For a while there, Avril Lavigne was drowning.
It was 2014 and the pop star, a year into her whirlwind second marriage to Nickleback frontman Chad Kroeger, was busy touring in support of her self-titled fifth album, released in November the year prior. And the Canadian was feeling uncharacteristically unwell and could not figure out why.
She visited doctor after doctor, presenting them with the same thing: "I'm achy, I'm fatigued, I cannot get the f--k out of bed," as she recalled to Billboard in October. "What the f--k is wrong with me?" Their conclusions? Dehydration and exhaustion.
But when the tour ended, taking the apparent root cause for her diagnoses with it, things only got worse. By October, during a trip to Las Vegas with girlfriends to celebrate her 30th birthday, she was almost entirely unable to participate in the simplest of activities. "I could barely eat, and when we went to the pool, I had to leave and go lie in bed," she told People in 2015. "My friends asked, 'What's wrong?' I didn't know."
But when one friend's intuition brought her to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Hadid, who knew a thing or two about battling a mystery illness and, in turn, gave Lavigne the number of a specialist, the pop-punker finally got the answers she'd been longing for: She was suffering from a severe case of Lyme disease. "It was a relief," she told The Guardian in January. "I was like: 'OK, now I can at least start treating something.'"
And then, as she told Billboard? "I was in bed for f--king two years."
At first, she suffered in silence at her home in Ontario, not letting the world in on what had befallen her. She was put on multiple antibiotics and antimalarials, prescribed by doctors to combat a disease that doesn't yet have a standard protocol for treatment. "It's a bug—a spirochete—so you take these antibiotics, and they start killing it," Lavigne, who celebrates her 35th birthday on September 27, explained to Billboard. "But it's a smart bug: It morphs into a cystic form, so you have to take other antibiotics at the same time. It went undiagnosed for so long that I was kind of f--ked."
Her mom moved in help take care of her, filling in for Kroeger who could only be of assistance sporadically during breaks in his tour. "I felt like I couldn't breathe, I couldn't talk and I couldn't move. I thought I was dying," she told People. "There were definitely times I couldn't shower for a full week because I could barely stand. It felt like having all your life sucked out of you."
With her fans growing worried by her absence from the spotlight, she took to social media in December to explain why she hadn't been seen in weeks. Interacting with fan site @AvrilMusicChart on Twitter, she wrote in direct message, "I feel bad because I haven't been able to say anything to the fans to let them (know) why I have been absent. I'm torn as I'm quite private. I'm not feeling well. I'm having some health issues. So please keep me in your prayers."
The private message soon became public and went viral. The hashtag #PrayForAvril soon began to spread. "The get-well messages and videos they sent touched me so deeply," she told People. And yet, she still wasn't ready to let them in on what, exactly, was going on.
But by April of 2015, her desire to bring awareness to the disease outweighed her fear of having her diagnosis coming to define her—if only slightly. And so, she appeared on the cover of People under the words "Her Secret Health Crisis: 'I Thought I Was Dying.'" After that, there was no going back.
"I feel like I have a responsibility—I can't just sit on my ass and do nothing," she told Billboard a week later. "I need to talk about Lyme disease, because it's real, it's out there, it was a simple bug bite and it could happen to anybody. People need to know about it, because it's not talked about that much and a lot of the information that's out there is inaccurate."
And yet, she was still attempting to downplay how bad things still were for her. In the People story, she claimed to be "80 percent better." Speaking with Billboard, she was quick to highlight the "good that has come out of it"—namely, the opportunity for downtime for the first time in her 15-year career. And her social media remained cheerful as ever.
"I put on a brave face because I didn't want it to be a part of my identity," she told Billboard last year. "So the second I was up, I would take a picture and post it on Instagram and act like my life was f--king great."
When she went on Good Morning America two months later, however, it was abundantly clear that things weren't f--king great. Ostensibly there to promote her new single "Fly," tied to the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, conversation naturally turned to the big revelation Lavigne had made just months earlier. And that's when the singer known for her punk-ish, unflappable attitude absolutely lost it, breaking down in tears while describing her path towards diagnosis.
"I was like, 'I'm going to be brave and tell the world what's going on.' And I did it because I was releasing a song for the Special Olympics and I wanted it to do well, so I got forced to sit on camera and talk about it [on GMA]," she told Billboard. "I wasn't ready, and I shouldn't have done it. I was a mess." (Elsewhere in the profile, the author noted that Lavigne was "annoyed that I didn't understand how misleadingly edited the GMA interview was," though she was not directly quoted as saying such.)
Things would go from bad to worse a few months later when, on September 2, Lavigne announced that, after months of speculation regarding the status of their marriage—speculation based, primarily, on her absence from public life—she and Kroeger were separating after two years of marriage.
"It is with a heavy heart that Chad and I announce our separation today," she wrote alongside a pic from their wedding day. "Through not only the marriage, but the music as well, we've created many unforgettable moments. We are still and forever will be, the best of friends, and will always care deeply for each other. To all our family, friends and fans, thank you sincerely for the support."
While Lavigne has largely kept quiet on what went wrong in the relationship ever since, always keeping talk of Kroeger remarkably positive, if she talks at all, while defending him when tired Nickleback jokes arise, a source told E! News at the time that the split was a long time coming.
"Honestly, she's doing OK," the insider told us. "This has been in the works for awhile."
