for years to see a celebrity immediately get the spotlight and special treatment simply because of their wealth or fame.

Going forward, I hope Lady Gaga is able to use her influence in a positive and constructive way. I hope she not only sheds light on fibromyalgia, but on the millions of people who struggle with it quietly every day.

Gaga, you have been a hero of mine for many years. Thank you for being open about all the struggles you have faced, and know you are part of an incredible community of warriors.

Image via Creative Commons/Afi Gee

Originally published: September 12, 2017
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