Overcoming drug addiction is certainly not a cakewalk, and it’s far from a straight line.
Being an addict in recovery means that I have to choose every single day to stay on the right path. And because I’m a human being, I mess up sometimes.
Sometimes that looks like engaging in another form of an addictive behavior, such as smoking cigarettes, binging on sugar, or staying in a toxic relationship; worst case scenario it can look like a relapse—I am personally coming up on 2.5 years after relapsing with multiple years of sobriety.
And because Demi Lovato is also a human being, she’s allowed to mess up too.
I’ve been silently observing people over the past week making light of her overdose. Using it as an opportunity to talk down to her—blaming it on her stupidity or her lack of willpower, or to try and relate to her when they’ve never struggled with addiction themselves.
I’ve also observed the inhumane comments that are circulating in the news articles, people saying things like:
“Her days are numbered just like every other Junkie!!!!”
“Intelligent people are smarter than that, so it shows what stupidity causes”
“This is why you don’t advertise to the world how long you’ve been sober, you are just SETTING up yourself for failure”
“Good for her now she should stay unconscious”
“She just wanted attention”
“This is what, her third time? Think she gets a free Ice Cream Sundae?”
Sometimes I wonder why I’m still so afraid of speaking up about my history of addiction—this serves as a good reminder. Now imagine being in active addiction, feeling worthless and hopeless already, and reading comments like this.
Would you feel comfortable reaching out and asking for help?
This letter is actually not about Demi, I honestly have no personal opinion of her other than the fact that I’m happy she’s alive and has another chance to get sober, this is about what’s behind it—a call to action for the collective to simply do better.
Why the language needs to change:
Stigmatizing and flat-out dehumanizing addicts discourages them to actually seek the treatment they need to live a sober, healthy life. It conditions them to believe that there’s no hope, that relapse is inevitable, that they should be ashamed of their “moral deficiency”, and that they will be rejected from society if they ask for help.
I know this because this is exactly how I felt in active addiction.
So, how can we change the conversation? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Remember that there is an actual human being behind that “junkie” you are so quick to judge
I vividly remember the first time someone called me a dope fiend, a junkie, and my personal favorite: a worthless junkie. I’ve even had people tell me that, “I might as well just keep using because addicts will always end up relapsing anyways.” Ouch.
The truth is, I didn’t need anyone else to tell me these things because I already felt that way on my own. It was essentially pouring gasoline on a fire, and it most certainly didn’t help me feel confident in my ability to get sober.
2. Understand that recovery is possible, but sometimes (not always) relapse is part of recovery
I know people with 25+ years who got sober and have stayed sober since day one. Although this is amazing and 100% possible, it’s not the journey every recovering addict will experience. In the past, I attached so much shame to my relapse I had in 2016, but the truth is, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if things had gone differently.
Those two weeks of trying out my “old life” put everything into perspective for me. It uncovered the dark parts of myself that I refused to look at throughout my entire 2.5 years of being sober, it forced me to reevaluate my life, and it ended up being the catalyst for the best decision I have made thus far for my life and my recovery: moving to Manhattan.
3. Know that your words have the power to heal or to harm depending on what you choose to say
Your words carry more power than you think. It doesn’t matter if you are joking (or just trolling on the internet); negative words encourage other people to engage in your negativity, and it perpetuates the stigmas and stereotypes that are placed on addicts today.
4. Educate yourself before writing off addiction as a moral failing or a lack of willpower
It’s no secret that viewing addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing is something that is not accepted by everyone (yet). I have two things to say to this: (1) do your research and pick up an article/book/documentary addressing the disease model of addiction through the lens of a medical professional, and (2) the more our epidemic grows, the more people will (unfortunately) be affected, which means more loved ones will be affected. I guarantee your perspective will change if someone close to you ends up developing this disease.
5. Be open-minded when addicts choose to speak up and ask for help
I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out if I didn’t have parents that truly listened to me when I asked for help–both in 2013 and in 2016. They could have turned their back on me, especially based on my track record of me resisting help from them, but instead, they embraced my desire to change with open arms and said, “It’s okay, we still love you, and let’s figure out what we can do together.”
Changing our language has the potential to save a life, and it all starts with you.