Demi Lovato & Bipolar: Stronger Than Ever! This platinum-selling recording artist is on a mission to spread her message of hope: We can get through dark times and find our strength!
By Rachel Rabkin Peachman
Platinum-selling recording artist Demi Lovato is a pro at performing in large concert venues. But on a Saturday afternoon just days before her 22nd birthday, Lovato took time away from her performing schedule to step onto a much smaller stage—with no backup band in sight. In an intimate lecture hall at Kean University in New Jersey, she spoke candidly to an enthralled audience about how she faced up to mental health challenges and lives well in recovery.
The appearance was part of The Mental Health Listening & Engagement Tour supported by Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc..
“It has become my personal mission to share with others that there is life on the other side of the dark times, and that they are not alone,” Lovato told bp Magazine afterward.
That’s a bit of a switch-up for the multitalented entertainer, whose early life was focused around her love of music and performing. Raised in Texas, she was acting and singing professionally by age 10. Her résumé as an adolescent includes Disney movies, her own Disney TV series, and two successful studio albums.
She achieved all that professional success even as she struggled to cope with emotional distress. Her inner pain found an outlet in eating disorders, substance abuse, and self-harm. As is true for many people, it took Lovato some time and setbacks before she fully committed to do whatever it took to get better.
So many of my fans have also experienced hardship … I think they appreciate my willingness to open up and put it all out there.
“There is so much shame and misunderstanding associated with mental illness,” Lovato reflected. “Along with that comes fear. I know that fear kept me from getting help.”
It wasn’t until Lovato had what she calls a “mental breakdown” in October 2010 that she went into treatment at a rehab facility. That’s when the underlying brain-based illness was diagnosed.
“When I finally got diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was a relief in so many ways. It helped me start to make sense of my bipolar depression and the harmful things I was doing to cope with what I was experiencing.”
With a maturity that’s notable in a young adult, Lovato buckled down to get sober, find the right treatment plan, and adopt habits that help her maintain her wellness. She’s also turned her efforts outward, becoming an advocate for people affected by mental health conditions and substance abuse. (Lovato has a track record of public engagement, lending her support to causes like marriage equality, anti-bullying efforts, and civic involvement by Latino voters and young people.)
Lovato shared the early days of her recovery in an MTV documentary called Stay Strong, and published an inspirational best seller, Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year, all in an effort to save others from some of the pain she’s experienced.
“Imagine the hope we can give back to people by creating widespread support and showing the world that it’s possible to get through the darkest times and end up in a place of strength,” she said.
Lovato is proof positive that it’s possible to thrive with the right support and commitment.
“Since receiving help, I have been able to accomplish so much personally and professionally,” Lovato said.
In addition to holding her own as a judge alongside Simon Cowell for two seasons of The X Factor, she scored a recurring role on the popular series Glee. She released two more hit studio albums—the R&B-flavored Unbroken and Demi, an electro-pop compilation that made the charts overseas as well as in North America.
Top singles from those albums include “Really Don’t Care,” “Neon Lights,” “Heart Attack,” “Skyscraper” (which won the “best video with a message” award from MTV), and “Give Your Heart a Break.” Lovato is also known for the pop version of “Let it Go,” the belt-it-out anthem from the animated movie Frozen.
After wrapping up her second North American tour of the year this fall, Lovato is heading to the United Kingdom to tour with Enrique Iglesias.
Lovato’s music helps her process what she’s been through. On the resonant track “Warrior,” from Demi, Lovato sings, “And now I’m a warrior, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been … I’m a survivor in more ways than you know.”
Her devoted fans, known as Lovatics, do know—and Lovato welcomes their support.
“My fans are amazing. So many of my fans have also experienced hardship in their lives and I think they appreciate my willingness to open up and put it all out there,” Lovato told bp.
At her talk in New Jersey, that was clear. Alysa Bainbridge traveled from Leesport, Pennsylvania, to hear Lovato speak about bipolar disorder. The illness runs in Bainbridge’s family, and she admires Lovato’s courage to come out into the open despite stigma.
“That’s what I love most about her. She’s not afraid,” said Bainbridge. “She wants to make a difference by telling her story instead of hiding it, because she knows that it will help people.”
