Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Is There Anyone?" Demi Lovato's Long Hard Road

"A hundred million stories / And a hundred million songs / I feel stupid when I sing / Nobody's listening to me / Nobody's listening."

I have a big place in my heart for Demetria Lovato.

She has had so much pain, and has been fighting so hard. Over the past decade, she has fought for success, and to use her talents and expand her creativity, while fighting against bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, anorexia and bulimia, and other forms of self-harm.

"Anyone, please send me anyone..."

The depression-and-mania-swings came first, before her days as a teenage star on the Disney Channel, where she introduced everyone to her remarkable charm and sense of humor, and before her career as a pop/R&B singer established her as a familiar face and formidable voice in the 2010s.

But all the fame and the money and the scrutiny of emerging social media platforms only made things more difficult for Demi as she struggled with her body-image and with the propensity for self-medicating that she inherited from her estranged (and since 2015 deceased) father. Still, she kept trying, not only to return from setbacks but also to share her vulnerability with a level of honesty that only proved itself more admirable by the generosity of heart and guileless effort she put into it.

After her first public breakdown in 2010, she went through treatment, wrote articles to encourage other teenage girls, and made a documentary where she spoke frankly about her illness and addictions and how important it is to get help. She seemed determined to set an example of "being in recovery." She wanted so, so much for things to work out. (And she was very impressive... even a little bit too impressive, perhaps?)

"I need someone."

But being "honest" about such things is like peeling an onion: there's always another layer underneath. It's a process. I don't think Demi realized the layers of that process back in 2011. Still, her struggle was sincere, candid, and earnest. She helped raise mental health awareness especially with the younger generation.

"I tried and tried and tried some more / Told secrets 'til my voice was sore..."

Demi has tried and tried, and told plenty of secrets. She is generous and gutsy, and really has a passion for showing people that mental illness and addiction are real, by letting people see so much of her own suffering.

It's inspiring.

But I have many years of experience with mental illness and I know how it can drive or exacerbate all kinds of self-destructive behaviors. And I know that life is long and hard. A lot of things change. We don't have the strength in ourselves alone to engage and endure life's challenges, difficulties, and confusion.

We need roots. And good soil is hard to find in the storms of our times. So, dear Demi, I am worried about you. I'm concerned for you.

"I feel stupid when I pray / So, why am I praying anyway? / If nobody's listening."

I have known about Demi Lovato's story over the past decade, and I have followed her mental health journey with a sense of solidarity because I understand some of these deep psychological and emotional holes she has been in, even if I haven't faced some of her other specific issues.

But in the past, I wasn't really interested in her music.

I knew that she had a strong singing voice. But (as I've said before) I don't go in much for the music that's big on the charts "these days" - a designation which for me, at my age, covers a whole decade. From the general and vague impressions I had of her overall image, it seemed to me at first like she was just making a kind of Disney-manufactured "teen pop." Then later, her presentation of her music took on many aspects of mainstream pop's typical overloaded sexualization in style, imagery, and theme (though less than some of her peers). It's a recording industry trap (especially for talented young women) that so often spoils or banalizes music even as it objectifies and disrespects the female body.

I'm not being a prude or trying to be mean. I'm just looking at the reality of things. And I've been around long enough to see how this approach plays out in the long run.

This bodily objectification is pushed on women artists today as "empowerment." But in fact, it's a depersonalized reductive and excessively sensualistic pseudo self-assertion that only weakens them and makes them slaves to the trends of the market. It frustrates their deeper need for a relational intimacy within the inherent boundaries that guide and protect genuine human relationships. And for someone with body image difficulties, trying to wear all these outfits to "be sexy" (i.e. according to someone else's definition) and then trying to stay "sexy" day after day, constantly comparing your body and finding that it falls short of a (fake) "ideal" - all this must be a living hell.

Demi, I'm so sorry that you have been burdened with all these things, with so much pain from such an early time in your life. You are a very special person, with abundant gifts, a rich sensitivity, and a deep desire to share yourself, to inspire others, to be a good role model, to be courageously authentic even in your vulnerabilities. You are awesome. I have so much respect for you as a human being; I know how hard it is to deal with mental illness, and I can also empathize with your sufferings in the complications of self-harming disorders and addictions.

