Fibromyalgia cast a shadow over A.J. Langer’s charmed life. The actress who played the troubled Rayanne on “My So-Called Life” is living a fairy tale these days, married to an English earl with homes on two continents. But the chronic pain never got the best of her. In this Lifescript exclusive, she shares tips on managing the disease…
Even a teen star who weds into British royalty and plans to live in a castle doesn’t lead a completely charmed life. Just ask actress A.J. Langer, also known as Lady Courtenay.
Best-known for her role as BFF to Claire Danes’ character in the 1990s TV drama series “My So-Called Life,” Langer, 36, has been battling fibromyalgia since her tomboy teens.
Fibromyalgia pain actually pushed her off the Little League field and onto the small screen.
“Playing sports became too painful,” recalls Langer, dubbed A.J. (short for Allison Joy) by her all-boy baseball team. “I was almost completely sidelined at age 14. Without a diagnosis or treatment to alleviate symptoms, I knew I’d have to turn my attention to something other than sports.”
That “something” was acting. Besides “My So-Called Life,” Langer appeared in the TV series “It’s Like, You Know” and “Three Sisters,” as well as the movies “Escape from L.A.” and “The People Under the Stairs.”
But smiling for the camera didn’t relieve her pain. When the lights dimmed, so did Langer’s spirits.
How did the modern-day Cinderella finally get an accurate diagnosis and learn to deal with her disease? In this exclusive Lifescript interview, Langer shares how she manages to lives happily ever after with fibromyalgia.
When the pains started, did you realize it was fibromyalgia?
No. Instead of being a dainty princess, I was a rough-and-tumble tomboy. That meant I’d get banged up and bruised a lot. I thought those aches and pains were part of playing hard.
Where was your pain?
Almost everywhere – my back, neck, hips and other body parts. It was often excruciating and debilitating, and made being a normal kid who participated in school sports – not to mention just walking – difficult.
Even more difficult was that I looked healthy when I felt poorly.
But I didn’t give in to the pain. Feeling like I couldn’t keep up with my brother and friends only made me want to try harder.
What were the early signs?
I missed a lot of school because of stomach pain, irritable bowel symptoms, joint and pressure-point pain and high fevers. I was no stranger to the doctor’s office.
Your mother has fibromyalgia. Did that help diagnose your symptoms?
No, doctors used to think the pain was all in my head. At one visit, I heard a doctor tell my mother I was faking it. Even though I had so many classic fibromyalgia symptoms, no one ever mentioned or considered treating me for it.
What did you do?
I put on a brave face and “sucked it up.” I tried to push myself and keep up physically even though I felt like I’d been hit by a train.
My mom never let fibromyalgia pain stop her and lived by the motto, “You have to press on no matter what.” So that’s what I did.
Still, it must have affected you emotionally.
It started damaging my self-esteem, especially when playing sports became too painful. That was very hard to cope with.
And that’s when you started acting?
Yes. I started working full-time at age 15 because I wanted to regain control over my life and body. I was lucky because I quickly landed guest appearances and small roles.
How did you work with pain?
For six years, I faked feeling great and didn’t let my pain get in the way of my career. Then, when I was 21, I just couldn’t fake it anymore.
Why? What happened?
My symptoms got the best of me [at age 21], and I was laid up for about a year with pain, fevers and stomach troubles. That’s when I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
Once diagnosed, how did your doctors manage the condition?
Throughout my teens and most of my 20s, they threw pills at the pain. In many cases, they tried to treat my head, not the pain.
How did your diagnosis impact your career?
It was tough to balance my condition and the rest of my life. Three months into a new project, something in my body would start breaking down. I’d run high fevers and have an infection or need to be hospitalized for low blood pressure, or I’d have surgery or intense therapy for the pain.
So how could you keep showing up on set?
I’m an overachiever, so my spirit eventually won out over fibromyalgia. I always went back to my life and work, still in pain but determined to not let it interfere with my job.
That determination lasted six years. When I was working on “Three Sisters” in 2001-2002, my fibromyalgia flared up so severely that I missed taping one episode. That had never happened. I was devastated and so disappointed.
Did that lead to a new approach?
I realized I was tired of being told to pop pills that didn’t help, so I forged a new plan. I formed a health support team of alternative practitioners [acupuncturists and massage therapists] and empowered myself by learning everything I could about fibromyalgia.
I asked questions, read everything I could get my hands on and started paying more attention to my body and pain triggers.
Did you resent the time wasted on doctor’s visits and remedies that didn’t help?
I’m grateful instead. It’s what got me hooked on surfing – my favorite therapy. Being in the water is very calming and soothing for my pain, especially in my lower back, neck and arms.
How else do you manage pain?
I have regular acupuncture and massage sessions combined with daily meditation and breathing techniques. The breathing and meditation help me focus on mind over matter. That was especially helpful when I was pregnant.
How did fibromyalgia affect your pregnancy?
I was off all medication by the time I was trying to conceive my first child [Joscelyn, 3]. Not having drugs to help with flare-ups was challenging. But it was all worth it to have healthy babies. [Langer also has a son, Jack, 1.]
Do you worry your kids will develop the disorder?
It seems to run in my family and is more common in women than men, so I worry that my daughter will follow in my – and my mother’s – footsteps. It’s my biggest nightmare, but I try not to dwell on it because that would drive me crazy.
I’m living a full, happy and magical life. We split our time between Los Angeles [where her husband practices law] and the English countryside.
We’re preparing to one day move into my husband’s family castle. So there’s not a lot of time to wallow or get stuck on the pain.
My mom always used to say, “20 minutes of self-pity every few weeks.” So that’s all I allow myself. Then I enjoy my life.
Consult your doctor if you think you’re experiencing fibromyalgia. Although there’s no single test to diagnose the disease, common symptoms include:
- Mild to severe pain in the neck, shoulders, chest, lower back, hips, shins, elbows and knees
- Fatigue, and a feeling of tiredness even after sleeping all night
- Morning stiffness
- Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
How Much Do You Know About Fibromyalgia?
Described by Hippocrates in ancient Greece, fibromyalgia is one of the world’s oldest medical mysteries. The disease – a complex illness marked by chronic muscle, tendon and ligament pain, fatigue and multiple tender points on the body – affects about 2% percent of Americans, most of them women. How much do you know about fibromyalgia?
Check out Health Bistro for more healthy food for thought. See what Lifescript editors are talking about and get the skinny on latest news. Share it with your friends (it’s free to sign up!), and bookmark it so you don’t miss a single juicy post!
Talk to us on Facebook and Twitter!
The information contained on www.lifescript.com (the “Site”) is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to substitute for advice from your doctor or healthcare professional. This information should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition. Information and statements provided by the site about dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Lifescript does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, physicians, third-party products, procedures, opinions, or other information mentioned on the Site. Reliance on any information provided by Lifescript is solely at your own risk.