A little over a year ago – August 2012 to be exact – Esquire magazine published a fascinating, insightful article about actor Morgan Freeman. In the article, author Tom Chiarella recounts the day he spent with Freeman at his home in Mississippi. As they walked around Freeman's property, Chiarella noticed he was in pain. In the following excerpt from the article, Freeman reveals the cause of his pain.
Every so often he grabs his left shoulder and winces. It hurts when he walks, when he sits still, when he rises from his couch, and when he missteps in a damp meadow. More than hurts. It seems a kind of agony, though he never mentions it. There are times when he cannot help but show this, the fallout from a car accident four years ago, in which the car he was driving flipped and rolled, leaving Freeman and a friend to be pulled from the car using the Jaws of Life. Despite surgery to repair nerve damage, he was stuck with a useless left hand. It is stiffly gripped by a compression glove most of the time to ensure that blood doesn't pool there. It is a clamp, his pain, an icy shot up a relatively useless limb. He doesn't like to show it, but there are times when he cannot help but lose himself to a world-ending grimace. It's such a large gesture, so outside the general demeanor of the man, that it feels as if he's acting.
"It's the fibromyalgia," he says when asked. "Up and down the arm. That's where it gets so bad. Excruciating."
This means Morgan Freeman can't pilot jets the way he used to, a hobby he took up at sixty-five. He can no longer sail as well. There was a time when he would sail by himself to the Caribbean and hide out for two, three weeks at a time. "It was complete isolation," he says. "It was the best way for me to find quiet, how I found time to read." No more. He can't trust himself on one arm. He can't drive, not a stick anyway, not the way he used to — which is to say fast, wide open, dedicated to what the car can do. And he can't ride horses as much, though once he rode every day.
He never mentions any of it as a loss, though how could it be anything else? He never hints around about the unfairness of it. "There is a point to changes like these. I have to move on to other things, to other conceptions of myself. I play golf. I still work. And I can be pretty happy just walking the land."
Wait. How can he play golf with a clipped wing like that? How can you swing a club when you can't lift one of your arms?
"I play one-handed," he tells me. "I swing with my right arm."
How does that work out for you?
"See for yourself," he says. "I'm playing at 3:00 today."
To Speak Out or Not to Speak Out – That Is the Question
Freeman's revelation that he has fibromyalgia spread like wildfire through the FM community. Finally, here was an A-list celebrity acknowledging he had been diagnosed with FM. A handful of other celebrities have had the courage to speak up about their FM, for which we are extremely grateful, but as yet none have had the super-star power of Morgan Freeman.
Almost immediately FM patients and advocates began calling on Freeman to speak out on behalf of others with fibromyalgia. It's even been rumored that a large national FM organization has approached him about being their spokesperson. While most in the FM community seem to strongly support that idea, a few have questioned the wisdom of Freeman being an FM spokesman.
From what I have read, those who are hesitant about Freeman representing the FM community appear to have three concerns:
Does he really have fibromyalgia since he only mentioned pain in his left shoulder and arm?
He is still very active and therefore would present an inaccurate picture of how debilitating FM can be.
Since most people with FM are women, as a man he would not be representative of the majority of patients.
Let's take a closer look at each of these concerns.
Does he really have fibromyalgia? – I have to admit the first time I read the article I, too, wondered whether he had been diagnosed correctly. But when I reread it, I noticed that he said, "Up and down the arm. That's where it gets so bad. Excruciating." His statement, “That's where it gets so bad” sounds like he probably has other pain but it's the pain in his arm that is the worst. For many years, I could have made a similar statement about my left hip. Although I had body-wide pain almost all the time, it was the pain in my hip that was usually the worst.
We also have to remember that the purpose of this interview was not to discuss Freeman's fibromyalgia. The author simply noticed Freeman grimacing several times and asked him about it. It's logical that Freeman would only mention the pain he was experiencing at the time. Or perhaps he did go into more detail but when composing the article, Chiarella chose to include only what he felt was most important.
So is whether or not Freeman really has fibromyalgia a valid concern? Absolutely. When we're talking about someone being a spokesperson for a disease, it's legitimate to want to be sure they actually have the disease. We just shouldn't jump to any conclusions based on one isolated statement.
His activity level doesn't paint an accurate picture of FM. – People with FM fall into a wide range of functioning abilities. Freeman appears to be fairly high-functioning since he continues to work and play golf. The article did note, however, that he has had to give up several activities that he loved. On the other hand, some people with FM are completely disabled, unable to handle even basic self-care tasks. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. While Freeman's activity level should not preclude him from representing people with FM, I would hope that part of his message would be to describe just how debilitating FM can be and to explain that different patients have different levels of disability.
As a man, he is not representative of the average FM patient. – Frankly, I think the fact that he is a man with FM is a positive thing. Whether we like it or not, when it comes to health issues, men are still given more credibility than women. Studies have shown that health care professionals are more likely to take a man's symptoms seriously, but attribute a woman's symptoms to emotional causes. Although the acceptance of FM has come a long way in recent years, there are still some people, including some medical professionals, who don't believe it is real. Therefore, having a well-known and highly respected man like Morgan Freeman speak out about FM might help improve our credibility among the doubters.
It's a Personal Matter
Given the repeated urgings to step up and be a spokesperson for fibromyalgia, I sometimes wonder if Freeman wishes he had never mentioned it. He probably never dreamed uttering that one word in the middle of a multi-hour interview would ever garner so much attention.
In our enthusiasm to have a prominent celebrity like Morgan Freeman speak out on our behalf, I think we need to keep in mind how doing so could impact his life. Years ago celebrities did everything in their power to keep any health problems secret because revealing an illness could ruin their careers. Although Hollywood seems to be a little more accepting these days, I suspect there is still some hesitation about casting an actor who has a known health issue. And even if his career is not a major concern, Freeman strikes me as the kind of man who prefers not to dwell on his pain and what he can't do but rather to push ahead and focus on what he can do.
Yes, it would be wonderful if Morgan Freeman would decide to become an advocate for fibromyalgia. The entire FM community would welcome him with open arms. His support could do wonders for increasing awareness and raising money for research. But ultimately it's a personal decision – each of us has to decide what is best for our lives at any given point in time. While I hope he'll choose to use his celebrity to help others with FM, I'll respect his decision either way.