In that lecture hall at Kean University, Lovato shared her story with poise, down-to-earth humor, and a touch of sass. She took the stage wearing a black lace top and skirt. Her dark hair—which, in the past, has been shaved, blonde, and blue—was swept away from her face gracefully, with just a hint of blonde highlights glistening along the bottom.
Her appearance was part of the annual conference of New Jersey’s Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. She chatted onstage with Allen Doederlein, national president of DBSA, for nearly an hour.
Here are highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Q: What made you realize that you needed help?A: It took a mental breakdown for me to realize that I needed to go into treatment. I had tried many, many times to get help on my own, whether it was through a life coach, or through justmedication and not doing anything else to change my behaviors. And it never worked because I never combined all the things that I needed to do in order to live a happy and healthy life.
Rock bottom looks different for everybody. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to end up in a psych ward or a sober living house to get the help that you need. It could be a moment of clarity in the car while you’re driving where you’re just sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I think that rock bottom for me was several things put together. What it took was a final intervention when my support group—my family, my management, my lawyers—said, ‘If you don’t get sober, we’re dropping you.’ My parents were there and they said, ‘If you don’t get sober, we can’t have you around your little sister. We’ll move back to Texas.’ That was a moment when I realized it was serious. It had been embedded in my mind from a very young age that I was never meant to be happy. And in fact, I thought it was a part of my “artistry” [using air quotes]. That’s what made me deep and artistic, just like Kurt Cobain and other troubled musicians and artists. I realized my illness shouldn’t stop me from being happy. And it shouldn’t define who I am as a person or an artist.
Q: You’ve mentioned self-harm, you mentioned self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, and then you’ve been brave and unique, frankly, in talking about bipolar disorder. Does that have a component that makes you feel vulnerable?A: Absolutely. First off, I see all of those issues as coping mechanisms for my manic [and] depressive states. But still, today when we talk about [bipolar], there’s a stigma around it that people don’t realize. For some reason, it’s a lot easier for people to talk about being bullied, or other types of mental illnesses, or addiction issues. It’s easier for people to say, ‘I’m an alcoholic’—even though that’s so difficult in the first place … But every time that I’ve ever talked about bipolar disorder—and even right now—a tiny part of me is still a bit uncomfortable because it makes me vulnerable sitting here and explaining to you that there’s something chemically wrong in my brain. And just because there is, it doesn’t mean that I’m crazy.
Since receiving help, I have been able to accomplish so much personally and professionally.
I am a normal human being with problems like everyone else. My “diabetes” happens to be my mental illness. And when I work out, when I take my therapy, when I take my medications, for me, that’s my treatment plan, that’s my insulin.
Q: After coming out of treatment, how did you keep your momentum?A: The way that I kept my momentum was always knowing in the back of my mind that I could lose the relationship with my family at any moment. It was also losing the ability to be able to perform onstage because I knew I could tarnish my career and my reputation. A habit of mine was self-sabotaging everything from relationships to progress. In order to break that pattern, I had to have a support team around me that really was honest with me, that told me what I needed to hear when I didn’t want to hear it. And for me, it was [committing to] sober living. Completely surrendering. The night of that intervention, in order to show them that I was going to fully surrender, I handed over my cell phone, handed over my credit cards, handed over my car keys. And I had a sober companion—which is someone who is with you 24/7—for over a year. Those were the measures that I needed to take in order to keep myself alive.
We’re not about surviving. We’re about thriving.
What people were seeing on the outside was a young Hollywood/Disney pop star. And I was really good at faking it, which is something I think a lot of people can relate to. In our society today, if you show any type of emotion, you’re considered weak. But I think that you actually show strength when you ask for help. It shows that you have some confidence in knowing who you are and saying, ‘It’s okay, I know I need help.’ Anybody who’s really good at faking it, I feel your pain, but I also encourage you to take contrary action.
Q: What do you mean by that?A: Contrary action is doing things for yourself when you don’t want to do it. For me, it’s working out when I’d rather watch [tv] shows. Or it’s going to an AA meeting when I don’t want to because I’m tired or it’s my day off. When I don’t [take contrary action], I feel it the very next day, if not later that day, especially with my medication. And I have to realize that every single thing in my life has to come together in order to form the right treatment plan for me.
