Dancing with the Devil is more than just a celebrity tell-all—it’s a relatable journey into the darkness of addiction and the challenges of recovery
By William WagnerApril 8, 2021
Full disclosure: I’m old. Not old, old—but old enough, at 56, to have known virtually nothing about Demi Lovato. I never watched Sonny with a Chance, Camp Rock or anything else she starred in, and I couldn’t have named even one of her songs. My arc bent more toward Stevie Nicks than Demi Lovato.
I did, however, hear about Dancing with the Devil, a four-part YouTube Original docuseries that chronicles Lovato’s life before, during and after her overdose ordeal in 2018. Since I write for a website dedicated to addiction treatment and recovery, the hoopla leading up to Dancing with the Devil’s premiere on March 23 was impossible to miss. Out of professional obligation, I figured I should at least give it a look.
The Real Deal
Steeled for the worst—for a glossy and sanitized rendering of a dead-serious subject—I did my duty and tuned in to the first episode. That left me curious enough to screen the second and third episodes. And by Tuesday’s finale, something clicked inside me. I wouldn’t call it an epiphany, but it definitely was a Holy shit! moment. It occurred to me that Lovato is basically this entire website rolled into one person. She’s lived scores of the topics we’ve covered at TreatmentMagazine.com: a family history of addiction, an eating disorder, depression, sexual trauma, cutting, rehab, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), alcohol misuse, deep dives into meth, crack, OxyContin, Molly, heroin and fentanyl, and the overdose that came within minutes of killing her.
Lovato’s tale doesn’t end with the final credits of ‘Dancing with the Devil.’ She’s chosen an unconventional mode of recovery, her own form of harm reduction in which she allows herself to drink moderately and smoke weed.”
At one point in the series, she says, “Recovery isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.” Wow, I think. That may as well have come straight from the mouths of the clinicians I’ve interviewed.
At another, she reveals her key to maintaining her mental health: “Getting ahead of the curve and being proactive and taking steps that are going to put safety measures in place.” I’ve heard that one a million times.
And: “You shouldn’t get sober for other people. You have to do it for yourself.” There it is again.
This young woman, I realized, has things to say. Things that ring true. Things that matter.
Okay, the Real Deal With Caveats
Still, the cynic in me wasn’t completely sold. Joe Hangover, who’s spent year after lost year propped up at the end of the bar, doesn’t have anything resembling Lovato’s vast recovery resources, made possible by the tens of millions of dollars she’s earned. He doesn’t have a wellness coach, nutritionist, case manager, therapist and security chief in his ever-spiraling life. And, oh, by the way, Lovato’s new album dropped during the docuseries. It’s titled—ahem—Dancing with the Devil … the Art of Starting Over. Nothing like some in-your-face cross-promotion to boost record sales.
But then I scanned the YouTube comments her fans wrote about the docuseries.
Izzy’s Travel Diaries: “Regular people who are struggling with mental illness find it hard to come to terms with that reality. You often feel like such a failure. It’s hard to admit that there is a problem. It’s hard to seek help. Her showing that even someone like her needs help is so validating.”
Silver Spades: “She was given a second chance, and she is changing her life and many others.”
JT: “I am completely amazed how Demi has the courage to tell her unfortunate story to the world. Demi is doing the world a favor by revealing first-hand how tough and hard addictions are.”
There were thousands of comments, amounting to thousands of people whom Lovato is potentially helping to keep out of harm’s way by making herself vulnerable and telling her story.
I say this with humility. This is a very powerful disease, and I’m not going to pretend like I’m invincible.”—Demi Lovato
Demi Lovato’s Recovery Road
Yet Lovato’s tale doesn’t end with the final credits of Dancing with the Devil. She’s chosen an unconventional mode of recovery (remember, one size doesn’t fit all), her own form of harm reduction in which she allows herself to drink moderately and smoke weed. Some are skeptical, including fellow pop superstar Elton John, who’s been in recovery for substance use disorder (SUD) for three decades with an abstinence-based approach. In Dancing with the Devil, he reacts to Lovato’s recovery plan by saying, “Moderation doesn’t work.”
For Lovato, neither did abstinence. So this is her road, one she’s traversing with no illusions. “I say this with humility,” she confides in the final episode. “This is a very powerful disease, and I’m not going to pretend like I’m invincible.”
Will she make it up that road safely? It’s a cliffhanger, just as it is for so many other people in recovery. Whatever happens—whatever twists and turns Lovato takes—this curmudgeon will be pulling for her.
William Wagner is managing editor of TreatmentMagazine.com.
This article was published prior to Demi Lovato changing their pronouns and acknowledges that Lovato now uses they/them.
Photo: AP Images