I have admired your tenacity in this struggle. I know it's really hard.

You have serious bipolar depression - this chemical imbalance with a hereditary foundation in Dad (and Mom too), which has been aggravated by the addictions to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, and other drugs. Being famous in the entertainment industry has brought additional pressures. I can't imagine what it must be like, to feel that everyone is watching you and expecting you to "look" a certain way. It has exacerbated your difficulties with your body image (so that even your success in music has been scarred by terrible anxiety because, as you once put it, "no one loves a fat rock star"). I can appreciate how all of this weighs on you and conspires to push you to harm yourself more, binge eat even more (and purge), drink more, and take more pills.

But you know that you don't have to do this. You don't have to live this way. You are worth so much. I know it can be very difficult to see sometimes, but it remains true. You are precious.

Demi, you are a person, and the value of yourself is beyond measure. 

I think you are growing toward the realization that you can be free from all this other junk. It's not worth what is ultimately an ephemeral affirmation from people who don't care about the whole reality of you - all that you are as a human person.

"I used to crave the world's attention / I think I cried too many times / I just need some more affection / Anything to get me by..."

You deserve more than just "anything to get you by." And you will find much more. Music matters to you, and that's good because music is a beautiful thing and you are exceptionally talented. But remember that your humanity has a far greater beauty (in itself) than anything you can create.

As an artist, you still have much to give. Your voice has an epic quality, a deep range, compelling strength and precision. You have already worked hard and demonstrated so much of its potential, but there are new vistas opening before you. Take all that aspiration and energy and all the talent (which has gotten you this far) and aim higher! In music, aim for the level of artistry that you are capable of achieving.

I know you won't see these words, but they express what I ponder in my mind and heart, trying to articulate what I would say to you if I could. These are the words I am highlighting in blue type.

I find myself addressing Demi in my thoughts and on this page which she will never read. But this is what I would want to communicate to her (and to anyone else going through any of these kinds of trials). Others must be saying some of these things to Demi, because she seems to be turning a corner in many important ways in her life (as well as in her art).

I am definitely interested now in where she is taking her music (her voice continues to develop impressively, and the prime years for her as a singer are just beginning). She may be finding a new creative groove, and gaining the personal balance she needs to make some really outstanding music with her powerful emotionally evocative voice. (But, first of all, Demi, take care of yourself, please! You are a person first, a precious human person.)

Several weeks ago I wrote a couple of long articles about the Grammy Awards, or about topics more or less related to them: recorded music, celebrity, a few of the artists who won awards. I did promise to write one more article. Something awesome happened at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards last month. Though I didn't watch the show, I was able to see and hear it on the Internet the next day.

It was all over the Internet. Demi Lovato sang, for the first time since 2018. And she Brought. Down. The. House. Wow!

Behind this musical event, however, there was the resilience of her humanity and her determination to continue to live and tell her story, with new levels of honesty.

In 2012 she made a documentary called Stay Strong, in which she speaks openly about her bipolar diagnosis, her drug use, her self harm, her eating disorder, and her experience of being in recovery.

She acknowledges in the video that she is still 'not always perfect.' No doubt she learned much from her first rehab experience, but in fact she was already falling off the wagon. More interventions would be needed.

In her second documentary in 2017, Simply Complicated, she admits - with unflinching candor - that she was using cocaine even during the interviews on the 2012 documentary. We might wonder at this point: How can we believe anything Demi Lovato says about herself? But skepticism would miss the point of what's really happening here.

Demi is opening up about so many difficult and very complicated and perplexing experiences, even while she is engaged in the very process of trying to cope with them. It's not surprising that she doesn't tell us everything, hides things, cheats and backslides and doesn't even want to admit it to herself much less us.

