Tell Me You Love Me: On Relapse, Demi Lovato & Compassion

“At least I never relapsed,” I used to tell myself for years in sobriety as I would watch people relapse and come back to the rooms of recovery. “They just don’t get it”, “They’re just not done,” “Maybe they’ll never get it” were some of the other judgmental, and bullshit thoughts I had and even vocalized to other sober people. I got sober in 2009 and didn’t have lots of relapses. I made my mind up to get sober and never struggled to stay sober. That’s what I would tell you but it was a lie.

It wasn’t until around 4 years or so sober, that I realized that I indeed had a long, long history of relapse. Sure, I didn’t pick up newcomer coins or have multiple in and out stays in rehabs and treatment centers. I didn’t get kicked out of sober houses for using. I certainly didn’t have millions of people know I started using again, like Demi Lovato recently did. But the real truth was I had dozens of times where I tried to stop on my own. I would patch together days of sobriety, all by myself. I didn’t need help. I had it under control which is hilarious because my version of sobriety was anything but under control. First of all, each time I tried to stop drinking and using, I did it all on my own. No meetings, no therapy, no groups. Just drunk old Sean, king of the terrible ideas, trying to figure out how to not drink. Also it should be noted that I wasn’t really all that sober most of the time when I quit on my own. My version of sobriety had a * next to it. Like sober* except for maybe a few joints to help calm my nerves or a benzo here and there to loosen me up. I also kept all the daily drinkers in my life and hung out with all the people I used with. Naturally, this plan was fucking horrible.

Alone, desperate and utterly clueless, I would relapse over and over again. Except there was no “Keep coming back” or no people giving me their phone number. There was no group of people huddling around me and telling me they understood what I was going through. It was just me feeling like a weak failure for not being able to stay sober. Too prideful and downright stupid to ask for help, I kept trying my way of “getting sober” for years. It took me a while into this stint of sobriety to realize that I was no different than the people who I’d see relapsing in meeting. And recently, I realized I’m no different than Demi Lovato.

Sure, she has millions and can sing her ass off but she’s addict just like me. She’s also struggled to stay sober, just like me. Her relapse late last month brought to the forefront a whole bunch of conversations about relapse. Most of them, were quiet frankly, moronic and they sounded a lot like some of my old judgey ass ways of thinking. “She wasn’t done.” “She was weak.” “Maybe she hasn’t even been sober this whole time.” And my favorite-“I don’t feel bad for her. She did this to herself.” Normal, non-addicts who somehow have dodged having this beast in their lives have no clue how hard all of this is and think just because Lovato celebrated six years sober that she’d stay sober forever. Sigh. Th stupid internet comments, cruel memes and brutal tweets about Demi Lovato suck but they’re not unsurprising. Turns out we just don’t understand how hard it is to stay sober and I’m including little old sober me in this “we”.

The part of Demi Lovato’s recent relapse story that really rang true for me was the idea of despite having years clean under her belt she felt desperate and disconnected. Desperate and disconnected enough to use. I had moments like that at two years sober and again right before I turned 7 years. I also really felt that way last summer with over 8 years. Remarkably, I somehow stayed sober and rode out bone crushing depression and loneliness. I grasped as hard as I could onto other sober people. I tired to stay in “middle of the pack.” I guess it would be like being on a rocky boat and waiting for the waves to pass. Admittedly, this a weak nautical metaphor as I’m a person with no sea legs who basically wants to barf when even looking at boats. But you get my point. There’s been several times over the past 9.5 years where I’ve just had to hold on and wait it out. And despite my initial ignorance about relapse, I now really get why some people just can’t wait it out.

Listen to Lovato’s recent songs and it’s easy to see she’s been going through it for awhile. They say relapse happens in our mind long before we pick up or use. While I don’t know if I believe that or not, I do know that when I started drinking in the past, I had usually already given up. It was too hard and too tempting. I just couldn’t imagine a life without getting loaded. Just days before her overdose, Lovato performed her song “Sober.” The song which features lyrics like, “Mama, please forgive me I’m not sober anymore” was Lovato’s way of telling fans who looked up to her as sobriety role model that she had relapsed. While relapse sucks for every addict, I can’t imagine having that kind of pressure as a 25 year-old who never had a childhood. Beautiful and honest, the song was also Lovato’s cry for help.

The last time I relapsed it was in 2008 after five miserable months sober. I of course had made a huge deal about not drinking and how amazing I was. But I was terrified and in a lot of pain. Thus when I drank again, the shame of telling everyone was too much to bear. I beat myself up and of course that made me drink even more. Without a support system, I sank further than ever before. When I finally got sober in 2009, I did everything different and it started with leaning on other sober people and asking for help.

By getting honest about my own relapses coupled with working professionally in the recovery field has changed my mind. I hope I’m becoming more compassionate and know that I’m still pretty judgmental. But I do get to see daily how hard it is for people to get sober, much less stay sober. The thing is when people’s cancer comes back, we don’t call them a weak loser. We say that cancer is a bitch and we tell them that we love them.

It should be exactly the same way when someone relapses. Because addiction is a bitch and regardless if the person is a celebrity like Demi Lovato or a family member or ourselves, they need to know that people love them too.