Pills made her 'loopy.' Surgery left her in agony. How the American Idol star finally ended her long battle with chronic pain

By People Staff
Updated May 02, 2005 12:00 PM

When Paula Abdul hit the American Idol Web site last weekend, the show’s “nice judge” was in for a nasty surprise. “I started to read the message boards and saw one of them had to do with me seeming weird,” says Abdul, whose antics during the current Idol season have ranged from frequent on-air dancing to boundless gushing. “One said I was on drugs. Another described me as acting like I was spaced out. Then someone else criticized me for being animated—they wrote something like, ‘Look at Paula dancing up there with the contestants. Only someone on drugs would do that.’ It was so hideous and mean. Drugs? I’m not addicted to pills of any kind.”

The truth, says Abdul, 42, is that she has never felt better. After a 25-year battle with debilitating chronic pain, which she says began with a cheerleading accident at 17, the singer-songwriter-choreographer was diagnosed in November with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a rare neuropathic disorder that causes intense, unexplained pain (see box). With the diagnosis—and a successful treatment course that includes Enbrel, a medication used to treat arthritis and psoriasis—came an end to years of failed treatments, including 12 surgeries and heavy medications that she says made her chronically nauseous, sleep-deprived and so “loopy” that she chose instead to live with the pain.

Much to her frustration, “I’m not on anything now and people are accusing me of being on drugs,” she says. “If people only knew what I’ve gone through with pain and pills. I’m dancing for joy at the fact that not even a year ago I was in so much pain I could barely get up.”

Abdul spoke with assistant managing editor Todd Gold about her private battle and the long road to a recovery that she calls “beyond amazing.”

It all started when I had a cheerleading accident at 17. I was dropped and injured a disc in my neck. Back then, there was nothing I could do. Surgery wasn’t an option; the odds of an improvement were too iffy. I was also a kid. You shake it off and go on.

A few years later I was a Laker girl and I was in a couple of car accidents. As a result, I had some serious neck problems. But as a dancer, you learn control and discipline, and you learn not to complain. So I had stiffness that lingered until over time it turned into chronic neck pain. When I was recording” my first album, I had to wear a metal brace that went from the top of my neck to the bottom of my tailbone. The pain was terrible.

I’d have these bouts where I’d get numbness down my arm and I couldn’t feel anything. Or it felt like pins and needles. It scared the heck out of me, but I didn’t want to tell anyone and interrupt the incredible things that were happening to me.

[On tour in 1992] I’d performed in St. Louis and then got on a plane for Denver. About 40 minutes into the flight, an engine [caught fire]. I remember coming to after we landed in a cornfield. I hit my head on the top of the plane. I tore up my knee, but I was off only one day and then back onstage. As sore as I was, I had to get out there.

But I had problems. I started to have mini seizure-like episodes. My teeth chattered uncontrollably. My fingers locked. I brought a Chinese medicine man out to help me get through the tour. He did everything on me from acupuncture and massage to live leech therapy. He had me give up those comforting, familiar foods like sugar, flour, wheat, meat and chicken. Everything was fish and monkey gallstones. Just gross, disgusting crap. The pain would be so excruciating I’d cry all the time. I knew something was wrong but I hid it from people. No one knew.

When that tour was over, I took time off to heal. But the second I stopped, I fell apart. In 1994, I dealt with my eating disorder [bulimia], and through it all the pain got worse, and the seizure-like episodes increased.

One day in 1998 I couldn’t get out of bed. I woke up and my whole right side was paralyzed. I had to go to the bathroom, except I couldn’t get up. Half my body was dead weight. I just laid there until my housekeeper Marina came. She called an ambulance and then she called my mother, who helped me get to the hospital.

There, I got an injection that helped me move again. The paralysis was temporary. But it scared me. Soon I had my first major [neck] operation, the first of 12 that I’d eventually have between then and the end of American Idol’s first season in 2002. Each time I had an operation [for everything from herniated discs to a painful bone spur], the doctors said it was successful. I’d get excited. But then it didn’t work. I’d ask, “Why am I still in terrible pain?”

By 1999, everywhere I went, I’d look for something sharp to lean up against and jam a corner into my neck—something to fight the pain. I went to pain-management doctors, all of whom make you sign consent forms because you’re dealing with hardcore pain pills, and they don’t want to be liable if you became addicted. I always laughed at this because I knew no drug ever worked for me. Over the years I tried so many of them, and I knew enough to say, “Don’t give me Vicodin; it doesn’t work. Don’t give me OxyContin; it doesn’t work. Don’t give me Soma…”

I was always in the worst mood. I cried all the time. I laid in bed and my doggies would be licking my eyes. I lived with ice packs on my neck and back. I dreaded nighttime because I couldn’t sleep. I was in too much pain to calm down. I was so depressed. No one wanted to be around me because they couldn’t stand seeing me in pain. I didn’t know how to deal without feeling like a burden. That’s the insidious mystery of pain. You can’t see it. You can’t explain it. It’s hard to diagnose and treat. People think you’re crazy. And you feel that way.

After my 11th operation, in early 2002 I was just saying my prayers, asking God to let me get something where I can get back to my career and at least be in a situation where I could divert my mind and my energy from the constant pain to something else. Then about three months after my surgery, I got a call to go down to FOX and meet about American Idol.

I did the whole first season in pain. I tried taking the different medications the doctors prescribed, but it was the same old story. No one on the show knew I was in pain. I gritted my teeth. Or I chewed the side of my mouth. Or I sat on my hands and pulled my fingers or pressed down on my hand—something to distract me from the pain.

I lost a lot of weight. After giving up my eating disorder, I promised I’d never get on a scale again, but I think my weight dipped into the 80s. Last summer I was around 95 lbs. when a friend urged me to see Dr. Daniel Wallace [a rheumatology expert at UCLA and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A.], the man who changed everything. At the time my sadness and pain was almost unbearable. My assistant said, “Just see him. You don’t have anything to lose.”

Right when he saw me, he gave me hope. I started to see results almost immediately. Enbrel is all I take. Nothing else. I get a shot once a week. I give it to myself.

My life is changing. I’m dancing and [I’ve] put myself in class three times a week. I’m also choreographing. Kelly Osbourne just asked me to do a video—I might do that.

My advice for others suffering pain: Find a support group. It’s so isolating, you can easily fall into a deep depression. It affected relationships. Now that I’m out of it, I’m ready for a relationship. I’m in such a good place. It feels great. I’m beyond grateful. I’m looking for someone who wants to get to know me. The funniest thing is there are kids in the audience who go, “Paula, I’ve got a guy for you…” It’s hysterical. The other week the kids I’m thinking about said, “Hey, Paula, I know a guy for you. He’s a dentist. He makes good money.” I laughed.

I wonder how I got through all the time. Every time I bend down to pick something off the floor, I can’t believe it. I used to have to get down on both knees. I couldn’t move. The best feeling of all is in the mornings when I am able to stretch and not cry. And I don’t wake up in the middle of the night crying.

From where I was to where I am is a miracle. It’s beyond a miracle. I love modern medicine. A medicine for skin disease is helping my nerve problem. I knew there was going to be a happy ending—somewhere. I’m a strong girl.

With reporting by Giovanna Breu in Chicago and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles