Chances are, you’ve already heard that pop icon Demi Lovato nearly died from a recent overdose. For how frequently we discuss celebrities, it amazes me how little we think about the human beings behind the hype. We talk about what they wear, tweet, and say. We pin our hopes, fears, and disgust onto these projections of persons masked in makeup. They become a distraction from our own fear and vulnerability. We laugh at their repeated rehab visits and then grieve on social media when they die. Why?
People are hungry for connection. We interact with strangers through screens, avoid eye-contact in waiting rooms, and feel invalidated when we don’t get enough “likes” on our social media. My partner and I run a grief group focused on collective grief, meaning grief bigger than any one person. We see the same story with most new group members: They had nowhere to talk about these “impolite” topics such as climate change, racism, mass shootings, or other systemic issues. And not talking about it only made them feel worse.
It’s not uncommon for new members to cry at their first meeting. They get overwhelmed with emotion, because they haven’t had a chance to vocalize these fears and insecurities, let alone have others nod their heads along with them. We are social creatures that depend on community and interpersonal relation. Surface level dialogues about Taylor Swift’s dating life will never provide the authentic connection we crave.
This need for reminders that we’re not alone means that when a celebrity shows us a glimpse of authenticity, we idolize them and make role-models out of them in a way that creates a story they are then pressured to preserve.
On the day Chester Bennington’s suicide went public, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received a 14% increase in calls. He had talked openly about his struggles with mental illness and addiction. When he completed suicide, fans who had looked to him for inspiration took it personal. Some looked at his death as a betrayal, as if it discredited all of the work he had done to inspire others to live. Relapse and suicide are not moral failings. They are tragedies of a complicated illness we continue to research and strive to better understand.
Celebrity suicides and drug overdoses are nothing new to Hollywood. We are seeing an increased frequency in them as we look to these individuals for distraction while violence, political turmoil, and consequences of climate change worsen.
In Margaret J. Wheatley’s guide Who Do We Choose to Be?, a book that explores and examines leadership during times of increased chaos and catastrophe, she compiled research about previously failed civilizations. She looked at patterns and signs that creep up before collapse. One of the commonalities in societies heading towards disintegration is the rise of celebrity culture. Wheatley writes,
A celebrity culture always arises in the Age of Decadence. We become obsessed with the lives of particular individuals, their talents and achievements. We may find them brilliant or despicable. Whether we are inspired, jealous, critical, or turned off, the focus is on individuals, what they are doing moment by moment and whether they please us. Popularity becomes the measure of success. These distractions grow even more enticing as things worsen (72).
We’re seeing large scale environmental destruction, record heatwaves and storms, police brutality, kids in cages, blatant hate, loss of empathy, increased violence, addiction, and suicide. If you’re not grief-stricken, you’re not paying attention. Addiction and suicide affect human beings of all income levels, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Celebrities are not exempt from this.
In March, I visited my little sister in rehab for an eating disorder. I spent a week in a tiny Arizona town known best for its horses or world class addiction treatment centers. It was five days of intensive all-day family therapy, a program designed to help us better understand, support, and cope with our loved one’s eating disorder, the most fatal and misunderstood of the mental illnesses. One of the young women in treatment—a Midwesterner who walked around with Lovato’s book under her arm to read between sessions—glowed when she told me, “Demi was treated here too.”
I thought of this young woman when I first read about Levato’s OD. Then I thought of my little sister. She’s 25, the same age as Lovato. These young women are still so new into recovery that a bad day can feel like a recipe for instant relapse. And then I thought of Demi, a human being I’ve never met but care about because she has inspired so many young women with her transparency as she struggles with mental illness and addiction.
I’ve never been to rehab, but I have been hospitalized for depression more times than I care to count. I know the crushing vulnerability that is being sick enough to surrender your autonomy for constant care. Add paparazzi and the world watching, and I can only imagine what strength it takes to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you’re so sick that you’ve lost faith in your ability to recover.
The therapist at family week said, “Recovery isn’t about perfection. It’s about doing the next right thing when we slip.” I wrote it down to remind myself, my sister, and anyone I know in recovery. There’s not many guarantees in recovery, but I can promise it’s not pretty and perfection isn’t possible. It’s this vulnerability that also creates space for some of the most meaningful connections and deepest love I’ve ever experienced.
Not everyone recovers. And for those who do, relapse is always a possibility. When Phillip Seymour Hoffman relapsed and died from heroin, he had previously been sober for 23 years. This understanding of relapse makes mental illness and addiction much scarier. Fear makes us feel vulnerable. We run from uncertainty, blaming the individual rather than looking deeper into what issues drive a person to self-destruction.
Celebrities are representative of the society they come from. They reflect our culture and our culture reflects them back. Wheatley writes,
Cultures focused on popularity have no depth or resilience. They are superficial and ephemeral: tastes change; fashions come and go; fads rise and fall. Always changing, such a culture increases our sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. We may be popular now, but beneath the surface our anxiety and stress keep growing (72).
This suggests that even those excelling in the limelight are not winning. It might be hard to remember celebrities live in the same world we do when they live in their mansions and drive cars that cost more than most of us make in a year. Yet, we cannot forget their humanity.
If we do not change the way we think about celebrities, I fear we will see an increased frequency in their deaths. They will feel more isolated as we look to them for distraction while the world burns. And when we see how their deaths affect the wellness of the population, this is not just an issue concerning Hollywood.
It must be okay for people to admit when they’re not okay. This has to be true for everyone, including celebrities that we’d rather make into our heroes or villains. It’s not all or nothing in a race to perfection. Life is much messier than that. Can we reduce the shame and stigma associated with asking for help, taking a break, and prioritizing self-care? Instead of pouring money into prison systems where we send our addicts and mentally ill—many of whom could be functional citizens in society if given proper treatment—can we fund more mental health and addiction recovery programs?
Depression and addiction are illnesses. They are much more complicated than what medication or meditation alone can solve, despite what many folks would like you to believe. It usually takes a combination of treatment modalities and it has to be personalized for the individual. What works for you might not work for me and vice versa. We have to stop comparing individuals and their struggles while arguing about who deserves to feel more pain because of their life circumstances. We have to stop thinking that money and stardom protect a person from these mental afflictions.
The truth of the matter is that pain and heartbreak are inevitable. It’s part of the human condition. Let’s use that pain to connect in our humanity and determine how to best move forward together. Right now, our politics are corrupted by big business and secret agendas. The place for authentic change is at the local level. It exists in the individual dialogues between neighbors, friends, and family. Let’s have difficult conversations about everything taboo, using love to light the way and help us navigate the discomfort. May we give ourselves permission to be wrong so that we listen to understand rather than be right. It is only after facing our own internal darkness that we can help shed light on external darkness. Let’s commit to truth and stop using celebrities as scapegoats to distract us from what scares us. Let’s be brave together. Our humanity depends on it.
Wheatley, Margaret J. Who Do We Choose to Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity.
Oakland, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Incorporated, 2017.