Demi Lovato has officially brought tears to my eyes three times this year: the first was when I saw her on her phenomenal Tell Me You Love Me Tour in March (right after she celebrated six years of sobriety). The second was when she released a new song out of the blue in June called “Sober,” confessing that she’d fallen off the wagon. The third was last week, when I opened my phone to news that she had been rushed to the hospital for an overdose.
Arguably any artist has a connection with their fans—but Demi’s connection with her fans goes to a much deeper level. Her fanbase, called “Lovatics,” have long since gone beyond simple enjoyment of her music, voice and even looks or appearance. Lovato has prided herself, for the vast majority of her career, on her connection with her fans through her own brutal honesty of who she is, what she has been through, and the consistent emotional and spiritual vulnerability she never fails to portray in her music. Even when she is struggling with her own issues, she has shown she knows how to lift others up and show that it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to be broken, it’s okay to be raw—it’s okay to be human. Legions of “Lovatics” everywhere, myself included, have found themselves touched, strengthened, and emboldened by the brutal honesty and vulnerability found in any number of Demi Lovato songs, which in turn has given us the strength to power through whatever we are struggling with.
The release of “Sober,” heartbreaking as it was, only elevated Lovato’s status as a brave warrior and advocate for addiction, since addiction is a chronic illness and an everyday battle. She was very lucky to have been sober for six years, but that never meant her battle and her struggles were over, as much as we wanted them to be. It is heartbreaking to remember that the woman who has helped so many through their own struggles is human, too, and she’s going to struggle just as we have. It wasn’t only heartbreaking as it was disheartening to learn that Lovato has been struggling more and more recently (described as not being herself lately by those close to her) when, from the perspective of social media in which almost every celebrity connects with their fanbase, Lovato looks just as strong, happy, and up to the challenge. Social media doesn’t represent all aspects of life, of course—but when fans have developed such a connection with a celebrity the way Lovato has, sometimes we get lost in taking one’s narrative through social media at face value. “Sober” underlines the fact a person isn’t cured when they leave rehab, announce their sobriety, or memorialize it in a song or a tearful message to fans. It’s a constant battle that requires constant care and fortitude. Moreover, it requires constant honesty and dialogue, something a lot of celebrities aren’t always up to doing: struggling with bipolar disorder, addiction, and an eating disorder is hard enough, but put it in the hands of a pop star who has to constantly deal with the prying eyes of the public? Most would take a deep breath, try to overcome it all as best they can, and continue doing what they do. Demi Lovato takes a deep breath, continues to battle her own demons every day, and lays it all out on the table not only for everyone to see, but for anyone who needs someone with their own issues to be there for them.
But the news of Lovato’s overdose, regardless of how much she has already laid on the table for us, is still heartbreaking, hard to process, and even jarring—Demi has already been so brutally honest with us more times than we can count, but that doesn’t make the sense of an “illusion” being shattered any less real. In Lovato’s case, the “illusion” that perhaps feels shattered is not that she was lying or being dishonest about her sobriety recently, but that we thought she was in a good place—perhaps the best place she’s ever been in—when that is clearly not the case. Not only can we get lost in believing a celebrity is thriving based solely on the productivity of their social media feeds, but Lovato had already cleared the air on things that had happened in her life and career in her YouTube documentary released last fall, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated. In the documentary, she not only lets everyone in on how she got to where she is today, but she also revealed some fairly new information that certainly came across as shocking to anyone who has followed Lovato since the beginning. As any “Lovatic” knows, Lovato received her breakthrough role being cast in the Disney Channel television film Camp Rock (2008), after which she received a record deal and a Disney Channel series of her own, Sonny with a Chance. In November 2010, after two studio albums, a Camp Rock sequel, and two full seasons of her series, news broke that Lovato had withdrawn from the Jonas Brothers Live in Concert Tour to enter a treatment centre for “physical and emotional issues.” As Lovato also revealed in the documentary, she had become hooked on cocaine after first trying it at age 17 while working for Disney Channel, and had already developed issues with alcohol. She traces her own issues with drugs and alcohol back to her father, who was also an addict: “I guess I always searched for what he found in drugs and alcohol because it fulfilled him and he chose that over a family.” Lovato completed inpatient treatment at Timberline Knolls, an Illinois treatment centre, in January 2011 and resumed work on her next studio album soon thereafter, later announcing that she would not be returning to Sonny with a Chance and would return to acting when she felt confident doing so. Her third studio album Unbroken was marked by the powerhouse lead single “Skyscraper,” which has since become an anthem for overcoming one’s struggles.
