Editor’s Note: Nicole Slaughter-Graham is a journalist and writer based in Florida. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It was only a month ago that I first heard Demi Lovato’s latest single, which she titled “Sober.” The song – dripping in her sultry vocals – haunted me long after the track stopped.
I’m coming up on year nine of my own sobriety, and Lovato’s song brought to the forefront of my mind the frail nature of sobriety. The disease of addiction is crippling and often results in relapse, just as cancer can make a comeback after months or years of remission.
The news of Lovato’s hospitalization for an apparent overdose on Tuesday hit me harder than I expected. As someone who identifies as an alcoholic, I felt a certain closeness to her – an unspoken bond that exists between people fighting similar demons. My reaction was one of protection.
In my mind, I could picture all the young women who look up to Lovato as a role model for healthy living, body positivity, and all-around modern-day heroism. I pictured them as they read the same headline I did, horrified, maybe even disgusted. I envisioned them turning their backs on her, and all I could think was, if she has relapsed, she’s no less of a person now than she was before.
Lovato’s public struggle with an eating disorder, alcohol and drugs is something I’ve followed since she started speaking about it publicly not long after her rise to Disney Channel stardom. She’s inspired hundreds of thousands — probably millions of fans, many of whom continue to pay tribute to her influence on their lives.
Many will argue that addiction is not a disease, but rather a lack of willpower. I can say that if I had the willpower to stay away from alcohol, I would have done so years before my sobriety date. I didn’t start out drinking alcoholically. In fact, I was more of a social drinker at the beginning, but the disease progresses, only I couldn’t see the progression until my life had been turned on its head: I’d ruined my relationship with the love of my life, couldn’t be a proper mother to my son, and was in financial turmoil.
Addiction and alcoholism are stigmatized as character flaws, but in reality, one’s need to use or drink has nothing to do with character. Major medical associations, including the American Medical Association, assert that it is, indeed, a disease that affects mind and body.
The Center on Addiction, one of the leading research institutions on drug policy, states that, “Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory.”
As a culture, we wouldn’t view a cancer patient whose disease had made a return as a failure. When viewed in this light, Lovato’s relapses make her no less strong. She’s the same role model she was before her potential overdose. She is also human, and we tend to forget that stars are simple, flawed human beings.
If anything, suffering an overdose in such a public way might make Lovato a stronger role model. As a sober woman, I know that if I had relapsed, the shame and guilt I would feel would send me searching for a deep, dark hole in which to crawl. My chief desire, other than feeding my addiction, would be to escape from the disappointment of family and the condescension of my peers. After all, the alcoholic’s natural state is drunkenness, just as the addict’s is being high. Some of us never make our way back to sobriety after a relapse.
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Lovato doesn’t have the luxury of self-destructing in private. Her reported overdose would have been public whether the world had known about her struggles with addiction or not. But her willingness to talk about her disease, and her writing “Sober,” let alone releasing it to the world, is a testament to her self-awareness and courage. Both of which are qualities we should continue to hold in high esteem.