Jessica Lynn Gimeno works for The Balanced Mind Foundation. She is the author and host of Flipswitch, the award-winning weekly podcast & blog that helps teens and 20-somethings understand depression and bipolar disorder… (http://www.thebalancedmind.org/flipswitch/podcast). In her free time, Jessica also runs a blog called Fashionably ill: The Cancer & Autoimmune Girl’s Stylist at http://jessicagimeno.com. Jessica graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with two majors.
Disney star and pop sensation, Demi Lovato, was the first celebrity to publicly support Catherine Zeta-Jones when Zeta-Jones' publicist came out on April 13, 2011 and said the star was seeking treatment for Bipolar II. Because Demi had not revealed her bipolar diagnosis yet, I found it strange given the age gap between the two stars that Demi was the first celebrity to publicly applaud Zeta-Jones. I know Demi hangs out with fellow Disney Star, Selena Gomez and Selena's boyfriend, teen sensation Justin Bieber. But I didn't exactly picture teenage Demi spending her weekends riding horseback with (41-year old) Zeta-Jones and (66-year old) husband Michael Douglas (or whatever it is the couple does for fun). But mental illness doesn't discriminate-it strikes the everyday person and the famous person and as we see in Demi's case, it also strikes the young. Despite her youth, Demi's approach towards treating bipolar shows wisdom beyond her eighteen years. The lessons Demi shows us can be applied outside of recording studios––we can use them online, at school, at home, at work––basically in our everyday lives. As some of us know all too well, mental illness isn't just for pop stars. But, thankfully, neither is mental wellness.
But first–Very quickly–for people unfamiliar with Demi's work, I will break it down. I confess that I myself didn't fully comprehend how big the 18-year old really is until the story of her bipolar diagnosis broke on April 20, 2011. However, even if she did not have bipolar, the sheer magnitude of her accomplishments is mind-blowing. Check it out:
–Demi had 2 albums that debuted at #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts.
–Demi had her own TV show, Sonny with a Chance, on the Disney Channel.
–Demi was touring the world with the Jonas Brothers.
–Oh, and did I forget to mention she dated Joe Jonas for three years?
(For those of you who don't speak Teen Beat, Let me translate: If this were 1964, this would be like dating a Beatle! If this were 1990, this would be like dating a New Kid on the Block! Dating a Jonas Brother = Dating Teen Royalty.)
Demi began her career as a child appearing on Barney & Friends. As a teenager, in 2008, at the tender age of 15, she was catapulted into stardom after she starred in the hugely successful Disney movie Camp Rock alongside the Jonas Brothers. As previously mentioned, the teenager also headlined her own Disney TV show, Sonny with a Chance. Aside from brief speculation about scars on her wrists (Demi used to cut herself) revealed in October 2008 pictures, Demi never received much bad press, which is remarkable in our TMZ-blog-all-about-it-is-nothing-scared-anymore?-world. Basically, she was not a starlet known for spoiled or wild behavior. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Demi shocked people when she hit a backup dancer in May 2010 while on tour. Shortly afterwards, her family scheduled an intervention. Then, Demi stopped touring and filming her show. In October 2010, she entered treatment at the Timberline Knolls treatment center near Chicago. While she was being treated for eating disorders and cutting, she found out she has bipolar disorder. The star ended her stay at the center in January 2011. In People magazine dated May 2, 2011, Demi says, "No matter how tough it gets, I'm determined to fight this…I've never been more peaceful or happy in my life. What's important is to help others get to this place."
