[Picture of Demi Lovato by Rachel Rabkin Peachman – Article: BPHope.]
This platinum-selling recording artist is on a mission to spread her message of hope: “We can get through dark times and find our strength!”
[Demi Lovato is a pro at performing in large concert venues. But on a Saturday afternoon just days before her 22nd birthday, Lovato took time away from her performing schedule to step onto a much smaller stage – with no backup band in sight. In an intimate lecture hall at Kean University in New Jersey, she spoke candidly to an enthralled audience about how she faced up to mental health challenges and lives well in recovery.]
“It has become my personal mission to share with others that there is life on the other side of the dark times and that they are not alone,” she told bp Magazine afterwards.
That’s a bit of a switch-up for the multitalented entertainer, whose early life was focused on her love of music and performing. Raised in Texas, she was acting and singing professionally by age 10. Her résumé as an adolescent includes Disney movies, her own Disney TV series and two successful studio albums.
She achieved all that professional success even as she struggled to cope with emotional stress. Her inner pain found an outlet in eating disorders, substance abuse and self-harm. As is true for many people, it took Lovato some time and setbacks before she fully committed to doing whatever it took to get better.
“So many of my fans have also experienced hardship … I think they appreciate my willingness to open up and put it all out there.”
“There are so much shame and misunderstanding associated with mental illness,” Lovato reflected. “Along with that comes fear, I know that fear kept me from getting help.”
It wasn’t until Lovato had what she calls a “mental breakdown” in October 2010 that she went into treatment at a rehab facility. That’s when the underlying brain-based illness was diagnosed.
“When I finally got diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was a relief in so many ways. It helped me start to make sense of my bipolar depression and the harmful things I was doing to cope with what I was experiencing.”
With a maturity that’s notable in a young adult, Lovato buckled down to get sober, find the right treatment plan, and adopt habits that help her maintain her wellness. She’s also turned her efforts outward, becoming an advocate for people affected by mental health conditions and substance abuse.
“Imagine the hope we can give back to people by creating widespread support and showing the world that it’s possible to get through the darkest times and end up in a place of strength,” she said. Lovato is proof positive that it’s possible to thrive with the right support and commitment. “Since receiving help, I have been able to accomplish so much personally and professionally.”
Lovato’s music helps her process what she’s been through. On the resonant track “Warrior”, from Demi, Lovato sings, “And now I’m a warrior, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been … I’m a survivor in more ways than you know.”
In that lecture hall at Kean University, Lovato shared her story with poise, down-to-earth humour, and a touch of sass. She took the stage wearing a black lace top and skirt. Her dark hair – which, in the past, has been shaved, blonde and blue – was swept away from her face gracefully, with just a hint of blonde highlights glistening along the bottom.
Here are Q’s and A’s during the interview with Demi Lovato – edited for clarity and length.
Q: What made you realise that you needed help?
A: It took a mental breakdown for me to realise that I needed to go into treatment. I had tried many, many times to get help on my own, whether it was a life coach, or just through medication and not doing anything else to change my behaviours. And it never worked because I never combined all the things that I needed to do in order to live a happy and healthy life.
Rock bottoms look different for everybody. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to end up in a psych ward or a sober living house to get the help that you need. It could be a moment of clarity in the car while you’re driving where you’re just sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I think that rock bottom for me was several things put together. What it took was a final intervention when my support group – my family, my management, my lawyers, said, “If you don’t get sober, we’re dropping you.” My parents were there and they said, “If you don’t get sober, we can’t have you around your little sister. We’ll move back to Texas.” That was a moment when I realised it was serious. It had been embedded in my mind from a very young age that I was never meant to be happy. And in fact, I thought it was a part of my “artistry”. That’s what made me deep and artistic, just like Kurt Cobain and other troubled musicians and artists. I realised my illness shouldn’t stop me from being happy. And it shouldn’t define who I am as a person or an artist.
Q: You’ve mentioned self-harm, you mentioned self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, eating disorders and then you’ve been brave and unique, frankly, in talking about bipolar disorder. Does that have a component that makes you feel vulnerable?
