Relapsing While Famous: Demi Lovato, Stigma, and Compassion

By Sheila Hageman 07/27/18

“We would typically not blame a patient with a chronic medical condition for their problem; nor imbue the patient with shame over their offending organ—why do we seem to do this with addiction?”

Demi Lovato at the VMA show in 2017
Demi Lovato has never shied away from speaking her truth.

The news that Demi Lovato was hospitalized of a suspected drug overdose has sent her celebrity friends and fans into overdrive; they are full of praise and well wishes for the singer.

The support offered has been a beautiful response to witness, and this outpouring of encouragement is the exact caring that Lovato needs right now.

This overwhelmingly positive response is a very different reaction than we normally associate with people falling off the wagon. Our society has painted the ordinary (non-celebrity) person with an addiction—whether it be to drugs, alcohol, sex or some other negatively perceived behavior—who loses their sobriety as a monster, as someone who cannot fix themselves, as a loser, as an undisciplined and unhealable soul.

How many Internet memes have been generated that show the unforgiving and unflattering face of addiction? How many ill-conceived jokes about addicts relapsing have you heard? How often do you see mockery of those who have lost their fight? Or a sense of them being not strong enough to withstand the urges we all face?

But the reality is that relapses are oftentimes part of the process, even for those who have spoken about their recovery. Just because someone has stood up and celebrated their recovery does not mean they will never possibly have a setback.

Demi Lovato has been open about sharing her struggles through addiction, eating disorders and bipolar disorder. In her music (her song “Sober” details her ongoing struggle with sobriety), her interviews and social media accounts, Lovato has never shied away from speaking her truth. She is proud to be a mental health advocate and has spoken about how she knows her music has helped other young women struggling with some of the same issues that she has.

Lovato’s openness in sharing her fight and the help her art has provided for others is all the more remarkable considering she was on the Disney Channel when she first entered rehab. There were many pressures and expectations upon her young shoulders and no one would have blamed her for wanting to keep that part of her life private.

But admitting that the struggle continues after a setback can be the hardest part. Often, as a culture, we are not gung ho on offering people second chances, and especially not third or fourth chances.

What’s that famous saying? Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me.

As a society, we can be unforgiving when it comes to people relapsing, but we seem to be much more sympathetic and forgiving with celebrities who struggle with addiction than we are with our ordinary peers.

There is an unwritten social contract that we follow with celebrities that allows them to loom larger in our minds than normal, everyday people. We see them as larger than life while at the same time feeling intimately connected to them, as though they are family. We feel we know them.

And we do know them when they share their personal demons with us. We recognize our own struggles and feel buoyed up by their example of openness and honesty.

Could Lovato’s suspected relapse be an opening for a new understanding of the addiction cycle and conversation about the role of relapse in recovery? Perhaps her experience can shine a light on why no one deserves to be stigmatized for their illness.

Of course, this goes for all mental health conditions, whether the diagnosis is addiction, bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia or others. Historically, our culture has stigmatized people with mental illness so that they feel embarrassed or that they need to hide their condition. It is only in recent decades that more individuals have been brave enough to come forward and speak about their struggles.

Lovato’s overdose can serve as an example and a beacon to help people understand that addiction and other mental health issues are illnesses which aren’t always cured on the first, second or even third try.

The fact that wealthy celebrities, who often have the best treatments and practitioners at their fingertips, still suffer relapses shows us how devastating mental health conditions can be. How can we expect our neighbors—who have those same diagnoses but may be struggling to make ends meet—to fare any better than our most celebrated and privileged?

Many individuals prefer to suffer in silence rather than seek help because of this prejudice. They would rather live with often debilitating diseases rather than expose themselves to the potential stigma that comes with admitting they need help.

What can we do to help alleviate the suffering of those around us?

We can read and learn more about addiction and how difficult the road is to recovery and we can work to understand that the road is not always without bends and turns and sometimes brief exits.

“Research has consistently shown addiction to be a chronic/relapsing disease, where multiple treatment episodes are often necessary, and that recovery may be a cumulative and progressive (non-linear) process,” says Dr. David Greenfield, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at University of Connecticut Medical School and a specialist in addiction medicine. “We would typically not blame a patient with a chronic medical condition for their problem; nor imbue the patient with shame over their offending organ—why do we seem to do this with addiction?”

We can have compassion for those who struggle and sometimes fall in their recovery, which will help alleviate their feelings of shame. For those closest to us, we can be supportive without enabling them or being codependent. The celebrity outpouring of love and caring through social media is an example of how compassion can be expressed through this modern tool.

But Lovato’s friends are not the only ones sharing the love; her fans are sending messages of support, too.

How Demi Lovato speaks to the public about her reported relapse can have real consequences for the greater conversation society needs to have. Hopefully, she will use her celebrity status to continue the dialogue with her fans about addiction; at the same time, she may express a need for privacy and time for reflection.

The real opportunity for change will occur around the water coolers at work or on our social media feeds. When we can openly discuss mental health conditions—not as signs of weak moral character or evidence of being less than or incapable—but as true illnesses which require assistance from all corners—financial, family and friends, and sociocultural—we will then be truly supporting not only the celebrities amongst us, but our neighbors and ourselves as well.

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Sheila Hageman is the author of Stripping Down: A Memoir and the novel Beautiful Something Else. Find Sheila at her website, on Twitter, and LinkedIn.