When news of Demi Lovato’s alleged relapse broke last week, it rocked me to my core. While the substances we’ve struggled with are different, the fears and anxieties that any twenty-something faces, the realities that can bring someone to seek a balm, no matter how toxic, aren’t quite so dissimilar.
In her September 2015 Cosmopolitan cover story, Lovato said, “The only times [she and Wilmer Valderrama] ever broke up were when I was relapsing, whether it was drugs or in a bad place and rebelling against everybody, not just him.” She added, “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I just wanted to sabotage everything around me so that I could sabotage myself.”
I realised that my drinking had become a major problem when I was 22. Just barely old enough to legally drink, I’d begun doing the things I told myself I never would: drinking during the week. Driving drunk. Drinking in front of my young son. My drinking “career” started, some might say, late—at 18—and ended early after it escalated at a scary pace. I went from drinking once every few months, to every couple of weeks, to nearly daily in a period of nine months.
I’d become a mother early, too early, and the pressure of raising a child while still trying to figure out who I was resulted in peak levels of anxiety. After trying everything to cope—church, yoga, running, healthy eating—I turned to alcohol.
Nearly nine years later, at 31, I’m grateful that I made my way toward sobriety. But in the beginning, the thought of being young and living without alcohol terrified me. How exactly was I supposed to talk to strangers without a drink in hand? Or dance unselfconsciously with friends?
At 22, I was single, and navigating a city that I’d moved to just a few years earlier. My then-ex (he’s now my husband, but that’s a story for another day) and I shared custody of our toddler, and when I wasn’t trying to balance preschool drop-offs, play dates, and a full-time job, I was trying to build up a group of friends that I could call up to party with on a Friday night or head to the beach the next day—girlfriends with whom I could share the intimate details of my life.
Alcohol fuelled nearly all of these interactions, as a crutch for both me and the people around me. At the time, I worked in the restaurant industry where everyone drank as much as I did or more, so I didn’t feel out of place. Jumping around at concerts and going out to nightclubs required alcohol to really feel the vibe. When I was sober, my self-consciousness took over—I have zero rhythm, and alcohol gave me the freedom to dance my heart out.
And then there was dating. I needed a glass of wine or margarita to ease that first-date tension (or, let’s face it, escape the reality of being on a bad date).
When it came to parenting, a glass of Moscato at the end of a particularly trying day made the stresses of dealing with a 2-year-old meltdown seem a little less severe. It became routine to take him to a friend’s house, let him play with her kids, and down a shot or two. If she wasn’t available, I’d put him down for bed and sit on the sofa cross-legged and alone, with my wine glass in hand as I stared blankly at the television.
In short: booze coloured the ins and outs of my life at every turn, and I can imagine the intimidation of being young and sober weighing on Lovato like it did on me.
Transitioning into sobriety wasn’t easy. For a long time, I ignored invites from friends because I didn’t know how to tell them I wasn’t drinking anymore. I didn’t want to answer their questions. After a while, the friends who drank as much as I did fell away, which helped me realize that those relationships were superficial.
Eventually I was able to find like-minded young people through a sober program that I found online. I also found a Facebook group of sober young people. As it turns out, sobriety is a lifestyle for a lot of young people whether they identify as alcoholics or not, and I found that having sober-fun suited me better than having drunk-fun. Drunk-fun nights always ended with tears or fighting, and blacking out. Going to a concert sober and being able to actually remember the whole thing the next day gave me a feeling of deep relief and gratitude.
As an alcoholic, I fight my disease every day. There are nights, like last New Year’s Eve, when everyone around me is sipping merrily and I wish I could drink like everyone else. There are days when my clinical anxiety torments me, and I’d like to be able to quiet the noise. And there are moments when I miss the carefree feeling of a drunken night or the freedom from insecurities during sex that comes with alcohol.
When I think of these things, of the difficulty of being young and sober, my heart goes out to Lovato. She spends her days and nights in an industry known for its parties, each with an endless selection of readily available poisons. Despite the support system around her, I imagine temptation lurks around every corner. Being young and sober is hard. Being young, sober, and in the public eye must be, at times, unbearable.
The thing is, if Lovato did indeed relapse, she’s no less of a fighter. She’s tackling addiction on a daily basis, and as I know from personal experience, sometimes the battle feels like too much. But relapse is a part of many people’s journey to sober living, so her fight will continue.
The beautiful thing about Lovato is that she realizes she not just fighting for herself, she’s fighting for all of us who know the weight of addiction. She has and hopefully will continue to speak openly and honestly about her struggles, because in doing so, she’s breaking down the walls of stigma. She gives people like me the courage to speak out. As she sings in her song “Sober,” I wanna be a role model, but I’m only human.” No, Demi—you’re both.
Article written by Nicole Slaughter Graham