What It Feels Like When Your Recovery Idol Falters

2017 American Music Awards
Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

Last October, I think I made four separate groups of people watch Simply Complicated, Demi Lovato’s Youtube documentary. The 80-minute film follows Demi through the making of her sixth (and in my opinion best) studio album, Tell Me You Love Me. But it's really about her journey through addiction and recovery.

In it, Demi opens up about her bipolar disorder. She shares that she is addicted to drugs like Adderall and cocaine, as well as alcohol. And, she’s addicted to perfection, which manifests in an eating disorder she just can’t kick. Even when she declares, in the film, that she’s sober, she’s still battling bulimia.

“I've learned that secrets make you sick,” Demi’s voiceover states in the opening, gripping me from the very beginning, every time. “I'm learning how to be a voice and not a victim … I've learned that love is necessary, heartbreak is unavoidable, and loneliness is brutal. I've learned that the key to being happy is to tell your truth.”

It’s not schadenfreude that made me love the documentary so much. I am an addict, too. I’ve struggled with addiction in many forms, most recently manifesting in anorexia, for which I completed formal treatment just ahead of Simply Complicated’s release. So this documentary wasn’t pure, rubbernecking entertainment for me in the slightest. It was the first time I had seen a realistic portrayal of a recovery like mine. What it looked like. I may not have paparazzi in my face when I’m going through it (or ever), but I certainly related to Demi’s staunch commitment to sobriety one day, and honest ambivalence toward it the next.

Some may watch the film, read about Demi’s life, and think to themselves, “this girl has some serious issues,” because it’s not just one thing. She’s not “just” an alcoholic or “just” bulimic: she’s an addict, unable to just sit with herself without craving a vice. For Demi, that comes in the form of drugs and alcohol, and manic episodes (at a low point we see in the film, she punches one of her backup dancers on a plane). For me, the vice is food (or no food).

“I’m on a journey to discover what it’s like to rid myself of all my demons,” Demi says when she describes her recovery process. That sentence resonates for me as the easiest way to explain what getting over an addiction is like. You can wait out the shakes, nausea, the unexplainable amount of anxiety, but the demon is still there. “Being honest is the best thing I can do,” she says in the film.

And I’m trying to, too. I keep that sentence close to my heart; that's what has always made her my recovery warrior. Throughout her process, she’s been committed to remaining as honest as she possibly can, even in her darkest moments. As an addict myself, I can tell you how difficult that commitment is.

After Demi was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for a reported heroin overdose, fans and celebrities began sharing personal stories of how she helped them, using the hashtag, #HowDemiHasHelpedMe. Often she — through her music — was there at just the right moment, as her movie had been for me.

Last month, Demi released “Sober,” a new song which serves a confession of her relapse, which, like the movie last year, could not have been released at a more poignant time for me. While my commitment to recovery remains strong, the annoyance at having to choose to be recovered is also strong. Sometimes I wake up and don’t feel like choosing recovery. Sometimes I’m too tired. Sometimes I’m lazy. Sometimes I forget what the point of it is.

Work is stressful. I’m anxious about money, my apartment, my wedding. I’m annoyed that things that seem simple to other people are hard for me. And all of that makes me feel unimaginably out of control. And that’s when I start looking for a means of control — and that’s when I take my deep breaths, text a friend, and try, to the best of my ability, to give myself a break.

I understand the fans and followers who were disappointed in Demi’s relapse. It’s hard to watch anyone you look up to in the recovery process lose balance. But, I related more to her confession of the simple fact that this shit is really hard. That recovery is not linear. That addiction, like Cancer, is a disease that comes back, sometimes without warning, and often with a vengeance.

I can't sit here and tell you it doesn't scare me that my personal "recovery warrior" is lying in a bed after a near-fatal relapse. Alerts on my iPhone about her recent use of meth, her friends having to carry Narcan — none of this makes me feel particularly strong or ready to greet the day as a recovery-focused person. It's much more inspiring to watch your heroes succeed than struggle.

But for those who haven't struggled with addiction (and those who have), it's important to remember that Demi's relapse does not take away from her previous recoveries. And that’s plural, because, yes, she has slipped before. Her previous recoveries are what we need to remember right now and, even what we need to remind her and one another of. She has 70 million followers on Instagram alone, and it's each of our job to remind her how much she's helped us. By telling her story, and sharing her, albeit brutal, truth, she has helped so many of us. That's why we need to share #HowDemiHelpedMe.

Recovery is not a straight line or even a steep mountain. It's a rough, bumpy, turbulent plane ride. And the minute you think you've figured it out, you have to figure it out all over again. That's what Demi taught me — that is how Demi helped me.

Related Articles