A: Absolutely. First off, I see all of those issues as coping mechanisms for my manic and depressive states. But still, today when we talk about bipolar, there’s a stigma around it that people don’t realise. For some reason, it’s a lot easier for people to talk about being bullied or other types of mental illnesses, or addiction issues. It’s easier for people to say, “I’m an alcoholic” – even though that’s so difficult in the first place. But every time that I’ve ever talked about bipolar disorder – and even right now – a tiny part of me is still a bit uncomfortable because it makes me vulnerable sitting here and explaining to you that there’s something chemically wrong in my brain. And just because there is, it doesn’t mean that I’m crazy.
I am a normal human being with problems like everyone else. My “diabetes” happens to be my mental illness. And when I work out, when I take my therapy, when I take my medications, for me, that’s my treatment plan, that’s my insulin.
Q: After coming out of treatment, how did you keep your momentum?
A: The way that I kept my momentum was always knowing in the back of my mind that I could lose the relationship with my family at any moment. It was also losing the ability to be able to perform onstage because I knew I could tarnish my career and my reputation. A habit of mine was self-sabotaging everything from relationships to progress. In order to break that pattern, I had to have a support team around me that really was honest with me, that told me what I needed to hear when I didn’t want to hear it. And for me, it was committing to sober living. Completely surrendering. The night of that intervention, in order to show them that I was going to fully surrender, I handed over my cell phone, my credit cards and my car keys. And I had a sober companion – which is someone who is with you 24/7 – for over a year. Those were the measures that I needed to take in order to keep myself alive.
“We’re not about surviving. We’re about thriving.”
What people were seeing on the outside was a young Hollywood/Disney pop star. And I was really good at faking it, which is something I think a lot of people can relate to. In our society today, if you show any type of emotion, you’re considered weak. But I think that you actually show strength when you ask for help. It shows that you have some confidence in knowing who you are and saying, ‘It’s okay, I know I need help.’ Anybody who’s really good at faking it, I feel your pain, but I also encourage you to take contrary action.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Contrary action is doing things for yourself when you don’t want to do it. For me, it’s working out when I’d rather watch television shows. Or it’s going to an AA meeting when I don’t want to because I’m tired or it’s my day off. When I don’t take contrary actions, I feel it the very next day, if not later that day, especially with my medication. And I have to realise that every single thing in my life has to come together in order to form the right treatment plan for me.
Q: The right treatment plan can be hard-won. What does that treatment plan look like for you?
A: I think it is a difficult journey to find the right treatment plan and an emotional roller coaster. I also believe that it’s one that people are discouraged to take on because it takes, on average, about 10 years for someone with bipolar disorder to get accurately diagnosed. And I can relate to that because I knew there was someting wrong, for years, and I was never told what it was until the day I went into treatment.
But the right treatment plan is a combination of things. It’s seeing what works for you, seeing which doctors work for you, and it takes a while to process. But don’t give up. For me, my body had to adjust to certain medications and I didn’t know if they were going to work or not. It was a matter of me trying not to give up right away, to let my body adjust to them. And for so long I wasn’t consistent. Acceptance and consistency are my recovery.
Q: It’s so simple but it’s also so powerful.
A: It’s complicated to make things simple and simple to make things complicated.
Q: The thought of knowing all of this when you are 21 – the idea of knowing it when your’e 40, when you’re 50 when you’re 70 – is impressive.
A: Regardless of I was 21 or 65 or 18, it is a blessing to know that I can get help. It is a blessing to know that there is hope. And sometimes it takes people 50, 60 years to have that moment of clarity and that ability to change – to have a spiritual experience or to finally hit rock bottom. I’ve lived a lot of life very fast at a very young ages, and that put me in treatment at 18 rather than 45. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate on age, gender, race, background, or ethnicity.
Another reason why I’m able to sit here and tallk about mental health today is that I don’t take myself too seriously. I realise that when I speak about it, I don’t want it to be as heavy as it is. It is a very serious disease. And it ends up deadly. But I feel when you’re able to be authentic, honest, and find even the humour in it, it takes a little bit of the stigma away.