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How Seeing Demi Lovato's Childhood Helps Us Understand Her Mental Health as an Adult

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s Associate Mental Health Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

Much of the buzz around Demi Lovato’s highly-anticipated documentary, “Simply Complicated,” centered on the 25-year-old singer’s sexuality and six-year relationship with Wilmer Valderrama. And while I was expecting the documentary to at least mention Lovato’s mental health (since she’s known for being outspoken about living with bipolar disorder), I wasn’t expecting to see an exploration of the way childhood can impact adult struggles with mental health.

But as the documentary delves into Lovato’s relationships with her biological parents (father Patrick Lovato and mother Dianne De La Garza) — it does just that.

While the documentary doesn’t blame Lovato’s parents for her mental health struggles, it does connect some dots to give us a better idea of why she might have struggled with what she did, taking into account the fact her father struggled with alcoholism and addiction and her mother struggled with bulimia — both things Lovato has experienced herself.

This aspect of the documentary is so important to talk about because many people may not even realize their experiences in childhood are still affecting them today. And although the documentary shows how Lovato’s upbringing affected her as an adult, it is also a testament to the fact that childhood experiences don’t have to define her — or us.

Within the first five minutes, the documentary dives into Lovato’s background with drugs and alcohol. She explains she was first introduced to cocaine when she was 17 years old and working for Disney Channel.

“I was scared… but I did it anyways and I loved it,” Lovato said. “I felt out of control with the coke the first time that I did it.”

But perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of her struggle with addiction is when she talks about the way her father contributed to her turn to drugs and alcohol.

“My dad was an addict and an alcoholic, and I guess I always searched for what he found in drugs and alcohol because it fulfilled him and he chose that over a family,” she said.

As the daughter of an alcoholic parent, this hit home for me. Her statement echoed the real pain I felt growing up when my parent continued to choose a substance over me. I can see why Lovato searched to understand the appeal — to understand why a parent might leave their child for that “fulfillment.”

In addition to the comment she makes linking her addiction to her father, the documentary makes note of behaviors her father engaged in that may have influenced the way Lovato’s own addiction manifested — particularly through angry outbursts and manipulation.

According to Lovato’s sister Dallas, their biological father “would rage and yell and throw things, and Demi saw that.” 

Marissa Callahan, Lovato’s childhood friend also spoke about the manipulative things their father would say to them. “He would tell them he had cancer when he didn’t. Or he would tell them he’s dying tomorrow, when he wasn’t,” she said.

Lying and exhibiting violent behavior can be common for people who are dependent on drugs, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Lovato herself exhibited some of these behaviors in the aftermath of a party that got out of hand while she was on tour for “Camp Rock 2.” Lovato explained they trashed the hotel room, and when the hotel threatened them, some dancers “told on her” for abusing Adderall.

In her anger at being “outed” for her drug use, she explains she went to Kevin Jonas Sr. — father of The Jonas Brothers — to find out who told on her.

I remember going to Kevin Sr. and saying, ‘Listen I want to thank whoever told on me because I know they were just worried about me, and you know I just really wanna know who told you.’ And I manipulated him into telling me who it was.

Once she found out it was her backup dancer “Shorty,” she says she remembers thinking, “I’m about to beat this bitch up.” And as we know, she punched her backup dancer in the face on this trip.

And while it would be unfair to definitively say this behavior was learned directly from her father, seeing these behaviors modeled in childhood could have had an impact on Lovato. In a study on the diverse needs of children who grew up with alcoholic parents, it was found that children of alcoholic parents are not only more at risk for substance abuse, but also for developing internalizing symptoms (like depression and low self-esteem) and externalizing symptoms (conduct problems and aggression).

But Lovato’s biological father was not the only parent who may have impacted her mental health. In the documentary, Dianna De La Garza, Lovato’s mother shares about her own desire for physical perfection and how it may have impacted her children.

“I may have passed that along to my kids — that wanting everything to be perfect and the need to be thin and beautiful to be successful,” she said.

Though she didn’t mention it explicitly in the documentary, the former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader has struggled with an eating disorder. In an interview with American Way, Lovato shared about how her own battle with bulimia was affected by her mother’s struggle.

“Even though I was 2 or 3 years old, being around somebody who… had an active eating disorder… it’s hard not to grow up like that,” Lovato said.

Though it’s no secret that parental figures can play an integral role in how children grow up, we may not realize how much a parent’s body image can affect our own. In an interview with USA Today, Dr. Leslie Sim, Mayo Clinic’s clinical director of eating disorders program said, “Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image… Even if a mom says to the daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.”

And this makes sense. If you hear you look so much like your parent, but see them struggling with their own appearance, it’s easy to think that by extension, that’s how they see you and like them, you are supposed to be ashamed of your body.

Mighty contributor Stacey Spencer elaborated on this idea in in her piece about the toxic cycle of family diet culture:

Part of me wonders if I just internalized everything, which set me up to be more vulnerable to an eating disorder… Family diet culture is real and it’s harmful. Some moms criticize their children’s bodies, others make negative comments towards others and themselves, like my mom did/does. My grandma and my mom are beautiful. When they speak negatively towards themselves, I’m left feeling lost.

In the documentary, De La Garza acknowledges she could have helped by telling Lovato she didn’t need to aspire to be like the thin models she idolized on posters hung in her room.

“This isn’t what you need to aspire to be like. This is not healthy. I never thought to say those things to her, because I didn’t know myself,” Lovato’s mother said.

The point here isn’t to shame Lovato’s (or anyone’s parents) for their personal struggles and shortcomings, but rather to open up the discussion about how childhood experiences can affect and inform struggles in adulthood.

Though parental figures and what we are exposed to in childhood undoubtedly shape our lives as adults, it’s not impossible to break the cycle and seek recovery. Lovato admits she hasn’t “fully conquered” her eating disorder, but as we see in the documentary, she is actively seeking treatment, making music she is passionate about, embracing her status as a single woman and working towards a black belt in jiu-jitsu.

Thank you Demi for not only being vulnerable about your past, but also the struggles you still face in the present. Your story is a proof that our childhood experiences can affect us, but they don’t have to define us.

“Simply Complicated” is streaming now for free on YouTube.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Originally published: October 18, 2017
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