The tidal wave of compassion and support for Demi Lovato in the wake of her apparent drug overdose last month is indicative of society’s long overdue, shifting views on addiction. Social media platforms have been inundated since the singer’s hospitalization with comments acknowledging her strength and admiring her courage. Instead of finger-pointing, demeaning or judging her, Lovato’s fans and fellow entertainers are showering her with love, and her friends and family are standing firmly by her side. We are, in essence, offering her a giant group hug.
All of this is encouraging. However, we have a lot of work to do as a society when it comes to applying this inclusive, compassionate approach to non-celebrity, everyday Americans and families dealing with addiction.
Why? Because isolation kills. As Johann Hari writes in his seminal book, Chasing the Scream, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.” Yet we continue to look the other way and deny the obvious truth: Our children, our friends and our family members are being rejected, judged and shamed for the same struggles that celebrities receive endless support for ― and they are dying alone, desperate and afraid.
The statistics are staggering. More than 175 Americans die of drug overdose every day. As USA Today recently pointed out, that amounts to a daily 737 plane crash with no survivors. It’s an epidemic that’s “moving quietly and stealthily across the country, cloaked in stigma and shame,” author Beth Macy writes in her new book, Dopesick.
And no one is immune. In my small corner of Los Angeles over the past four years, a total of nine kids and young adults I’ve known and loved have died of accidental overdoses. Each one, likely driven by shame and self-loathing, was alone at the time of their deaths ― isolated from their families, sober living communities and those who loved them.
“In my small corner of Los Angeles over the past four years, a total of nine kids and young adults I’ve known and loved have died of accidental overdoses.”
I can’t know exactly how Lovato’s friends and family felt when they got word of her hospitalization, but I can relate to their experience. A few years ago, my then 20-year-old son began waging his own addiction battle. An up-and-coming electronic music producer, he suffered a nonfatal overdose on the night of his very first on-stage performance. I was both surprised and not surprised as I wept on my knees with gratitude that my son survived; the music industry is, and always has been, inextricably tied to substance use.
We praise our favorite artists, admire them and nod to the allure of the altered states that “fuel” their creativity. In other words, for musicians, it’s cool to get high. And if our favorite artists become consumed by addiction, we generally stand by them as fans. Yet when our own fathers, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, daughters, friends, co-workers and teachers struggle with substance abuse, society abandons them and quickly looks the other way.
Thankfully, the tide is turning. Individuals in the music industry are coming out and sharing their stories, like Lovato, Macklemore, J Cole, Eric Clapton, James Taylor and far too many more to list here. Macklemore has said in the past, “I’m not ashamed anymore, and never want to hide who I am because of society’s potential judgment.” These are courageous moves in the right direction, and this kind of leadership is vital; music and musicians carry healing powers to uplift, inspire and unite. Can we harness that power as a society and actually make a difference?
We must. Because if this drug overdose epidemic continues to spread at its current rate, by 2020, 1 million lives could be claimed.
“I was both surprised and not surprised as I wept on my knees with gratitude that my son survived; the music industry is, and always has been, inextricably tied to substance use.”
In the aftermath of crisis or tragedy, our nation often collectively looks to Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers) for his gentle wisdom: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
It’s time to look for, and support, the helpers ― those individuals and grassroots organizations out in the trenches raising their voices, educating and saving lives. We must become those helpers ourselves and work to change this country’s view of addiction from one of isolation to one of inclusion. If society can create the stigma, then society can begin to erase it.
Whether you believe addiction is a disease, a choice, something rooted in pain or past trauma, or all of the above, those who suffer should be acknowledged ― with dignity. Using the recent outpouring of love and support for Demi Lovato as an example, let’s rise above the noise and offer those dealing with substance abuse the healing power of love, acknowledgment and a promise never to look away.
Barbara Straus Lodge is a co-founder of Above the Noise Foundation, which creates sober music festivals and provides grassroots funding to U.S. cities affected by the addiction epidemic. Rhode Island Recovery Fest 2018, headlined by Macklemore, aims to unite communities, heal families and shift America’s addiction response from one of rejection to one of inclusion. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies, one of which was a finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Awards.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.