Here are 4 Life Lessons I learned from observing Demi Lovato:
1. Put health first. I know lots of adults–especially parents who tell us to put our health first while taking on a million commitments themselves (the PTA, church, carpools, hosting Thanksgiving dinner, late work hours, spearheading new projects at work, etc). It's easy to pay lipservice to this but it's hard for people to walk away from commitments and actually put health first. Demi has decided to resume her music career but stop filming her popular TV show because her health is more important to her. In her People interview, she said, "It made sense for me to leave the show to focus on my music…In the studio…all of my confidence is in my voice. I don't know if I could handle being in front of a camera with my body right now." What's that you say, you're not sure how this applies to you because you don't have your own TV show? Well, it actually applies to all of us. Demi admits to saying yes to huge workloads when she was manic. We can all moderate our level of commitment. For example, I've known AP students with mood disorders who had to learn to spread out their AP classes through their junior and senior years instead of taking 7 AP classes in one year. How about being involved in 2 extracurricular activities instead of 3 activities? If you have bipolar, don't say yes to every commitment when you're manic. It's no secret that stress is a trigger for depression or that there are only 24 hours in a day, and yet sometimes it's hard to say no. But if Demi Lovato can walk away from a hit show, surely, each of us can learn to say no and put health first.
2. Make Wise Choices Daily because Wellness is a Daily Battle. In People magazine, Demi said 'I'm fighting everyday to be healthy." Her management of her eating and bipolar disorders didn't end when she left the treatment center. She knows that she has to make choices everyday to be healthy. Demi's scars on her wrists have healed. Where those scars once were, she now has tattoos (which she revealed to Robin Roberts in her 20/20 interview) that say "Stay Strong." Routine helps. One of the things Demi does to monitor herself and her eating disorder is eat breakfast with her father everyday and have dinner with friends on a regular basis. For those of us with clinical depression or bipolar, we can commit to take our medications (if we've been prescribed meds) daily and see our therapists on a regular basis–not just sporadically at times when things get overwhelming. As with most illnesses–both mental and physical–successfully fighting a mood disorder is something that has to be done everyday through wise choices.
3. Don't listen to the Critics. There will always be critics. Demi reveals that other children bullied her in elementary school and called her fat. As you can see in her photos, she's obviously thin. Demi says no one at Disney or her TV show ever told her to lose weight–they never put any pressure on her. She does admit that she would look at blogs online and read nasty comments. (One time when I was watching Beyonce do the Single Ladies dance on YouTube, I read a comment from someone who actually called Beyonce fat! Another viewer responded, "If that's fat, I want to be fat." The point is: No one can please everyone. You and I shouldn't waste our energy trying to find complete acceptance.) Even for non-celebs, it's very easy to find someone who doesn't like you–it's much easier to find someone willing to criticize your personality, appearance, whatever, than it is to rebuild deflated self-esteem. How can we avoid the critics in a world where being called somebody's "friend" is just one click away? Well, don't spend time with people who gossip too much–avoid classmates who make lots of unnecessary negative comments about people. You know who I'm talking about. Avoid online chatting and physically hanging out with people you can't trust. People like that can chip away at your self-esteem. Don't make your whole world accessible online either–I know it's hard to comprehend in a Facebook/Twitter world, but it's not necessary to put up the pictures of every minor event and major milestone of your life online.
4. Build Your Support Network. Demi admitted that she was manic when she hit her backup dancer but she had no idea she had bipolar at the time. In depression or mania, we can all do things we regret. We should follow Demi's example and apologize to the people we hurt. In multiple interviews, I've heard her take full responsibility. First, own up to mistakes while admitting you have a mood disorder. Then, reach out to the right people. If you have 400 "friends" on Facebook, I'm guessing that not all of those 400 people would be ideal confidantes in dealing with something like depression or bipolar disorder. In her People interview, Demi discussed her joyful reconnection with Selena Gomez who reached out to her the first week Demi was in treatment. Follow Demi's example; Reach out to people you can trust in your family and other social circles.
To conclude, Demi's discerning attitude and candor in talking about bipolar disorder are refreshing. Bipolar or not, young or not-that-young-anymore, there are practical applications for each of us if we just think about her example and take her lessons beyond the Disney parking lot and into our homes.
-Jessica Lynn Gimeno