Q: The right treatment plan can be hard-won. What does that treatment plan look like for you?A: I think [finding the right treatment plan] is a difficult journey and an emotional roller coaster. I also believe that it’s one that people are discouraged to take on because it takes, on average, about 10 years for someone with bipolar disorder to get accurately diagnosed. And I can relate to that because I knew there was something wrong [for years], and I was never told what it was until the day that I went into treatment.
But the right treatment plan is a combination of things. It’s seeing what works for you, seeing which doctors work for you, and it takes a while to process. But don’t give up. For me, my body had to adjust to certain medications and I didn’t know if they were going to work or not. It was a matter of me trying not to give up right away, to let my body adjust to them. And for so long I wasn’t consistent. Acceptance and consistency is my recovery.
Q: It’s so simple but it’s also so powerful.A: It’s complicated to make things simple and simple to make things complicated.
Q: The thought of knowing all of this when you are 21—the idea of knowing it when you’re 40, when you’re 50, when you’re 70—is impressive.A: Regardless of if I was 21 or 65 or 18, it is a blessing to know that I can get help. It is a blessing to know that there is hope. And sometimes it takes people 50, 60 years to have that moment of clarity and that ability to change—to have a spiritual experience or to finally hit rock bottom. I’ve lived a lot of life very fast at a very young age, and that put me in treatment at 18 rather than 45. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, race, background, or ethnicity.
Q: I’m struck by how different this moment is than a lot of mental health conversations. The age of the front two rows [cheering young fans], and the exuberance and fun. That is what you, Demi, are bringing to the mental health community. Because we’re not just about surviving.A: We’re not about surviving. We’re about thriving. [Lovato waves her arm over her head and punctuates it with a dramatic snap of her fingers.] That really deserved a snap.
Q: I feel so encouraged that you’re taking this on.A: I’m excited about everyone here today. Because I truly believe that our future generation is going to consist of people who don’t have this negative stigma attached to mental illness. A while ago, people who were bullied were ashamed. But when people started speaking out, it became a conversation. People really started hearing—and I think that a lot of that was because our generation has an influence on people.
Another reason why I’m able to sit here and talk about mental health today is because I don’t take myself too seriously. I realize that when I speak about it, I don’t want it to be as heavy as it is. It is a very serious disease. And it ends up deadly. But I feel when you’re able to be authentic, honest, and find even the humor in it, it takes a little bit of the stigma away.
Q: And what we’re creating—mental health.A: Everybody in this room is helping to create it, no matter how old, who you are, or what species you are [referring to the therapy dog in the room]. It doesn’t matter as long as we’re talking about it. The more educated we become, the more aware people are of how serious this is, but also how common it is, and that it’s okay.
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Demi in your cornerDemi Lovato, personal coach? That’s the feeling that comes through the pages of Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year (Feiwel & Friends, 2013), her book of affirmations and motivational advice.
Shortly after its release in November, the book entered the New York Times best seller list for advice books at No. 1.
The self-help volume is set up to be consulted daily. Each entry offers an inspirational quote, meditation, or lesson that Lovato found helpful in her own recovery journey, plus a goal to encourage the reader’s progress toward wellness.
For example, January 1 explains how Lovato created a meaningful, personal affirmation (“You are beautifully and wonderfully made”) and includes this invitation: “In this New Year, come up with a mantra that is just yours. Each day, look in the mirror and repeat it back to yourself.”
In her introduction, Lovato notes that “it’s important to have something that will motivate, inspire, and help us stay positive and keep moving forward.” Mission accomplished.
The Mental Health Listening & Engagement Tour Connects Demi Lovato with Mental Health Advocacy CommunityThe Mental Health Listening & Engagement Tour is a new kind of tour for Demi Lovato, a platinum-selling recording artist living with bipolar disorder. To support the mental health community’s vision of building a new generation of inspiring, informed mental health advocates, Demi is participating in a series of discussions with some of the nation’s leading advocates on the challenges currently facing the community. She is also candidly sharing her experience at advocacy events, encouraging and inspiring others with her own story of resilience and learning to live well with mental illness.
The Mental Health Listening & Engagement Tour is supported by Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc. as part of the company’s ongoing commitment to making a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.
In addition to her appearance at Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance New Jersey’s annual conference (where she posed with DBSA national president Allen Doederlein—above), tour stops include The Jed Foundation’s annual gala in New York City; the National Alliance on Mental Illness national convention in Washington, DC; and Mental Health America’s annual conference in Atlanta.