When telling the stories that lead to real and comprehensive change in the fight against addiction, the culture and the media need to do better.
I’ve been watching the media’s coverage of Demi Lovato’s relapse into drug use, and my feelings about the whole thing are complex. I want to cheer for her. I want to be on her side. And I am. But the narrative arc is off somehow.
Her public reality chafes with a private reality I share with people in rural and urban communities across the United States—communities riddled by joblessness, hopelessness, desperation, and addiction.
I don’t know the particulars of the story that’s splashed across the headlines this week—the story of the girl hero fallen and rising again by her own grit and determination and carried by the strength of a few well-placed and well-touted Instagram comments. It sounds like a good one. What I do know, though, is the story of addiction. I know what it’s like to lose someone to addiction again, and again, and again.
I was a sophomore in college when it first started for my family. My mom called, her voice soft and brittle, and left one of those voicemails that immediately send warning signals: “Honey, call me.” Then I was getting on a plane in DC and off a plane in Lexington, driving the hour or so out to rural Kentucky, and standing next to my cousin’s casket. He was found, alone, in an empty hotel room in some squalid, coastal “resort” town. Drugs.
What sticks with me most about that day is watching my mom stand, pleading, with her niece—we’ll call her Amy—in the back of the church. She gestured first to the track marks on Amy’s arms and then to the casket. “Is this what you want? Please don’t do this.”
Amy didn’t make it. It took four years. Overdose.
It’s bizarre to live an experience so markedly different from how it’s portrayed in the media and understood by the culture. Headlines like “Warrior’ Demi Lovato Gets Love from Jennifer Lopez, Dwayne Johnson, & More Stars After Overdose” and “Celebs and fans cheer Demi Lovato after she breaks silence” tend to obscure some crushing realities. Addiction is real. Addiction is isolating. And even with the right resources and the means, addiction is incredibly difficult to overcome.
Sadly, the private struggle of a high-profile figure like Lovato inevitably becomes a source of public entertainment. (“Saturday Night Live” had a field day with Whitney Houston before she met her end.) The public has an appetite for the sordid details, but not too sordid. Everyone likes to watch the triumph of the underdog — especially if she’s beautiful and talented. But few want to really peel back the curtain. No one wants to look death too closely in the eye.
That applies to celebs. But when it comes to the rural poor, it’s even easier not to care.
My deepest sympathy for my family is that everyone is still trying to figure out who to blame. And there are so many targets: Friends, dealers, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, each other, ourselves. It’s in the confusion that no one settles on an answer, and in the confusion that policymakers and politicians kick the can down the road on finding real solutions. Again.
Even for the people who are in recovery, there’s always a pull. I had a conversation with another relative a few years ago who spent nearly two years in the hospital after being badly burned in a drug-related fire. He was clean at the time and trying hard to turn things around. But he looked at me and said, point-blank: “There’s never a day when I don’t think about using. No matter what.”
I hope Lovato and everyone struggling with addiction can get the help they need. But when telling the stories that lead to real and comprehensive change, the culture and the media need to do better. No more addiction as entertainment and branding. No more power poses and glowing headlines. No more conflicting messages.
Just the real, honest, human truth.
The author is writing under a pen name to respect and protect the privacy of the deceased.