‘I wasn’t ready to get sober’: how Demi Lovato faces her demons squarely
The pop star’s battles with addiction and mental illness have been fought in the public eye, charted in documentaries and songs. For that, she deserves respect and compassion
While the news that 25-year-old singer and actress Demi Lovato is currently recovering from a suspected drug overdose in a Los Angeles hospital is shocking, it comes tinged with a devastating sense of inevitability. Last year’s documentary Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, released in support of her sixth album Tell Me You Love Me, described the former Disney actress’s battles with depression, bulimia, self-harm, drug abuse and alcoholism in fearless detail.
At one point she outlines two occasions where she almost overdosed. “One thing I’ll never stop doing is being honest,” she says in the trailer. “That’s the best I can do”. Earlier this year this honesty was translated once again into her music via the stark piano ballad Sober, in which she apologies to fans, friends and family for falling back into addiction after six years of sobriety.
While the teen-pop boom of the late 90s promoted an idea of high-gloss robots, masking any human failings under a veneer of perfection, Lovato, bruised by her own experiences and aware of how universal they are, has always spearheaded an open and honest alternative that chimes with the insecurities of our digital age. She was, and is, her own fanbase. Growing up she was bullied heavily, resulting in her being home-schooled. She was obsessed with the idea of perfection, keeping a collage of women whose bodies she wanted to have. “I’ve got Amy Winehouse in there that I looked up to and wanted to be so badly,” she says in Simply Complicated. “I wanted to be as thin as her, I wanted to sing like her, I wanted to be just like her.”
A precocious child, by the age of 18 Lovato was one of Disney’s biggest exports, starring in the hugely popular Camp Rock films alongside the Jonas Brothers. Her first two albums of sugar-rush pop, 2008’s Don’t Forget and 2009’s Here We Go Again, both charted in the US Top 3. On the shiny surface, all seemed fine. In 2010, however, she left a Jonas Brothers tour to enter a treatment facility for “physical and emotional issues”. The tipping point was a fight on a plane in which she punched a back-up dancer in the face. Rather than spin the story to save her reputation, Lovato said she took “100% full responsibility”, later detailing her treatment in 2012’s MTV documentary Demi Lovato: Stay Strong and announcing she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Aware that she needed to create a direct dialogue with her fans via her music, 2011’s tellingly titled Unbroken album dug into some of that pain. The suitably towering ballad Skyscraper, which she’d first recorded in the midst of her addictions in 2010, was to be the album’s first single. While most of Unbroken was finished post-rehab, Lovato decided not to re-record Skyscraper’s original, rawer vocals, despite, as she told Ryan Seacrest, them being the product of bulimic purging, “ruining [her voice] by damaging it after every meal”. She added: “For me it was so symbolic, it being the song I recorded before treatment and yet providing a message. It’s so crazy the way things played out, that it ended up being my symbol and represented what I’m trying to spread the word about – getting help and rising above any issues that [I and] my fans are dealing with.”
Unbroken also featured For the Love of a Daughter, a song about her difficult relationship with her birth father, who died in 2013 from cancer, and was an addict and alcoholic. She reveals in her latest documentary that she first tried cocaine aged 17 while working for Disney. Of her father, she said: “I guess I always searched for what he found in drugs and alcohol because it fulfilled him, and he chose that over a family.” Their relationship would come up again in Daddy Issues, on last year’s Tell Me You Love Me. “I grew up having a strange relationship with my birth father,” she told Rolling Stone. “It caused relationship issues and certain behaviours in the future. I learned the reasoning behind those behaviours was because of my dad.”
Before Sober announced her relapse in June of this year, Lovato had already outlined the central truth of addiction: that the addict themselves has to want to get better. In Simply Complicated, she talks about her treatment in 2010 – confessing that it wasn’t entirely successful, and that she was in fact under the influence of cocaine while being interviewed about her apparent sobriety for MTV’s film two years later. “I wasn’t working my program,” she says with typical honesty. “I wasn’t ready to get sober. I was sneaking it on planes, sneaking it in bathrooms, sneaking it throughout the night. Nobody knew.”
It makes the closing line of Sober – essentially an open confession, and one of the bravest and most powerful lyrics about addiction – all the more heartbreaking. “I’m sorry that I’m here again, I promise I’ll get help,” she sings. “It wasn’t my intention, I’m sorry to myself.”