As the source explained, the couple, who met when her then-manager Larry Rudolph suggested they collaborate professionally—"He's had a ton of hit songs. He plays guitar. This could be great," she recalled to Billboard. "A month later, I had a 14-carat ring on my finger"—"didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things" at the end of the day.
"They originally got together to make an album and that's where the spark between them originated," the insider continued. "But it just slowly died out."
However OK she was and however slowly the spark disappeared, it still couldn't have felt great. What divorce does? Yet, Lavigne has magnificently found a way to keep both of her splits—she was married to Sum 41 lead singer Deryck Whibley from 2006 to 2010—not simply amicable, but downright friendly. When she was finally ready to get back into the studio and record music for her long-awaited sixth studio album Head Over Water, released in February, it was in Kroeger's studio where she sang her first note in years. He eventually worked on several tracks from the album, including the inspiring, spiritual title track—a track that came to Lavigne on one of the worst nights of her life.
As she tells it, she was laying in bed with her mother and barely able to breathe. Fearing that it might be the end for her, the woman whose family raised her devoutly Christian began to pray. "I had accepted that I was dying," she told Billboard. "And I felt in that moment like I was underwater and drowning, and I was trying to come up to gasp for air. And literally under my breath, I was like, 'God, help me keep my head above the water.'"
And that's when she grabbed her phone, opened her Notes app, and began to document the beginnings of what would be her comeback single.
"I wasn't even thinking about music," she told Entertainment Weekly. "It just happened."
As she told People in February, "Music really lifted me up and made me feel better. I was able to take a hard time in my life and make the best out of a circumstance that was I was going through...At first I didn't know I was making an album—I just naturally turned to songwriting in a time of healing."
While Lavigne was working on the album and managing her Lyme disease—"It's up and down. I'm doing my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle — eating healthy, sleeping well, and working out. I definitely have to pace myself. But at the same time, I have my life back now: I'm able to make music and make videos," she told EW of her recovery efforts—a wild conspiracy theory was running rampant on the internet, resurfacing thanks to her time out of the spotlight.
The gist of the bizarre claim, which began on a Brazilian fan site (inasmuch as you can call a blog entitled Avril Esta Morta—or Avril is Dead—a fan site), asserts that after the death of her grandfather in 2003, Lavigne took her own life, unable to cope with the loss coupled with the mounting pressures of following up her wildly successful debut album Let Go. As the outlandish story goes, her record label then replaced her with a doppelganger named Melissa Vandella who had supposedly been hired to help confuse the paparazzi that were constantly following Lavigne. (Adding fuel to this wild fire is the existence of a photo of Lavigne with the name Melissa written in Sharpie on her hand during the photo shoot.)
Over the years, theorists have supported the bonkers story with perceived inconsistencies in the appearance of Lavigne's skin, jawline, and eye corners, as well as her approach to fashion and her handwriting. You know, all normal things that tend to happen to a woman as she progresses through her 20s.
For years, Lavigne had never denied or even addressed the rumors, only fanning the flames. But during a November interview with Australia's KISS 1065, where she was asked if she'd laughed at the strange story, she finally broke her silence. "Yeah, some people think that I'm not the real me, which is so weird," she said. "Like, why would they even think that?"
Speaking with EW earlier this year, she elaborated on the subject when asked if it had affected her personally. "More like that it's just a dumb internet rumor and [I'm] flabbergasted that people bought into it," she told the magazine. "Isn't that so weird? It's so dumb. And I look the exact same. On one hand, everyone is like, 'Oh my god, you look the same,' and on the other hand people are like 'Oh my god, she died.'"
While the internet has been foolishly debating over whether or not she'd dead, the last few years have managed to give Lavigne a new lease on life.
"It put things in perspective and showed me how much the small things in life—friends, love, family, just your health—matter the most," she told People. She's even embarked on a new relationship, dating Phillip Sarofim, son of Texas billionaire Fayez Sarofin, since early 2018. Since its inception, they've done little to call attention to the romance, never confirming it publicly, but they've been spotted out together periodically over the last year, most recently in June.
And while a quick skim of much of the press that she participated in during the lead-up to Head Above Water's release earlier this year makes clear that she really doesn't want to talk about her health woes, she's thankful that, at least, it's allowed her to do some good. "It was painful to face it, and I don't like to talk about it sometimes, but to turn it into music and put it out there into positive experiences to help others has been good," she told EW.
In support of the album, which peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, Lavigne was able to do something that might've seemed unthinkable just a few short years ago when she embarked on the Head Above Water Tour, a 15-stop run of shows in North American that kicked off on September 14. E! News' Carissa Culiner visited the Grammy nominee in her rehearsal space days before her first performance in Seattle, where she admitted she was feeling "very good" and ready to give back, with proceeds from each ticket donated to her Avril Lavigne Foundation, which supports individuals with Lyme disease, serious illnesses and disabilities.
"I think it's just bringing awareness to the fact that it exists. A lot of people don't know about it," she explained when asked to share the biggest misconceptions about the disease. "I didn't know about it and I was four-wheeling through the woods all the time and I was hiking. I didn't know ticks had Lyme disease and it was a thing and I got a bug bite and it changed my life forever."
After the last few years, Lavigne finds herself with a whole new outlook. "My approach now is one day at a time. Don't overwork myself—just ease back into it," she told People earlier this year. "I'm in a good place."
(This story was originally published on February 15, 2019 at 3 a.m. PST.)