Following the news that singer Demi Lovato had reportedly overdosed and been rushed to hospital, where it was confirmed that she is now "okay and stable," many took to social media to express the many emotions this news spurred. While there was an outpouring of support for Lovato from fans, fellow celebrities, and mental health advocates, others erroneously claimed that the singer could no longer be a "role model" because of her lapse in recovery — even though Lovato has long been transparent about her journey, revealing in her June single "Sober" that she had relapsed with substance use after over six years of sobriety.
The truth is, anyone who has dealt with substance use disorder firsthand, or who has a loved one who lives with the disorder, knows that recovery is anything but a straight line. In fact, forging a path to recovery and maintaining sobriety is difficult, deeply personal, and unique to each and every individual.
For so long, the stigmatizing myth that substance use disorder was a "choice," rather than a manageable mental illness, was an all-too-common belief. This attitude continues to make it difficult for so many people to get the help they need, just like stigma around other mental illness prevents adequate treatment. However, as studies have shown, addiction literally changes the pathways in your brain — much like depression, PTSD, and anxiety disorders do. The idea that those with substance use disorder can "just stop" using, or are judged for having begun to use in the first place, is so far removed from the reality of living with addiction. Like any other mental illness, substance use disorder doesn't discriminate. There's no amount of money, social wealth, or celebrity status that can magically make someone immune.
Yet, these harmful stigmas that continue to persist can make the process of finding a path to recovery, and staying sober, extremely challenging. The majority of people in recovery are bombarded on a daily basis with unsolicited advice — people saying what they think recovery "should" look like, or constantly explaining what they feel someone is doing "wrong." But here's the thing: There are no easy fixes for addiction. Science has yet to find a definitive cure for substance use disorder, or a treatment that has a 100 percent success rate. Of course, while some people have found therapy or peer support groups to be beneficial, recovery from addiction is not a one-size-fits-all journey.
The uncertainty that a particular treatment may or may not work can be frustrating. But that period of uncertainty also gives the person receiving treatment the opportunity to define what "recovery" means to them, with the support of their loved ones and their treatment team. As a person in recovery grows and changes, that definition may change, too. Ultimately, the path that allows someone to heal and manage their illness as best they can will be the "right" one.
Sobriety is not a finish line you can simply reach, then stop to catch your breath. More often than not, sobriety — like any kind of illness management — is something you have to constantly work at. Everyone's recovery will be colored by an innumerable amount of successes, milestones, and setbacks along the way. It is, for lack of a better word, incredibly normal.
And though setbacks like a relapse (or an overdose) can be upsetting and scary, or may feel like the end of the world in the moment, there is no shame in needing work to manage a mental illness. It is hard. And it can be difficult to remember that recovery does not look the same for everyone, and in the end, each of us is only human. But when stories like Lovato's are shared without judgment or bias, it can be a reminder that, indeed, we're all only human. And, in all the messiness that being a human entails, a misstep is inevitable, but it doesn't mean recovery and management is impossible. I'm here to tell you: A relapse does not determine your worth. It does not devalue you, or the steps you have taken to heal yourself. Your state of recovery, sober or not, does not define your character.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).