In 2008, I’d popped in to see a friend at a table read (that’s where the cast of a play, TV show, or film sits around a table and reads the entire script out loud) and was invited to sit in until the star of the show arrived. Moments later, an effervescent 16-year-old stunner strode into the conference room, wearing a black leather jacket and biker boots.
I didn’t know who they were then, but the moment they smiled and said hello, I felt the molecules in the room change.
The show was a Disney pilot called “Sonny With a Chance.” That star was Demi Lovato.
Four months after that table read, I would check myself into a drug and alcohol treatment center with what I now understand was remarkably progressed alcoholism. I’d been drinking and using around the clock and found myself unable to be the mother that my kids deserved.
I’d tried everything ― just drinking and leaving pills alone, then taking pills without drinking. I tried different drugs (Ativan, Klonopin, Valium) and different drinks (beer, wine, vodka). I tried limiting my drinking to certain hours, but that only worked for a day or two. (“It must be five o’clock somewhere,” I’d reason.)
I swore on my children several times that I would only take pills at bedtime, but morning after morning, I would find myself drunk or high, wondering how it had happened again.
As Robin Williams once famously said, “I was violating my standards quicker than I could lower them.”
Thirty days later, I walked out of that treatment center, terrified, humiliated and sober. I still thought it was unfathomable that I would never again be able to have a glass of Champagne at a friend’s wedding or accept a much-needed Xanax from a friend if I was stressed out.
But I’d chosen 12-step recovery (though I didn’t even know that there were other types of recovery at the time). And in 12-step recovery, the mandate is unambiguous ― you may ingest nothing that alters you from the neck up without changing your sobriety date.
For me, that meant no more NyQuil when I had a cold, no occasional leftover Vicodin when I had a killer headache, no more trendy fermented drinks that listed a 0.5% alcohol content.
When people ask me if I ever think about “loosening up a little” and maybe trying a little cannabis for sleep or a glass of wine when we’re on vacation, I usually say something like this: “I’m not willing to risk my sobriety, because I don’t know what might awaken that monster that kept me from my kids.”
Three years after that table read, a 19-year-old Demi Lovato, who recently came out as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, checked into treatment for the first time (there have been several since then). In the following years, I watched with interest as talk show host after talk show host documented their heroin-induced strokes and heart attack, along with their struggles with depression, substance use, self-harm, bullying and bulimia. Eventually, I felt like it was all too much.
“Leave that poor child alone,” I thought. “Let them find their way in peace.”
But I sat up and took notice in March of this year, when Lovato declared themselves something called “California sober.”
“I’ve learned that shutting a door on things makes me want to open the door even more,” Lovato said in their docuseries, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil.” “I’ve learned that it doesn’t work for me to say ‘I’m never gonna do this again.’”
Instead of practicing total abstinence like in traditional recovery, being “California sober” usually means a recovering addict uses certain drugs, like weed and alcohol, in moderation. The “complete abstinent method isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody,” Demi said during an interview with “CBS Sunday Morning” that aired in March.
This is coming up again now because Lala Kent of “Vanderpump Rules” was recently quoted on the “Behind the Velvet Rope” podcast as saying, “Being California sober is not a real thing. You’re not sober ... If you are drinking or you’re smoking weed, you’re not sober.”
I have to say that I agree with her.
I don’t have any issues with someone who has struggled with substance or alcohol use disorder and has decided that they’d like to smoke weed. Honestly, what anyone chooses to do with their bodies isn’t any of my business. I do, however, take issue with labeling that state of being as “sober,” California or otherwise.
“Not only can using another substance lead an addict back to their original substance of choice, there’s also the danger of transferring addictions.”
Moreover, I believe that people for whom recovery does need to be black and white might get into trouble while trying to do things the Demi Lovato way. What addict wouldn’t fasten on to the idea (with glee) that they can drink and smoke weed like a normal person and still be “sober”? And how many addicts might die while trying to achieve something that won’t ever work for them?
The addict who puts down their drug of choice but still uses marijuana may be playing with fire. According to one study, “Among individuals in alcohol treatment, any cannabis use (compared with none) is related to a significantly lower percentage of days abstinent from alcohol post‐treatment.” In other words, those people who used any cannabis at all were “sober” for less time.
It usually starts off innocently enough. A person in recovery will take few hits of weed or have a drink one or two and think, “Maybe I’m better now; this isn’t so bad after all.” In my experience, people who abandon their 12-step recovery to try other methods such as “mindful drinking” or “moderation management” often come back in worse shape than before.
Not only can using another substance lead an addict back to their original substance of choice, there’s also the danger of transferring addictions. A girlfriend of mine wanted to try moderating, so she put down her drug habit in her 20s but found by age 35 she was basically mainlining booze instead, drinking two quarts of vodka per day.
For many of us, our addiction issues are less about specific substances than our inherent need to treat our problems with whatever chemical solution happens to be available.
But I also want to be mindful that the only sobriety I can judge is my own. I have a woman in my life who, like Lovato, almost died several times of heroin overdoses. But now, just two years after her last stint in the neuro-ICU, she has an occasional drink and hit of weed without experiencing any negative consequences. But, unlike Lovato, she’ll be the first one to tell you that she does not consider herself to be “sober.”
And while I ponder the concept of harm reduction (accepting that not everyone is ready or capable of giving up their substance use at a given time) just for a moment, I wonder what would have happened to me if, when I was trying to get sober in 2008, someone had said, “Hey! You don’t have to give up everything. You can still drink in moderation.”
I mean, if I could have drunk or used in moderation, I certainly would have. The truth is that for me and others like me, recovery is an all-or-nothing proposition. I’m convinced that I’d be dead if I hadn’t gotten “regular” sober when I did.
I’m not mad at Demi Lovato. I knew that they were special the moment they walked into that room 13 years ago, and I’m still a fan. I also understand that recovery is not one-size-fits-all, and besides 12-step recovery, there are many, many pathways to restore yourself, to get well and whole again.
I guess I’d just like to let anyone who is dealing with an addiction know if, like me, you are not someone who is capable of moderating the amount of drugs in your system at any given time, there is help out there to get “regular” sober.
Total abstinence can sound scary when you’ve become dependent on substances, but I’m proof that there is freedom on the other side.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.