17th January, 2017
AJ (Allison Joy) Langer is an American TV actress known best for her role as Rayanne Graff in My So-Called Life. In 2005 she married Charles Peregrine Courtenay, the 19th Earl of Devon, becoming the Countess of Devon. AJ met the Earl of Devon in California where he was working as a lawyer. In January 2014 they moved to the UK to take up residence at Powderham Castle. AJ suffers from fibromyalgia, an auto-immune condition of the soft tissue. Here she reveals how she has come to terms with it, and is focused, with her husband, on making Powderham Castle a centre for creativity, health and wellbeing that the immediate and wider community can enjoy. Interview by Imogen Clements.
My family was entrepreneurial – we’re all very American in that regard. My mum ran her own business as an audiologist; my father’s family was in female fashion, which took us to California; my brother had his own sports package media business. It’s normal where I come from.
My parents believed in the state school system; our house was always open. Mine was a mixed school that had kids from all walks of life, and my mum ensured we had food in the fridge and drinks for whatever team we were on.
Growing up, sport was very important. I loved baseball – what they called boys’ baseball, as opposed to softball; both sexes play both. Baseball was my childhood, as was American football. I could throw a killer spiral; my brother would tackle me if I didn’t.
I’d always had symptoms – high fever, cramping, and so forth – but it was when I was 14 and had a collision with the catcher and pitcher that I started going to the doctor. The pain in my hip spread and resembled sciatica across my back and down the front of my leg; I started having sore spots on my spine, with my neck getting so tight I couldn’t throw the ball. Fibromyalgia was little understood. When I overheard the doctor tell my mum he thought I was faking it, I was mortified.
In my career, I kept the fibromyalgia to myself. If I exercised constantly, I could generally keep up, but if I stopped exercising, the pain would kick in. I would work out for three hours a day. When each season ended, I’d hide to manage the pain.
I’m a recovering chronic overachiever. I’ve always worked to the best of my ability. That’s me, I don’t have a choice. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so hard on myself, always trying to be the best. As you get older, you relax out of that a bit.
My So-Called Life was my favourite of all my jobs. At 21, during one season, I did Circus of the Stars, where I trained to perform a double flip on the trapeze. I achieved it but strained my back, contracted chicken pox at the same time and the fibromyalgia ran throughout my body. I couldn’t move. It was a devastating – when all plans go out the window.
You get to a point of desperation when you walk into the doctor’s surgery and say “do anything”. I had health insurance, but ended up with a bill of $30k. I’ve met people with fibromyalgia who’ve had morphine pumps inserted under their skins. It’s vital to learn about ‘victim consciousness’ and do all you can to get out of it. With any chronic illness or auto-immune problem, you withdraw into isolation, assuming that “no one knows what I’m going through”. The fact is, everyone’s dealing with something.
Alternative therapy, as integrative medicine, can help considerably. I support Western medicine but going through recovery, you need something more – be it spiritual or psychological. I’ve met people who’ve been through far worse, are in much more extreme pain, yet have an incredible sense of peace, a great smile and vitality. My body has a more sensitive eco-system than most – it’s taken me 20 years but I’ve come to accept it. I was ten years in that victim isolation phase, when I experienced every form of pain and depression. Now I listen to my body rather than fight it – there are, after all, some really nice things to having a sensitive body and nerve system.
I was lucky that it happened when I was young – I couldn’t just say it was old age. Sadly, a lot of these things hit people when they’re older and they think their life is over and give up. We came here really to be us, in this space. Previous generations considered Powderham Castle their private home; that’s what their life had taught them. Our life has taught us differently. Charlie and I believe this place is too amazing and that it would be wrong not to share it; the estate comes alive when people are here to enjoy it. It fulfils its potential.
A thriving economy and healthy society start at grass roots. Powderham Live was a community event that arose when I heard some local schoolchildren play music at a parent’s house and thought it would be lovely to invite children to play in the Music Room at the castle. We ended up with 22 young musicians, 12 acts, bands, pianists, singer-songwriters, show tunes, it was like a cabaret night. Local company The Prop Factory lent us sofas and cocktail tables; Showbits brought theatrical lighting, and CandLED ‘candle-lit’ the place safely. The children were from local schools, invited friends and families, and it was a great success – I had adults coming up to me afterwards and saying, “I’m English, I don’t cry,” wiping their red eyes.
Performing is all about tackling your own fears and transcending them. It is relevant to so much in life. Teenage years are so raw, you experience so many realities for the first time – hearts break, people fall off pedestals...
We’re both up for adventure. We would love the castle to be self-sustaining and piece by piece we’re going to build it up. It’s hard and there are challenges, but I can call my friend who runs her mum’s small business and she goes through exactly the same kind of things that we do – it’s all relative.
Both Bryan Adams and Olly Murs will be playing live at Powderham Castle in the summer of 2017!