In the aftermath of Demi Lovato’s suspected drug overdose, her family has asked for some privacy. The press mainly view privacy as a geographical concept, so, while that may put a stop to telescopic lenses, it certainly won’t stop the rest reporting and analysing every excruciating detail of her story.
The media do not report the personal struggles of celebrities with sensitivity or empathy at the best of times. When it comes to addiction, however, my observation and personal experience is that they get it wrong 99% of the time. Because it’s easier to stick to salacious headlines and a moralistic narrative that addiction is WRONG and addicts are BAD, they almost always play a detrimental role to that celebrity’s recovery and fuel ignorant ideas of what addiction actually is in a wider sense.
As someone who writes about addiction – my late husband Rob was a heroin addict and I believe his condition heavily contributed to his suicide – I’ve seen firsthand how something so complex is distilled into something so flippant and inaccurate. I will never forget a national magazine slapping a cover-line on a heavily researched, in-depth piece I’d written on hidden heroin addiction that read: “Top job, nice house and a killer habit.”
Nuance is everything.
Never mind that Lovato also suffers from bipolar disorder and may have a dual diagnosis – which is when mental illness and addiction are intricately linked. Never mind that the only people who have any accurate insight into her condition aren’t random newspaper sources but rather medical professionals currently treating her.
Unlike any other medical condition in which a person is clearly going through serious, emotional turmoil and anguish, addiction is the loophole in which it then becomes fair game to place a person’s deeds and worth on the scales of judgement.
How much money does she earn? What could she have done to prevent it? What anguish is it causing her loved ones? And always the thinly veiled subtext: is she a train-wreck who only has herself to blame?
The scales are always rigged, as they have been for the likes of countless others, including Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears. They are painted in a particular story arc of a person who had everything and lost everything due to their inability to keep it together. They don’t deserve kindness, empathy, space or privacy because their addiction is perceived as a choice.
Lovato’s recovery and relapse is a familiar pattern to those whose lives are touched by addiction.
The media should not confuse her openness to talk about her experience with Lovato giving them license to take her words and mangle them to suit their own ill-informed agenda
During a six-year recovery period, she publicly talked about her problems with substances in order to create awareness and help other people. A few weeks ago, she appeared to be struggling with her recovery, admitting that she was no longer sober, and although details aren’t clear, that period of relapse may have led to her suspected overdose. Her tweets and interviews are being pulled apart and dissected as we speak for “heartbreaking” signs that this was on the cards, when we know in the real world that relapsing can and always may be a possibility.
The focus should not be on the fact that she relapsed, or how her ex-boyfriend, Wilmer Valderrama, feels about it, but on what will be done to ensure she is going to be in a safe space, without the pressure of touring and what structure and shape her recovery will take. And even that is none of our business.
While she may be a celebrity, Lovato represents a human life and one that deserves every chance to recover in an environment that is private and non-judgemental. It is critical that this happens for her, but the greatest tragedy is that she is also unlikely to get this, judging by some of the recent headlines.
“Dark warning signs Demi Lovato was back on drugs: slurring and forgetting her words” and “Inside Demi Lovato’s Substance Abuse Spiral” read two of them. Another seems to be weighing in with the blame game, by saying: “Demi Lovato ‘refused to cooperate with EMTs’.” Perhaps the worst of the bunch: “Demi Lovato net worth: how much is singer in hospital with suspected drug overdose worth?” The subtext is that she may have had an overdose, but she’s still economically viable, so let’s not write her off yet, folks.
Whether or not you believe addiction is a disease, mental illness or a complex condition, this kind of lazy, click-bait media response has to be held accountable. Although there are no official press regulations in place, a report by The Global Commission on Drug Policy, earlier this year, said that the language the media uses has a “tremendous impact” in how society perceives drugs and its current vocabulary simply fuels prejudice.
The report says: “Public opinion and media portrayals reinforce each other while contributing to and perpetuating stigma associated with drugs and drug use. No medical condition is more stigmatised than ‘addiction’.”
As of now, Lovato is said to be awake and recovering with family. It’s impossible to guess what will happen next – going by her previous openness, she may very well choose to publicly address what happened. “The more people know about it, the more people are going to be able to find solutions to what they’re going through,” she once said about her previous struggles.
But the media should not confuse her openness to talk about her experience with Lovato giving them license to take her words and mangle them to suit their own ill-informed agenda. Her battle with addiction is her narrative to control, because she will be able to do it with authenticity, context and heart. The media have a long, long way to go before they even approaches a semblance of that.