I’m about as far from the target demographic for Demi Lovato’s music as a person can be. Hell, I’m old enough to be her grandpa; been clean and sober longer than she’s been alive.
To be honest, I’d never heard of her until her highly publicized overdose this week. But when the news broke, it didn’t take long for me to learn who she is. And it took even less time for the ignorance and judgment to rear its head on social media.
Twitter and Facebook were awash in comments on threads about the news. People expressing anger and disappointment at her “choice” to relapse. Arguing that the “disease concept” is exculpatory claptrap aimed at absolving bad actors of responsibility for their behaviors and decisions.
You’d think by now I’d be used to it. Every damned time there’s a high profile “slip” by someone battling personal demons whose life is chronically documented by paparazzi and the ghouls at TMZ and all its imitators, the chorus begins again.
A part of this has nothing to do with alcoholism and drug addiction.* It’s really more about the whole social context of our “celebrity culture.” In our instant-access internet and social media fueled environment today, I think the dysfunction has grown more extreme. But I saw it when I worked in the music business almost a half century ago.
Consumers (or “fans,” if you will) find themselves touched in some way by a personality; their performance, their persona, their perceived lifestyle, whatever. And they bestow on these folks a degree of admiration, affection, and perceived personal connection that may be barely, if at all, tethered to reality.
This isn’t necessarily unhealthy in itself. One thinks of the devotion that hormone-intoxicated adolescent girls of my generation bestowed on the Beatles, for instance. For most, it was a bonding, coming-of-age experience that eased their transitions from childhood towards adult life.
But somewhere there’s a tipping point towards unhealthy obsession, in some cases an almost stalker-like sense of “ownership” of the object of their affections. This can create dangerous, sometimes self-destructive behavior by the obsessed. And also creates serious potential pitfalls for the target celebrities.
This is why a significant part of the work for support staff who surround performers, in addition to facilitating technical aspects of a show, is about insulating the artist from the public. Egalitarian ideals notwithstanding, there’s just too strong an element of unpredictability involved. Some performers like to flirt with this side of the live event dynamic, but things can go sideways in a hurry if that “walk on the dark side” isn’t carefully managed (the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert being the most well known example of how things can go terribly wrong).
But I’m drifting off point. Sorry.
One of the other ugly components of our culture’s dynamic around celebrity is how quickly that affection and adulation can sour when one of the “privileged” falls short of the public’s expectations. Whether it’s sports fans’ often vehement dissatisfaction with a star athlete whose performance fails to win the day, or the expressed outrage when a favorite actor, known for their heartwarming performances, is revealed to be an absolute shit to crew members or their family, public perceptions can flip in a heartbeat. This is exactly why the massive corporations that earn billions from marketing entertainment to the crowd employ entire subsections of their publicity departments devoted to managing negative press.
I’ve gone a long way ’round the park to say that I think this is part of what underlies some of the hostile, often uninformed reaction when a celebrity, especially one who has very publically (thanks, in part to those same damned PR flacks) confessed their sins and “gone into rehab” before. We gave ’em their damned Second Chance already. What the hell here?
C’mon, people who’ve achieved this level of celebrity enjoy a level of pampering and privilege unimaginable to most of us! The clothes, the cars, the special treatment. They should be appropriately grateful and humble. They should act right, dammit.
So, to be sure some of the venom that greets news of an overdose, a fatality, a DUI arrest, or other addiction-related mishap is a natural element of the whole love-hate celebrity thing.
But, in my experience, a lot of it remains a creature of the basic misconceptions that float around out there. And I really want to spend some time on that; more time than one can spend in a Twitter thread or Facebook note.
I guess I’ve lived a fairly insulated life the past three decades or so. My spouse worked in the treatment field for many years. I’m in my 38th year of continuous sobriety. The majority of my closest friends are also in recovery—and those who aren’t themselves, and have known me long enough, are damned glad that I am.
So I’m always taken aback at the public reaction to a high-profile overdose or other public and visible derailment of a personality who has declared themselves to be in recovery. The most recent example before this week that comes to mind was the death of Phil Hoffman, but we see it happen over and over again.
Once the news breaks, the clattering and chattering on social media begins almost immediately. And by now, it’s a pretty familiar pattern. Someone will pass a comment about how “sad” it is (and yes, indeed it is) that so-and-so lost the thread of maintaining their recovery, and the floodgates immediately open.
We hear from fans who are angry; pissed off that someone they perhaps admired has “chosen” to get high again; condemnation of their “selfishness” and lack of consideration for family, loved ones, and public followers.
Much backing and forthing ensues, with some folks (usually either people in recovery or parents and others who have direct experience with an addict in their lives) pleading for understanding—reminding others that addiction is a disease. A surprising number of folks will snap back, flatly denying the disease model of understanding addiction and insisting that’s just a rationalization to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions.
By the way, probably worth noting here that, though this may sound contradictory to the uninitiated, understanding addiction as a disease in no way absolves or excuses the addict from the responsibility or consequences of their behaviors, decisions, and activities. One of the most important central tenets of virtually all treatment/recovery models of which I am aware is the exercise of identifying, taking ownership of, and making amends for all the ways in which we’ve harmed others.
In my experience of over a half-century with alcohol and drugs and the people who use or abuse them, virtually no one deliberately sets out to become an alcoholic or addict. And understand this: somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% of those who use, either recreationally or medicinally, don’t develop the pathology.
But for that remaining tenth of us who just weren’t wired up like the rest of you, either biochemically or emotionally, it’s virtually impossible to step back once we’ve discovered the first thing in our lives that seems to make us feel whole and “normal.” By definition, if we were capable of making rational choices about whether the use of drugs or alcohol was a good idea for us, I think we’d likely fall somewhere within that other 90%—even if we have some history of excessive behavior, often when young.
It’s not my intention to spend a lot of time here laying out the scientific and medical arguments, that information is readily available if you’re interested. I want to talk about how it feels for those of us who share this affliction to encounter the levels of vehement judgment and ignorance that continue to exist, despite the much higher visibility addiction and recovery “enjoy” today.
It’s painful. It’s frustrating. Sometimes bewildering. And, despite the inclinations of many late night comedians, not goddamned funny in the slightest.
Look. I’m not asking people who aren’t alcoholic/addicts to somehow modify their behavior to accommodate the minority of us who are. That would be absurd. I guess my point here is to remind folks that feelings aren’t facts. And to point out that broad statements about how the dynamics of addiction work from folks who clearly do not know (a) can be hurtful and (b) for damned sure makes you look the fool to anyone with even a modicum of education or experience with those dynamics.
And, in a perfect world, I guess I’d like you to know that nobody—absolutely nobody is a harsher critic of that alcoholic/addict than they are. No one is more disappointed in, or frustrated with them.
There are few hellscapes more dark or bleak than the internal dialog going on inside the mind and heart of someone who truly ought to be clean and sober but just can’t seem to find the handle.
And know this, too. Far more addicts and alcoholics fail than succeed at this recovery deal. Somebody much wiser than I once said “it’s simple, but it ain’t easy.”
[Addendum: There’s a young man I’ve made “friends” with on the Twitter machine these past few months who sits at the complete other end of the arc of Life in Recovery from me. He’s just achieved the milestone of 9 months sobriety this week. He was moved to share some thoughts about our shared affliction as well, and I strongly recommend them. His name is Sam. His piece is up on Medium here.]
UPDATE: The news guy inside me insists on this followup note. Ms. Lovato has released a statement. Rolling Stone has her text in its entirety along with a brief story here.
*or other addictive behaviors such as compulsive gambling, eating disorders, etc.