A Featured Article by UMD Student Ketki Chauhan
When Demi Lovato relapsed this past summer after six years of sobriety, I remember sitting at my local Starbucks, telling one of my peers about the news. We were discussing Demi’s honesty in her documentary, “Simply Complicated,” that released last fall. Demi admitted to lying to her fans as she continued to use cocaine while promoting a sober lifestyle. She was faking drug tests and even performing hungover at venues, like American Idol. This admission led trolls to make all types of jokes on social media about her use. During our conversation, I brought up how Demi had been high on cocaine during the shoot of her last documentary, “Staying Strong.” The purpose of that documentary was to showcase her recovery. Suddenly, our conversation changed. Rather than continuing to discuss our shock towards the recent news, my peer began a tirade that described all addicts as “manipulative” and “dishonest,” pulling from what Demi had said in the documentary.
I thought: My peer was just one person. They had experience with addicts in their family, so perhaps that was the reason for their hostile view.
Shortly after this, another friend and I had been discussing how Demi had been using for longer than any one of us had known: “Yeah, it’s sad… but, you know, she chose to do that.”
I thought: Well, they probably don’t know the full details of her battle with addiction. I suppose that’s why they had seen addiction as a choice.
When speaking about Demi’s overdose on oxycodone laced with fentanyl, another peer of mine said: “Boo hoo. I don’t have any sympathy for her. I mean she’s the one that wants to be a role model, but then chooses to do this.”
Now, I know that addiction is still a misunderstood topic. Society has dictated that if you are an addict, you must be manipulative and dishonest; that if you are an addict, it is solely your fault; that if you are an addict, no one should sympathize with you. These uninformed preconceptions helped me realize I was in an optimistic bubble. Perhaps now would be the best time to voice what addiction truly is. This is not my personal definition, but how researchers and clinicians have defined it to be.
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking. Addiction is not a choice, nor it is a moral failure. Labeling addiction as a short-coming, a character flaw, or something someone has brought upon themselves minimizes the severity of the disorder. Questions like, “Why did they choose to go back? They know what it does to them,” place blame onto the person rather than on the disorder.
The answer to this common question lies in the deterioration of the brain’s ability to exert self-control as someone develops an addiction. Self-control is like a car’s brake system. Once the brake system is impaired, it becomes increasingly difficult to make rational choices as you cannot easily control your “stop and go” system. Addiction restructures areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, motivation, and so on. As a result, the prefrontal cortex becomes activated with the amygdala, which releases a neurotransmitter called glutamate. Glutamate, which activates when someone is hungry, reminds people of their addicting agent. These internal symptoms of addiction, the restructuring of the brain and the persistent cravings, manifest themselves externally in abnormal, compulsive, and potentially damaging behaviors. This is the type of behavior that others refer to as “manipulative” when describing addicts.
Even relapsing is part of the nature of the disease. Don’t we expect someone with diabetes to occasionally see their blood sugars spike, or someone with a heart condition to see complications arise later on? Scientists have defined addiction as a chronic brain disorder, suggesting that relapse should be expected and treated as part of the nature of the condition. Therefore, the trolls that accused Demi of being “weak” and “a lost cause” were not only acting inhumanely but are demonstrating their ignorance towards a well-researched disorder that can be understood by those willing to learn.
To show support for people with an addiction, we must educate ourselves on the true nature of it, not the fictionalized, sensational components that have largely contributed to the stigma of addiction. As humans, we must show compassion and sincerity in helping and understanding our loved ones and even strangers as they undergo treatment and the cycle of addiction, which includes relapse.
I remember walking through the floods of students floating around the Greek Life tables at the First Look Fair last year. I saw how proudly the members of each student-group wore their logos to attract other students. The sense of pride was evident. One of the places such enthusiasm surprised me was at the Terps for Recovery table.
No one around me ever delved deep into their problems, let alone any problem surrounding mental health. Is this why I was so surprised at a table where people were talking openly and sincerely about their hardships? After all, I had always heard people talk down to those struggling with mental health. Sure, I knew it was wrong and ignorant, but I also felt there was little I could do. Rather than be criticized, I figured it was always better to stay quiet about my own problems.
So, now that I was alongside the other Terps for Recovery members, it itched in my mind that I was seeing people willingly be information hubs for what recovery is, and essentially “coming out” as someone in recovery. The mere thought of this made my stomach spin. People would make all types of assumptions about one’s experiences, maybe wonder about their “drug of choice.” Yet, no one at the table seemed uncomfortable. Everyone stood proud and excited to talk to those students who passed by. Meanwhile, I thought back to how I feel about being vulnerable. The minute I reveal personal facts about myself to people, all I can think about is – are they going to judge me if I steer away from their preconceived notion of me?
These thoughts drove me crazy till it hit me: there was a pillar of strength amongst the people I was standing with that allowed them to be so transparent. Across the table were flyers about addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, all the topics that people either shied away from, or made jokes about. Thinking back to my residence hall, I have heard plenty of jokes suggesting one of the drunken residents go to AA or “check in” at a facility. Now, I was alongside people that had gone to AA meetings, something my peers thought of as a joke. In reality, it was part of people’s lives, and it takes tremendous courage to attend these meetings.
To stand in front of the world and talk about one’s experiences with addiction felt impossible. Yet, through my job at the Substance Use, Intervention, and Treatment unit (SUIT), I have seen and interacted with people that were more than happy to delve deep into describing some of their lowest points or to sit in panels where they openly discussed their addiction. Now, I could see a physical embodiment of fortitude.
Hence, when Demi was telling millions of people, many of whom she has never met, about faking drug tests, living in a sober house, almost overdosing on cocaine and Xanax, I could barely wrap my head around it. It was no wonder I had seen the documentary almost three times in the first week I had watched it. Being open about anything always raises the possibility of being mocked, ridiculed, and alienated. Yet, people with addiction have risen to the platform to discuss their experiences. Witnessing this has urged me to drive my advocacy to a larger level. Truthfully, I will always think back to that moment when I half-heartedly panicked, thinking: how are they standing in front of the school?
Now, I know that such transparency is rare, but it is needed.
Addiction is a real disease, and it should be treated like one by our doctors, friends, and communities. However, the conversations I mentioned earlier have shown me that the world has not learned that yet. The ignorance and misconceptions people have about addiction is not only directed at celebrities, but towards friends, family members, and any person struggling with addiction. This needs to stop. We need to learn about addiction, talk about addiction, and raise awareness about addiction. We need to stop shaming people with an addiction, stop blaming people for their addiction, and stop treating addiction like a moral failure.
Ketki Chauhan is a junior marketing and psychology double major from Olney, Maryland. For the past year, she has worked as the Recovery Marketing Assistant at the Substance Use, Intervention and Treatment at the University Health Center. During her free time, Ketki loves to watch Netflix (especially Bollywood movies), drink Starbucks, and catch up on celebrity gossip. She wrote this article to converge her interests in movies and passion for advocacy about addiction.