There's nothing wrong with being "California sober" — Demi Lovato's haters be darned

As a recovery advocate, I know everyone's recovery journey is different — and it's okay to not be fully abstinent

Published April 3, 2021 7:30AM (EDT)

Demi Lovato speaks on stage at the Teen Vogue Summit 2019 at Goya Studios on November 02, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images for Teen Vogue)
Demi Lovato speaks on stage at the Teen Vogue Summit 2019 at Goya Studios on November 02, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images for Teen Vogue)

Demi Lovato is no longer hiding her truth. Last month the singer and actress, who has struggled with addiction for years, revealed that she considers herself "California sober" — meaning not fully abstinent from substances. That goes against decades of conventional wisdom in the world of addiction recovery, which posits that recovery means total and permanent abstinence. How often do you see headlines about this-or-that celebrity celebrating a sobriety anniversary? Just as we celebrate them, we should also be celebrating Ms. Lovato's recovery, even if it sounds unconventional.

Sadly, there has been an onslaught of ignorant criticism of Lovato's recovery program, which just goes to show how far we have to go when it comes to understanding recovery from addiction.

The kerfuffle started with her new documentary "Dancing with the Devil," in which the popstar speaks openly about a broad range of personal struggles, from surviving a nearly fatal overdose to struggling with eating issues and the trauma of sexual assault. But the headlines have focused on her choice to practice what's known as "moderation management," which is when people choose to indulge in some substances — but, as the name suggests, in moderation. 

"Yeah. I think the term that I best identify with is 'California sober,' " said Lovato in a recent CBS Sunday Morning interview. The interviewer then asked her if that meant she still drinks some alcohol and smokes a little weed. "I really don't feel comfortable explaining the parameters of my recovery to people," Lovato responded, "because I don't want anyone to look at my parameters of safety and think that's what works for them, because it might not."

Lovato is careful with her words, and has clearly thought about the implications of being a popstar and role model while also being true to herself and honest about her recovery.

But her caution with her words didn't stop the haters. One blogger described her recovery path as "delusional" and "dangerous." "I think the term 'California sober' is quite disrespectful to the sober community," Ken Seeley, a professional interventionist, told Entertainment Today. "I know a lot of people that work really hard to hold their abstinence and fight for their lives in recovery and to bring up this new term, 'California sober,' is so inappropriate."

Similarly, a People magazine story about the Lovato documentary was emblematic of this common misunderstanding of recovery. "Demi Lovato Reveals She Smokes Weed and Drinks 'in Moderation,' But Says 'It Isn't for Everyone,'" the judge-y headline read. In the story, People wrote that Demi Lovato "isn't sober." The article continued:

The singer then says she's "done with the stuff that's going to kill me," but admits that she still smokes weed and drinks occasionally. Traditionally in rehabs and 12-step programs, recovery is predicated on complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol and not moderation.

But what is "traditional" is not necessarily right for everyone. There's no shame in having a heterodox recovery.  

The fact is that recovery has as many paths as there are people. As a national advocate and person in recovery myself, I've learned first-hand and witnessed how diverse, creative, and innovative our community is. Recovery is defined as "a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential." That means that each individual who seeks relief from substance use disorder deserves the basic respect and dignity we'd offer any other person in recovery from a chronic illness. Instead, Lovato is described by armchair experts as being an "alcoholic" and "addict" and who doesn't know any better and can't be trusted to make healthy choices for herself.

Likewise, moderation is a recovery pathway, too. Abstaining from some substances while still using others is recovery. Just as total abstinence is recovery, or using medications like methadone is recovery. Incorporating wellness tools like yoga or relying on a spiritual practice is also recovery. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?

Lovato's recovery is as valid as mine: zero-use abstinence, with the support of a 12-Step program. I don't think that her pathway threatens mine, or "sets a bad example." If anything, I think her courage shows that recovery is truly for anyone who wants it. The problem here isn't what Lovato chooses to do with her own body. She's a 28-year-old adult woman.

As one of the world's biggest pop stars, Lovato is used to having her body policed by strangers. In her documentary, she describes how for years she had no control over her life. Her schedule, wardrobe, finances, and even what she ate was dictated and controlled. It's frankly refreshing to watch a woman like Lovato take back control and live her truth. But it seems women, especially celebrities, are harshly criticized. They're too thin or too fat, the wrong shape, too trendy or hopelessly out of style. They're bad mothers or they spend too much time with their families. It's no surprise that this same judgment extends to recovery, too. If a woman uses substances, she's a lush; if she abstains, she's uptight. There is no middle ground, and you know what? I am glad that Lovato isn't trying to please anyone but herself with her recovery choices. Each person must decide for themselves what "recovery" means and how they want to live it.

But therapists, treatment specialists, and other so-called experts are doing plenty of hand-wringing over Demi's decision to do what's right for her. Yet, these are the very people who should know that what she's doing is exactly how recovery support should work. It's not a therapist's job (or anyone else's) to dictate how someone else must live, or what guidelines they should conform to. Instead, they are supposed to offer the tools, resources, and support that can help that person live their best life.

In my experience, finger-wagging, shaming, or criticizing does not help anyone get sober. Nobody shamed me into treatment; I chose to seek help because I finally accepted that my life was worth living, and I met other people who were brave enough to show me what was possible for me. One of those people was Demi herself: when I first met her in 2013 while living in Los Angeles, I was still in active heroin addiction and lying to everyone about it. Shortly after meeting Demi and hearing her story, I changed my life for good. I found a pathway that worked for me. Like Demi, I also came out publicly as a member of the LGBTQ community after getting sober. My identity and my substance use were very much connected. Shame kept me in the closet for a very long time. If I'd tried to please everyone, I would still be sick and self-hating. I might even be dead. But I'm not. I'm alive today and I'm happy. I am healthier than I've ever been, engaged to the man I love, and helping share the inspiration I received from Demi and many other friends.

The faster we let go of the idea that zero-tolerance, abstinence-only recovery is the only valid path, the sooner we will start saving lives. Hundreds of people die every day from substance-related causes. How many of them would be alive today if they were told there was another way? I am grateful for the incredible diversity of recovery pathways in my community. Our diversity is our strength. Instead of assuming a "one-size-fits-all" recovery that is dictated by institutions that pathologize and punish people, we need to focus on the individual and ask how we can support them on their unique journey.

By Ryan Hampton

Ryan Hampton is a nationally recognized recovery advocate, community organizer, and person in long-term recovery. He is the author of "Unsettled: How the Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Failed the Victims of the American Overdose Crisis." Follow him on Twitter: @RyanForRecovery

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