Lovato’s apparent overdose leads to awareness on relapse

After people learned that singer Demi Lovato would not perform her Atlantic City beach concert after an apparent overdose last Tuesday, messages of support flooded in from her fans, celebrities and people in addiction recovery communities.

Positive messages on social media were interspersed with harsh criticisms and ridicule for what happened, and South Jersey addiction treatment experts and advocates say it’s become a moment to teach people about relapse and the part it plays in substance use disorders.

“Most people still don’t understand that this is chronic illness, just like diabetes and asthma,” Patrick Kennedy, mental health and addiction advocate, said. “We tend to only look at the negative side of this disease, thinking of and only judging people when they don’t get it 100 percent right.”

Lovato, 25, has openly shared her struggles with bipolar disorder, an eating disorder and substance use. She released “Sober” in June, a song that indicated she had relapsed after six years of sobriety.

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Relapse, a return to substance use or behaviors, is common, national studies show. Between 40 and 60 percent of patients with substance use disorders suffer relapses, according to the National Institute on Drug Use.

Research also shows that substance use can alter brain function, sometimes permanently. When combined with usage triggers like certain people, places or things, Gloria Ann Seel, senior director of addiction care at AtlantiCare, said it can lead to a relapse.

“The thing with relapse that’s hard for people to understand is that they link it to negative things in someone’s life, but even what others may see as positive, like marriage, a new job or a new record album release, can also induce stress and become triggers for someone to use,” she said.

Compared to relapse in other chronic illnesses and disease, a relapse within addiction can carry greater consequences—someone who returns to use a substance like heroin for the first time in months or years may take an amount that can lead to overdose and death, Seel said.

Kennedy, former Rhode Island Congressman and youngest son of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, said he and his wife, Amy, who live in Brigantine, were planning to meet Lovato sometime before her scheduled beach concert that Thursday when they got word of her apparent overdose and hospitalization.

As someone who also grew up in the public eye while fighting his own battles with bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and substance use disorders, Kennedy said nobody is immune to relapse and it is possible for people to get back into recovery.

“I hope the message she hears is that the 6 years when she was working to stay sober are not lost,” he said, reflecting on his own experiences with relapse. “She’s probably alive today because she put those 6 years together. There’s nothing to say she can’t get back on that wagon right away. She can do this, because she’s done it before.”

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Corey Richey, director of admissions and utilization review at Recovery Centers of America at Lighthouse, in Mays Landing, said causes of relapse are different for everyone, and it’s important to identify those personal triggers while in treatment and recovery.

Working a 12-step program and belonging to a supportive recovery network can help someone in the long-term if they do experience a relapse, she said.

Both Seel and David Dorschu, Lighthouse CEO, said although more people are choosing to become informed about addiction, it still carries heavy stigma, making it hard for people to ask for help, especially if they feel ashamed for suffering a relapse.

Mike McGaffney, of Egg Harbor Township, had nearly five years of sobriety from heroin and other substances when he had a one-day relapse in November. Impulsively, he used substances when they were “right in his face” and said he immediately regretted it.

“I was two months shy of 5 years, was out there every day helping people, and I felt so guilty, so disappointed in myself,” he said. “When I called my (employer), my sponsor, my friends, they were so supportive, and because I had already worked a program, it probably saved my life.”

Addiction is one of the hardest diseases to understand, and there will always be people who remain ignorant about it, McGaffney said, but a setback doesn’t erase all the years of hard work and remaining good people can do when they return to recovery.

“These people out on the streets, I know them personally, and they saw me relapse and get back up,” he said. “Since then, I honestly feel that even more people have come to me for help to get into treatment. The thing to remember is it’s important to stay in today. After 24 hours, it’s a new day.”

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