The fact is, she doesn't have to tell us anything at all. How many well-known people have faced similar circumstances and kept everything private? I don't blame them. But Demi - unpolished, beaten down, damaged, and confused on lots of things - has an exceptionally big heart. She's trying to be open about an ongoing experience, to give us a window into the reality of her suffering. It's a long hard road she has to travel. Demi, her care givers, her family, everyone involved is undergoing a learning process, and she's allowing us to see that. It's pretty remarkable. Obviously, these documentaries are not for everyone. They really are for "mature audiences" who are able to use discretion.

In 2017, she celebrated five years of sobriety, and the latter documentary takes us through many of the ways that were helping her keep it up. It gives us a frank picture of how grim things had gotten beneath the surface before her second breakdown. Apparently, however, she had found some stability, although she admits in the video that the eating disorder is still flaring up sometimes.

But she had so much to handle in the time to come. Life got harder in 2018 (we don't know why, and she doesn't have to tell us) and this now 26-year-old girl with a huge nine million dollar house in Southern California fell in with bad company. Somewhere in the midst of this new wandering into booze and drugs, she got onto some downers, something like oxycontin - but "from the street," jacked up with the cheap but dangerously strong drug fentanyl that is often used to "stretch" the quantity of illegal opioids (without informing their desperate consumers).

On July 27, 2018, Demi Lovato nearly died from an overdose. After several days in the hospital, we all heard that she was going to pull through. But she pretty much removed herself from the relentless gaze of the public eye for a long stretch after that.

Though it's impossible to know from a distance, this quiet period of over a year seemed like a time for healing and rebuilding and renewing her life.

Then word came that she was working on new music and preparing a comeback. I was a bit nervous that she might be rushing things. (This is another frustrating feature of pop music and entertainment culture: the relentless demand to stay up-to-date. Of course, many performers love the spotlight and are anxious to get back to it, and Demi had recorded six albums in ten years.) Everyone would have understood if she had decided to take a few years off. But some artists are driven to create and some performers are driven to get back on stage. They have the urge to give more of themselves, but also perhaps a distorted dependence on cheering crowds and the grandiose but fleeting euphoria they bring. The spotlight is a dangerous place.

Of course, we hoped for and wished her all the best.

Demi Lovato took the stage at the Grammy Awards show on January 26, 2020 in a billowy white floor length gown with just a piano player accompanying her. The crowd of celebrities and VIPs at the Staples Center seemed to remove their "invisible masks" for a moment. Everybody remembered that they were just human beings, whose hearts couldn't help rejoicing just because she was alive. People were glad to see her. Millions watching the awards show were glad to see her.

She began to sing and then faltered, choking back sobs. The crowd cheered her on. She could have sung any song, if what she wanted was merely "more attention and affection" from the audience. But in this moment, Demi showed her depth as an artist. She had a new song, shaped from out of the dark and seemingly hopeless caverns-of-the-soul that she had fallen into (and that she is no doubt still trying to find her way out of). And she sang it with all of her anguish and all of her hope, in a bold, resonant voice that was impossible to ignore. People weren't expecting anything like this. They were stunned by what they heard:

I tried to talk to my piano
I tried to talk to my guitar
Talk to my imagination
Confided into alcohol
I tried and tried and tried some more
Told secrets 'til my voice was sore
Tired of empty conversation
'Cause no one hears me anymore

A hundred million stories
And a hundred million songs
I feel stupid when I sing
Nobody's listening to me
Nobody's listening

I talk to shooting stars
But they always get it wrong
I feel stupid when I pray
So, why am I praying anyway?
If nobody's listening

please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone, oh
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone

There is another verse (which I quoted earlier) but this conveys the power, the moving quality, the soul-provoking character of this song which is called "Anyone." In this song, Demi reaches back and gets hold of something deeper than her own personal struggles or the struggles of people who suffer from mental illness and/or addiction: she finds a suffering, a terrible fear, a loneliness that every human being experiences in some form or other - the agonizing question that often lies buried deep in the heart but bursts open in all the painful and incomprehensible moments of life that we all face.

A question, a lament, an angry frustration that gives way to a plea...