But as much as we all believed Lovato was unbroken after seeking treatment for two months and leaving Disney Channel, we learn in Simply Complicated that that was not the case: Lovato did not remain sober for long after leaving treatment the first time, going on a bender of using drugs and alcohol almost daily, saying she was “either craving drugs or on drugs,” admitting to sneaking cocaine on airplanes, faking drug tests with other people’s urine, and even using in secret while in a psychiatric ward after locking herself in her bedroom and downing a bottle of pills. Perhaps the most shocking of the revelations was that Lovato was in fact under the influence of cocaine while being interviewed about her sobriety for an MTV documentary special called Demi Lovato: Stay Strong; she confessed to being dishonest about several aspects of her initial treatment and recovery. Lovato states that her lowest point came in March 2012, when she had invited strangers to drink with her after which she was so hungover that she vomited in the back of the car service on the way to the airport to perform “Give Your Heart a Break” on American Idol. “I felt like that was a moment in my career where I didn’t care,” she admitted in Simply Complicated. “I just knew that I needed to be high to get through whatever I was going through at that point.” Thereafter, since she had become so difficult to work with, Lovato’s management expressed their intention to drop her and it was then that she got serious about getting sober, moving into a sober-living facility (where she had no phone and was required to do chores) and commuted to her new gig as a judge on the American edition of The X Factor. Six years later in March 2018, on the sixth anniversary of her sobriety, Lovato was in the midst of her Tell Me You Love Me Tour and addressed it on stage at the Barclays Center in New York, confessing:
“Yesterday, six years ago, I was drinking vodka out of a Sprite bottle at nine in the morning, throwing up in the car. And I just remember thinking, ‘This is no longer cute. This is no longer fun. And I’m just like my dad.’ So I took a look at my life and I said, ‘Something has to change, I’ve got to get sober.’ So I did. I made changes in my life, and the reason I became so open about my story is because I know that there are people here tonight that need to ask for help, and I want you to know that that’s okay. Mental health is something that we all need to talk about, and we need to take the stigma away from it. So let’s raise the awareness. Let’s let everybody know it’s okay to have a mental illness, it’s okay to have an addiction problem. I’m bipolar—like, whatever! I take care of myself. And I can never say thank you enough to you guys for the support that you’ve given me over the years, and you’ve forgiven me for my mistakes. Thank you for being a part of saving my life. I love you guys.”
As much as we will all continue to love and support Lovato during her time of need (that’s one thing that is non-negotiable), it’s so unabashedly and irrevocably sad to remember and be reminded that a woman who has been a soldier for those struggling through something by sharing every single one of her struggles for the public to see and hear is also flawed, because she’s human—everyone is flawed, even your favorite celebrity, and it’s even more painful when your favorite celebrity has already gone through such lengths to share their flaws and not only deepen and strengthen their connection with fans, but deepen and strengthen their artistry. Maybe it’s jarring because, less than a year ago, Demi released a powerful documentary in which she cleared the air about everything she’s been through and appeared stronger than ever. Not only did she appear strong in the documentary, but she also appears her strongest on her most recent album Tell Me You Love Me, which as far as I’m concerned is her magnum opus. It’s hard being strong—and maybe it was the sudden pressure of having to appear her strongest in every aspect of her career that pushed her over the edge again. Maybe we like to think our faves are perfect because they’re our faves. But they’re not. They’re human, and instead of trying to mask the fact that they fall down because they’re human, they’re going to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and find new ways to stay strong. I’m confident that Demi will be okay, because even if she’s not, the strength of the connection she has built with her true fans is not something that can wither and die easily.
In her latest song “Sober,” Lovato tearfully sings that she’s sorry for the fans she lost, who “watched her fall again / I wanna be a role model / but I’m only human.” The ironic thing here that Demi perhaps fails to realize at this point in her life is that having us watch her fall down again after building herself up so high makes her more of a role model than she has ever been—recovery requires constant work and it never ends, so her unfortunate relapse only heightens her status as a advocate for addiction, bravely portraying all the highs and lows. She is human as we all are, and it is this authentic edge in her music and her artistry that makes her an irreplaceable force not only in today’s music industry, but in the hearts of many. I hope she will be okay.
“The last decade has taught me a lifetime of lessons. I’ve learned that secrets make you sick. I’m learning how to be a voice and not a victim. I’ve learned that sex is natural. 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, and to be okay without all the answers.”
Stay strong, Demi.