Earlier this year, Lady Gaga announced the cancellation of the last 10 shows of her world tour due to health battles. She shared that she suffers from a chronic condition called fibromyalgia, which causes widespread musculoskeletal pain. Although her announcement of cancellation shocked many, it wasn’t much of a surprise to those who watched Gaga’s behind-the-scenes Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, which shared an insight into the pop star’s health struggles.
Fibromyalgia can cause widespread pain that affects either the whole body or variable pressure points. The condition has other debilitating effects including, but not limited to, fatigue, memory loss, concentration difficulties (known as fibro-fog), muscle stiffness, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It is believed that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way that the brain processes pain signals, yet even with this knowledge, there is still no cure for the long-term condition. A few years prior to filming the documentary, Gaga sustained an injury—a broken hip on tour—that brought on full-body pain. It is believed that fibromyalgia is a dormant condition that is triggered by a traumatic injury or by viral or bacterial infection.
Some experts suggest that childhood trauma also plays a role. For instance, a 2006 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that adults with fibromyalgia had high reports of childhood abuse. This is thought to be due to decreased neuroplasticity in the brain. Children at a young age have very malleable central nervous systems, as their brains develop pathways in response to environmental stimuli. But over time, neuroplasticity diminishes, which means that childhood responses to stimuli are still active in adulthood.
Gaga experienced past sexual abuse and emotional trauma while young, which may have inappropriately activated her stress responses in her brain and created pathways that normalized the emotions that accompanied her trauma: fear, depression, and anxiety. It is possible that the trauma that Gaga faced as a child may have caused her stress response to be over-activated, partially explaining why the onset of her fibromyalgia came after a new trauma—one that her brain had not normalized, rather than through experiences where fear, or anxiety could be predicted.
Gaga: Five Foot Two allows viewers to see Gaga suffering from a fibromyalgia flare up, and it is clearly evident that she is in a great deal of pain. Writhing, she explains: “If I get depressed, my body can spasm, like into a full body spasm. And it all kinda originates from this trauma in my hip from years ago.” Where neuroplasticity had once enabled Gaga to normalize feelings of low emotions, Gaga’s chronic condition had eroded that normality, leaving her to see traumatic events as such – making her feel those emotions much more intensely than those who had been delivered meaningful stimuli and developed positive pathways during youth.
The Netflix documentary also portrays Gaga utilizing a range of alternative therapies, including physiotherapy, massages, painkilling injections, and medications. Fibromyalgia is a tricky condition, which fluctuates, therefore requiring multiple treatments is not uncommon. In fact, it is best for people to try a number of treatments to find the best one for them.
Unfortunately, with the cost of treatment being so expensive, it is hard for people without the finances to test all of the treatments to find the right one. Gaga herself is aware of this, as she mentions that she doesn’t know what she would do without her team or how she would cope without the resources to which she has access.
The moments that touch on Gaga’s health battles are very honest. With a condition that fluctuates, it may be hard for those without it to understand that one moment you can be at your best, creating phenomenal music in preparation for the Super Bowl, and the next you can be crippled in pain, having to cancel the final shows of your world tour. The only differences between real life with fibromyalgia and what was shown in the documentary are the access to resources.
But even with better access to resources and fans that support her through her battles, Gaga still suffers. “When I feel the adrenaline from my fans, I can fucking go,” she says. “But it’s not like I’m not in pain.” Because even with treatment, fibromyalgia cannot be cured.
Many online critics misperceived the superstar’s truth-sharing as whining. One IMDB referred to Gaga as “a narcissistic, self indulgent grub who is desperate to remain current.” Another claimed to have always “suspected her of being too egotistical and trying too hard” and that the documentary confirmed that. Her pain was quickly dismissed. Why? Could it be that they were unable to see past her wealth and social status?
She may be rich and famous, but her pain is real, and her hands-on team cannot entirely eliminate her suffering. If she was the narcissist described these critics, she would not have empathy toward others with her condition. In the film, she explains, “I just think about other people that have maybe something like this that are struggling to figure out what it is, and they don’t have the money to have somebody help them.” She goes on to say, whilst tearful and embarrassed: “Like, I don’t know what I’d fucking do if I didn’t have everybody here to help me. What the hell would I do?”
Even in her position, rich and famous, she’s fighting an internal, mental, and physical, battle– and in moments where she could feel sorry for herself, she still thinks about those who are more vulnerable.
“Women’s bodies have always foxed male doctors.”
Perhaps the mean-spirited comments ought not surprise, considering that Gaga lives in a society that finds it easy to dismiss female pain. This is best evidenced by the IMBD critic who suggested that Gaga was experiencing hysteria. Julia Buckley writes about these prejudices in her book, Heal Me: In Search of a Cure: “Women’s bodies have always foxed male doctors. Hippocrates was one of the first to codify the medical gaze as male” by referring to female patients’ ailments as hysteria, and his prejudices still endure today.
My own experiences support Buckley’s claim. Before I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I was dismissed by male doctors for seven years. I was constantly told that my reported symptoms were “in my head.” It wasn’t until a female doctor came along and asked why I hadn’t been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. She said that it was clear from my notes and how I presented that I was suffering from the chronic condition. Only after meeting her and getting her support did my male doctor agree. First, though, he referred me to pain specialists to confirm my diagnosis. It was determined that I did indeed have fibromyalgia and that I’d been suffering from the condition for almost a decade. If women’s pain is not taken seriously in the doctor’s office, is it any wonder that society doubts their experiences?
A change must come, and Gaga is doing her part to realize that change. The star was brave enough to share her truth, even though it has further exposed her to scrutiny. Hopefully this documentary will inspire those without the condition– or any chronic illness– to be more considerate to those who face invisible battles. Hopefully Gaga’s voice, heard so clearly in her music, is as clearly heard here—in her commitment to raise awareness for fibromyalgia.