And suddenly, in the very expression of loneliness it becomes a dialogue - it's a desperate, begging plea but there is nothing degrading about it. It's our plea, the cry of the human heart that knows its own need. The cry of the human heart, stripped bare, uncomfortably exposed for most of us.

We want quickly to cover it up, interpret it in terms of the sick person, the desperate person, the person on drugs with a broken brain who is crying for help. But the song doesn't ask for "help." It asks for "someone." It doesn't ask for "someone to talk to" or "someone to help me" or "someone to take this problem away." It just asks for someone. Indeed, it yearns just for the be-ing of another: "is there anyone?"

Demi herself perhaps can't bear to reflect on the absolute vulnerability of this song. She points out its significance (rightly enough, in its most immediate sense) by indicating that she wrote it and initially recorded it four days before her overdose in 2018. It emerged from the particularities of her desperate state at that time.

Still, she sang it at the Grammy Awards in 2020, and the immediate and compelling character of the performance proclaimed it in the present tense, a year into her third recovery. The question doesn't go away. It doesn't get healed. It grows deeper.

"...why am I praying anyway? / If nobody's listening..."

This is a terrifying question, and something of an angry question. It doesn't assert that there is no one to hear her prayers. Rather it expresses frustration at the inaccessibility of this mysterious one who seems beyond the reach of words. This should be the point when the singer gives up. "Nobody's listening..." Instead, Demi plunges directly into this unbearable silence, with the agony of her own need.

"Anyone, please send me anyone / Lord, is there anyone? / I need someone, oh / Anyone, please send me anyone / Lord, is there anyone? / I need someone"

On the second time around with this refrain, Demi cuts loose and puts all her voice into it, wailing but without losing her pitch. She slays some high notes that take your breath away. She's putting everything she has into this plea, this empty space, this eloquent wound: "please send me anyone ... / I need someone"

Demi is not a "conventionally religious" person, but she believes in God, and she prays. (Lots of music people believe in God, regardless of how messed up they are - because music is the sound of the human heart searching for transcendence.) Right now, I'm not interested in what she thinks about this or that. I'm just hearing her voice coming right out of her heart, and ... this is a prayer. This is a prayer. It's also an impressive work of art, making something beautiful out of these experiences of suffering, and putting it out there and lifting it up as far as it can go.

But first of all, it is a prayer.

"Lord, is there anyone?"

What can I say when someone is praying such an open and ardent prayer?

I can't say anything that will "answer" the depths of the question, the need, the plea expressed in this prayer. I myself have this need. My life is shaped by this same plea.

I have been given the conviction that there is a "someone" who is the meaning of life, and who has taken up the whole of life to transform and fulfill it. But this does not change the fact that I need the presence of this "someone" in every moment of living (quite the contrary!)... I need to reach out and adhere to this "someone" - reach out even in the dark, or just cry out and let that "someone" hold me always, even when I feel like I'm free-falling through the rushing air or drowning in the overpowering waters.

Therefore, I want to join my own prayer with Demi in her prayer. This is the prayer from my own heart (which she has helped me to remember - thank you, Demi). This is the prayer from the depth of what I know to be my own need: "Lord, I need someone. I need the One who makes me to be myself, who has awakened and who shapes my heart in its fascination with the goodness and beauty of reality every day, and in its anguish when so much that I think is secure slips through my hands like sand and vanishes. Lord, I need you.

"Come near to me now. Open my eyes to see your face [because all the theology and eloquence in the world will not save me]. I need a human face that reminds me of your love, every moment, every day. You came into the world, Lord, in human flesh and blood, with a human face, and you gave yourself. You didn't give yourself to us so that you could become a myth or an ideology. You didn't come just to give us more rules.

"You came to be with us, and you called us together so that you, yourself, could accompany us on the journey that leads to you. And you told us to love one another, because we can't do this thing called life all by ourselves. We can't make this journey alone.

"We need someone. I need someone and it's too easy to forget that need during so much of my time. Please send me anyone ..."

