Just over a month ago, Demi Lovato surprise-released a song called “Sober,” admitting to fans that she had fallen off the wagon. The song itself came three months after Lovato celebrated six years of sobriety, a struggle that has been a major through line of her music and, because of her candor, the greatest source of strength in her connection to fans.
“I’m so sorry that I’m here again,” she sings in the ballad’s outro. “I promise I’ll get help / It wasn’t my intention, I’m sorry to myself.”
The track’s release elicited reactions calling it brave, upsetting, confusing, and inspirational, in contrasting and co-existing measure, as fans and critics grappled with the star’s decision to be so upfront about her relapse. Now, the song couldn’t be more heartbreaking.
TMZ reported Tuesday afternoon that at around noon in Los Angeles, the 25-year-old singer was transported from her Hollywood Hills home to a hospital following what appeared to be an opioid overdose. She was reportedly found unconscious and given an emergency treatment of Narcan. A People magazine source reports she is now “stable.”
It’s unclear how much of a warning one should consider “Sober” to have been. Its release fell in line with her recent transparency about the hardships in maintaining sobriety. And while TMZ anonymously quotes a source saying “she’s been struggling,” Lovato has been working. She performed Sunday at the California Mid-State Fair with Iggy Azalea, and had a show scheduled in Atlantic City this Thursday.
Her last tweet was to promote an appearance on FOX’s Jamie Foxx-hosted game show Beat Shazam tonight, which was pre-recorded. The network has since cancelled the episode.
It’s understandably alarming to hear “opioids” attached to reports of Lovato’s overdose, refuting the assumption that a well-styled, rich, and successful pop star wouldn’t end up a user. It’s even more of a shock given what we know about her addictions in the past.
In a YouTube documentary that premiered last year, called Simply Complicated, she revealed that she first tried cocaine when she was 17 and still working for the Disney Channel. “I loved it,” she said in the documentary. “I fell out control with coke the first time that I did it.”
Her biological father was an addict and an alcoholic, she revealed. “I guess I always searched for what he found in drugs and alcohol because it fulfilled him and he chose that over a family.”
Among those who attempted to stage an intervention after seeing how drug use was affecting her career, according to the documentary, were the Jonas Brothers. She went to rehab for the first time in 2010, but said she went on a bender soon after and began using again. “I wasn’t working my program. I was sneaking it on planes, sneaking it in bathrooms, sneaking it through the night. Nobody knew.”
Lovato’s manager said in the documentary that she sat through interviews about her sobriety while high. One night, she mixed cocaine and Xanax and, after her heart started racing, feared she was having an overdose. At one point she was hospitalized after locking herself in her bedroom and swallowing pills. While in the psychiatric ward, she used in secret, saying she’d fake drug tests with other people’s urine.
In the documentary, she recounted that her lowest point came in 2012, when she invited strangers to party with her in a hotel room before taking a flight to perform on American Idol. “I felt like that was a moment in my career where I didn’t care," she admits. “I just knew that I needed to be high to get through whatever I was going through at that point.”
It was when her management threatened to fire her that she started to take sobriety seriously, handing over her cell phone to cut off access to drug dealers. She even moved into a sober living home, commuting back and forth while working as a judge on The X-Factor.
Lovato hasn’t just been candid about her substance abuse and alcohol use. She’s been open about her struggles with an eating disorder and self-harm, both of which have been subjects of songs, including one of her biggest hits, “Skyscraper,” a ballad that’s become an anthem for both Lovato and her fans.
Back in March while performing at the Barclays Center in New York, she delivered a tearful speech, as the night marked the occasion of six years of sobriety.
“Yesterday, six years ago, I was drinking vodka out of a Sprite bottle at nine in the morning, throwing up in the car,” she told the crowd, tears in her eyes. “And I just remember thinking, ‘This is no longer cute. This is no longer fun. And I’m just like my dad.’ So I took a look at my life and I said, ‘Something has to change, I’ve got to get sober’—so I did.”
“I made changes in my life, and the reason I became so open about my story is because I know that there are people here tonight that need to ask for help, and I want you to know that that’s okay,” she continued. “Mental health is something that we all need to talk about, and we need to take the stigma away from it. So let’s raise the awareness. Let’s let everybody know it’s okay to have a mental illness, it’s okay to have an addiction problem. I’m bipolar—like, whatever! I take care of myself.”
“And I can never say ‘Thank you’ enough to you guys for the support that you’ve given me over the years, and you’ve forgiven me for my mistakes,” she concluded. “Thank you for being a part of saving my life. I love you guys.”
That last part is important, as Lovato’s relationship with her fans has long transcended simple enjoyment of her music or “stanning” her image and what it represents. It’s been a mutual lifeline, with fans forging a deep connection with her music because of the vulnerability and brutal specificity with which Lovato herself speaks to the reality of addiction, self-abuse, and body image. Lovato clearly has taken strength from the constant feedback loop with fans who have been touched, enlightened, and emboldened by her honesty.
That’s why the release of “Sober” was so important, as disheartening and surprising as it was to hear that she was experiencing withdrawal and possibly relapsing. It underlined the fact that a person isn’t cured when they leave rehab, announce their sobriety, or memorialize it in a song or a tearful message to fans. It’s a constant battle that requires constant care and fortitude. More, it requires constant honesty and dialogue. Rarely do we see either from someone with as much stature, stardom, and presumably as much to lose as Lovato.
It’s hard to know how to process this reported overdose in that context, other than to acknowledge that it shines a light on that struggle—harsh as that light may be. Our inclination can be to either look away from what’s under that light, because it can be ugly and we don’t want to face it, or turn it into a spotlight, sensationalizing and exploiting the trauma of it all.
But maybe we should do what it appears Lovato has always wanted, which is just to be seen and heard, hoping maybe that could be of help.
“The last decade has taught me a lifetime of lessons,” she said in Simply Complicated. “I've learned that secrets make you sick. I'm learning how to be a voice and not a victim. I've learned sex is natural. I've learned that love is necessary, heartbreak is unavoidable and loneliness is brutal. I’ve learned that the key to being happy is to tell your truth and be OK without all the answers.”