What Dolly Parton Said About Her 3 Years of Debilitating Health Problems Beginning in 1981: ‘I Fell Apart’

In 1981, Dolly Parton‘s health took a turn for the worse. For the next three years her days were filled with missed performances, bleeding ulcers, gynecological and digestive issues, and surgeries to try and remedy the issues. On top of that, she was also dealing with “emotional problems.” It was an incredibly trying time in the “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” singer’s life. Here’s what she said about those three years once she was out on the other side.

Dolly Parton in concert at The Sydney Entertainment Centre on February 16, 1987.
Dolly Parton | Quentin Jones/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Dolly Parton was 35 when she started experiencing health issues

In an interview with Ladies’ Home Journal in 1984, the Queen of Country opened up about the rough few years she’d had.

“I went to the very bottom as far as my emotions and my health are concerned,” she said, as recorded in the book Dolly on Dolly. “See, I was thirty-five when I first got sick. And I was getting away with murder. I wasn’t watching what I ate, I wasn’t conscious of nutrition, wasn’t taking care of myself. I was working hard, and underneath I was a pile of personal and emotional problems… All at once I fell apart. It was stomach problems and female problems—allover health problems actually. It was God’s way of telling me to get myself straight… I’m grateful it happened when I was still young enough to bounce back.”

Parton’s issues came about while filming her second movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Best Little Whorehouse near killed me,” she said. “That was a tough picture to do. There was constant bickering, and I tried to please everyone. Whorehouse was a bloodbath.”

Dolly Parton’s emotional tribulations

Also around that time, the “Eagle When She Flies” singer was dealing with the health issues of members of her family.

“Some members of my family were suffering with their own illnesses,” she said. “They depended on me to make decisions. I’m always the one who’s up, the one who carries the ball. They came to me in time of need. But I was in need myself. It was bad timing.”

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Additionally, Parton was dealing with the loss of a few special personal relationships.

“I was also having some heartache about the people around me—some shaky experiences with people I’d been in partnership with for a long time and dearly loved,” she said. “That’s what really knocked me over. As those personal relationships deteriorated, so did I.”

All of these personal life happenings kept Parton from taking good care of herself.

“I was taking medications for all kinds of things,” she said. “I took one bunch for nerves. For my gynecological problems I took pills and hormones and Provera. That stuff makes you retain fluids, and I was bloating up. For my stomach, I had another variety of medications plus antibiotics for the infections.”

Canceling shows

As Parton got “sicker and sicker,” she was forced to cancel shows. And that stressed her out, too.

“Having to disappoint promoters who’d been good to me through the years added to everything else,” she said. “They got mad and sued me, which caused me to get sicker. I became more tense. My stomach tightened, and my throat dried up. The hoarseness was nerves. That’s where it just hit me and gripped me. Problems always get you in your weakest point.”

The singer’s lowest point occurred during a concert in Indianapolis. Her doctors had advised her not to go on because she’d begun hemorrhaging the week prior, but she did anyway. She almost collapsed on stage. As soon as the show was over, it was clear she needed immediate medical help. She was flown to New York for surgery and the remaining 30 of her 35-stop tour was canceled.

Vowing to get her health back on track

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“The day I knew I was going for surgery, I recall thinking, ‘Well, if I come out of this okay, I’m really going to get myself together. If He gives me another chance, I’m going to make sure I give myself another chance. I will shape up, and I will wise up,'” she said.

And she did. She focused on being more mindful of her health day-to-day and she slowly got her old self back — an even better, healthier version. Parton also focused on regaining her famous positive attitude.

“A lot of my physical problems stemmed from my emotional ones,” she said. “I felt the good Lord would give me strength to let my body eventually heal itself and that I’d be okay if I could get that positive attitude going, get my mind straight, draw from the energy God has given me.”