... and I could qualify that further with all kinds of words (I have already used too many) but I'm going to leave it open. Demi is taking that risk, plunging her heart into the Mystery of God. She has great courage. I don't, but I want to follow her as much as my small heart can right now, and join her in taking that risk... What am I afraid of? "God is good. All the time." Why should I be afraid?

Demetria, let me tell you something. Often "I feel stupid when I pray." Yes, I do. You expressed it very well. There are lots of reasons why we might feel stupid when we pray or sing or do anything else.

You and I have these strangely wired brains that are firing all over the place, signals and chemicals, too much here, not enough there. We can trace the pattern of ancestors with these precious, odd brains who passed them on to us. But there's not just the hindrances of our complicated wiring; there are strengths and gifts and aptitudes that come with it too. And our brains serve our beautiful minds, our intelligence, our creativity.

I heard you say recently that you are going to "accept" your body. You're not going to pretend it's perfect, and you're going to keep fighting the urge to try to make it look "perfect" by messing around with the way it works with food. You also need to "accept" that very special part of your body that is your brain. It's not perfect, and you can't make it "feel perfect" with a sledgehammer of induced chemicals you get on the street (you know that better than I do).

Take care of your brain, Demi. It still has amazing possibilities to heal and to grow in new ways. Work with your brain.

There are fine medicinal tools that can give our brains a little help, and doctors who know how to guide us to use them very carefully. You may not be able to use those options, but I'm sure the people who are helping you with your recovery know what's good for you (and what's not good). Listen to them. You're praying for "someone" and these people are gifts - persons who are with you, who are part of the answer to that prayer.

Keep praying, especially when you feel stupid doing it. There are those throughout history who have great wisdom in the ways of prayer, and they say that - sometimes - "feeling stupid when you pray" can be a sign that you're getting closer and deeper to the One you seek.

That lovely name, "Demetria" - I don't know what your parents had in mind in giving it to you, but it's a Greek name and it links you to a very special young person from the early fourth century, Demetrios of Thessalonica. He was a warrior, a man of real courage, a defender of the poor, a martyr for his faith, and - according to the traditions of many peoples down through the centuries - a wonderworker, a worker of miracles, a source of healing. I'm just tossing that out there, because he's a real person and I have found that these people are not so far from us as we may think. There are others who can help you too - perhaps some people you have known during your own life. It's not superstition to ask for their help. It's a relationship with another person, a friendship with people who have gone before us.

We're not ever alone, really. Sometimes we feel that way because of our illness. Sometimes we feel that way because we are made for a greater love, and the whole of life is a journey to that Love. Sometimes when our hearts feel broken, it's because they are being made bigger. Or it's a combination of all these factors and others too, because God writes straight with crooked lines. Life is messy. Do your best, day by day.

And (I'll say it again) keep praying, no matter what. Never give up. This is fundamental and essential. You've got a song. Sing it.

Demi, I am not going to have to write a memorial article about you. Because you're going to make it. You may not always be able to "stay strong," but please, just "show up" every day. Show up for the people that matter, the people who have been given to you. Make your music, perform too, put on a show if you want, but don't get lost in all that. Don't disappear from the lives of the people who really love you.

This song shook me. Dang! There's a lot of pain here, beautifully expressed pain. It ends with "nobody's listening" but those don't feel like the last words, Demi. This is not the voice of somebody who is giving up. Bring whatever you're feeling to God, all the "nobody's-listening"-feelings however deep and awful. It has been a hard road. But the assertion your mind suggests to you from those feelings (that, really, "nobody's listening") - that assertion is not true. In any case, just give it all to God and let God carry it with you. Then keep going, step by step. "Please send me anyone..." That is your heart calling out to the One who made your heart. The Lord will not fail you.

Be assured also of my own poor prayers for you, and my prayers along with you, dear Demetria, as a fellow sufferer and sinner and brother. And keep the plea, the yearning of this song in your soul, and of the songs yet unknown and unheard that will be born from it.

***Everybody else, listen to her. It's been a long hard road for Demi Lovato. Stick with her through to the end of this song. <<<<--- click this link. Or if that doesn't work, click this link HERE!

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