Drug addiction and mental illness are real, constant struggles for millions of Americans, and Demi Lovato has long been forthcoming about the fact that she is among them.
Her honesty has been a gift to many people who have experienced similar illnesses. And while much of the media will claw to eke out whatever grim details they can of what happened on Tuesday when she was rushed to the hospital after an apparent overdose, we should instead take this as an opportunity to recognize how Lovato’s openness about her struggles with addiction and mental health have shone a light on these issues in ways that celebrities rarely do.
Lovato is 25, but she’s been in the public eye since childhood, kicking off her acting career in 2002, starring in two Disney productions and releasing her debut album in 2008. But she also entered rehab for the first time when she was 18. The list of diagnoses that Lovato has shared is long: depression, addiction, disordered eating and bipolar disorder. While achieving platinum records and starring on The X Factor, she’s spent time in sober living facilities, publicly battled relapses, and received accolades for her role as a mentor for young people with mental health challenges.
To people who haven’t had personal experiences with these kinds of challenges, Lovato’s vacillation between great success and terrible struggles may seem surprising, especially for someone with access to the kinds of treatments and support that her level of wealth affords her.
But for those of us who have struggled with mental health, her story is familiar and far more realistic than the highly controlled stories that many public figures have to offer.
In academia, they’re known as “narratives of restitution”: tales of recovery that frame personal experiences of mental illness and addiction as past and resolved. They frame illness as something that can be beaten, even though in many cases recovery is a matter of management rather than victory.
If you’ve told everyone you’re cured, it can feel like a humiliating failure to admit that you need more help
People sharing stories of illness that end in with a happily-ever-afters are often called brave for admitting their weakness and experience, and of course they are, but as a model of resolution they can also be devastating for others when an illness re-emerges or relapses, and even prompt feelings of shame or fears of seeking further help. If you’ve told everyone you’re cured, it can feel like a humiliating failure to admit that you need more help.
Lovato’s cycle of recurrent illness is a more accurate reflection of the reality for many: sometimes treatment works and sometimes new treatment is needed. Sometimes people are able to adhere to their regimes for managing their illnesses and sometimes they lose track. Sometimes just when you think you’ve overcome a problem a new one will present itself in a new, unexpected and complex way. Maybe the coping skills you’ve developed in the past will help you to deal with it. Maybe you’ll need to learn new ones.
Lovato’s latest single, Sober, is about her lapsed sobriety; she released the song on 21 June, a month before her hospitalization, and it’s very apologetic. “I’m sorry that I’m here again,” she sings. “I promise I’ll get help / It wasn’t my intention / I’m sorry to myself.”
But Lovato’s illness is not her fault, and perhaps that’s the most important thing that her story can shed light on: people struggling with mental illness and addiction require empathy, even if they never achieve the kind of recovery that resembles a conclusion.
Addiction can mimic every mental illness. It’s really not possible to accurately diagnose any mental illness until a year of recovery has taken place. Folks with dual-diagnosis/comorbid conditions have the biggest problem getting sober. Adequate diagnosis and treatment of the other mental illnesses (difficult due to the confounding effects addiction alone has in making an accurate diagnosis and starting treatment) helps improve the rates of recovery and good mental health
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