As a recovering addict who has also experienced relapse, I was completely devastated by the news.
Thankfully, Lovato is now “awake and with her family,” according to her representative. Meanwhile, most fans and celebrities are showering her with their support and well wishes. But just as there is a lot of stigma around addiction, there is even more around relapse. As a result, there’s a lot that I didn’t know during my own relapse, a year after entering rehab for alcohol addiction.
When I was 29 years old, I admitted that I had a substance use disorder and entered rehab for alcoholism. I was diagnosed with untreated anxiety and, for the first time in my life, recognized that I have a co-occurring disorder ― the presence of both mental health and substance use disorders.
I used alcohol or drugs to alleviate my mental health issues. As I sought help, I learned to find new coping mechanisms for my anxiety.
Still, recovery has not been easy.
After I left my month-long rehab program three summers ago, I entered a sober living facility for two months. When I finally got out and returned to my life and work, I honestly thought I was OK and ready to conquer the world as a newly sober person. But things were not as easy as I was hoping they would be, and I soon began to spiral again.
During my active addiction, I was bingeing on alcohol on the weekends in order to alleviate my stress. I was having blackout episodes that would last for days, where I would wake up from a previous blackout and drink again in order to “turn my brain off.” At the time, it felt like the only relief I could find from my overactive mind.
After leaving rehab, I quickly found myself becoming alienated from my loved ones. I felt awkward around friends and didn’t know how to be myself if I wasn’t joining them at happy hours or boozy brunches. Soon enough, I was working from home and finding any excuse I could to not go out.
At the same time, I had also stopped seeing my therapist and never went to group meetings since they weren’t really my thing. But because I had nobody to talk to about my recovery, I put myself in risky situations without a backup plan.
And so, a few months into my newly sober life, I relapsed.
My first relapse happened after I went to a new local bar to catch up with friends. I left feeling proud that I hadn’t drank anything, and that I had re-established connections, but something inside of me felt like it broke the minute I walked out. My so-called strength and willpower dissipated, and I went straight to a liquor store, bought a bottle of vodka and proceeded to spend another weekend blacked out.
Over the next six months, I relapsed three more times in a similar way.
I never told anyone about my relapses. I was perfectly content working at home, staying at home and barely seeing anyone. I thought that, if I just kept moving forward, I would eventually stop drinking for real. I didn’t ponder the impact my silence about my relapses was having on my mental health or on my recovery.
“It’s just a phase,” I told myself. “I’m still figuring it out.”
For awhile, I was lucky. I was lucky that my relapses happened in the safety of my own home and that there were no major consequences. Until there were, of course.
My last relapse happened in Miami on a business trip. I had recently gotten a new job and was in town for a conference. Just as with all of my other relapses, I went to a dinner where I was the only person who didn’t drink. I could keep it together just long enough to get through my business meeting, but I binged on every single little bottle of alcohol in the mini bar the minute I got back to my hotel room. And I ordered more, then showed up still drunk to work the next morning.
Needless to say, I lost that job promptly. But more than that, I was once again plagued with feelings of pain and guilt over relapsing. But this time I had no choice but to face my family and friends and admit to them that my disease was still with me.
My family came and supported me, and I realized I needed to change more of my life in order to succeed in my recovery. I moved back home with my parents, a month after turning 30, in order to figure out my next steps. At the same time, I got in touch with my therapist, who suggested we begin our sessions again, and I started to reconnect with friends.
The shame and guilt I felt over my multiple relapses slowly got easier. And as I talked with my therapist weekly, she taught me the most valuable lesson I learned in my second year of recovery: that this is a journey and relapse can be a normal part of it.
Initially, I kept my relapses hidden because I believed that my family and friends would judge me. I thought that, by having a relapse (or five, let’s be honest), I was a failure. But I wasn’t a failure. I am an addict going through the complex and complicated journey of recovery.
I was heartbroken when I heard of Demi Lovato’s relapse. But I also wanted to tell her the lesson that it took me five relapses to learn: that none of this means that she is a failure or that her sobriety isn’t worth it.
I wish I had known in those early days of recovery that relapses happen, that they’re a normal part of recovery and that I should seek help immediately instead of letting the guilt overwhelm me and keep me from reaching out.
I’m glad that Lovato has the support to seek help now. And I hope she will continue to speak out about her mental health and recovery journey, both the struggles and the successes.