Demi Lovato Shows That Trauma Responses Are Not All The Same

Em Unravelling
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Demi Lovato — former child actress, teen star, drug addict, and now a recovering alcoholic — revealed recently in her YouTube docuseries (“Dancing with the Devil”) that after her near-fatal overdose in 2018, after recovering and returning to her life, she got back in touch with the dealer who had sold her the drugs that night.

It’s a shocking revelation, and more so because she explains that he had not only sold her the drugs but also taken advantage of her sexually on the night of her overdose, when she had been incapacitated and unable to resist.

And yet after she had recovered (inasmuch as she will ever recover: she had several strokes and was minutes from death, and the event damaged her health permanently) Lovato reached out again to the dealer who had been with her the night that it happened. Not just for more heroin, although she did get high again, but to instigate sexual contact with him.

“I wanted to rewrite his choice of violating me. I wanted it now to be my choice.” — Demi Lovato

It seems like a shocking statement, doesn’t it? So, too, does the fact that Lovato has been upfront in the same docuseries about the fact she maintained contact, and indeed pursued contact, with the man who raped her when she was a teenager and took her virginity through sexual assault.

I heard her tell her story, though, and I understood where she was coming from. I have not experienced rape or sexual abuse in the way that Demi has. I have, however, been abused both physically and verbally by men I was in relationships with.

And the feeling that drove Lovato to make contact again — that desperate, boiling sense of injustice, the inability to feel safe in my own skin, the overwhelming notion that instigating a connection on my terms would somehow right the horrible wrong that had been done to me — that feeling is one I could remember very well. Lovato’s revelation made sense to me.

What also made a horrible sense to me was the fact that immediately, Lovato would be accused by some people of lying about the assault in the first place or of exaggerating its extent.

Surely, they’d argue, if she was really afraid of her assailant — if he’d really assaulted her — she couldn’t bear ever to see him again, let alone to have sex with him?

Demi’s trauma response is not uncommon

Rape Trauma Syndrome is a real, researched, and entirely human reaction to sexual assault. No one person’s reaction to sexual assault will be the same as another, and the recovery process is rarely linear.

In the trial of Harvey Weinstein, the forensic psychiatrist Barbara Ziv referred to the syndrome, and added that abused women “almost always” go back to their abuser and that maintaining contact is “almost the norm”. She made these comments in an attempt to devalue the evidence of Weinstein’s legal team that most of his victims remained on friendly terms with him after being assaulted by him.

Ziv’s deep research into the topic is designed to dismantle the “rape myths”, which are so entrenched and so damaging to women. And one such rape myth is that a woman would never willingly seek out contact again with a man who abused her.

The reasons for this reaching out, Ziv said, are complex and they’re based on trauma response. Sometimes there’s a misplaced sense of wanting life to go on exactly as it was before, of forgetting the assault ever happened, and reconnecting with the abuser on different terms or having consensual sex with them can feel like a shortcut to such a position.

Sometimes women just cannot believe what has happened to them and are in denial about it. And sometimes, as Lovato said, there’s a conscious decision to make contact and try to reclaim some control.

This trauma response generally does not help the trauma victim

Lovato herself said, in the docuseries, that her reconnection with her abuser did not bring her any kind of healing. She recognizes that both times she made contact with someone who had assaulted her, it was a “textbook trauma response” and she says she punished herself for years.

“It didn’t fix anything, it didn’t take anything away, it just made me feel worse but that for some reason was my way of taking the power back. All it did was bring me back to my knees begging to God for help.” — Demi Lovato

One damaging side-effect of attempting this kind of reconnection is that after doing so, a victim may feel even less able to report the initial assault, believing that they are less likely to be heard or believed after having reconnected with the person who abused them.

Another is that maintaining contact with an abuser prolongs the memories of the abuse, making it harder and harder to begin a recovery process. And in some cases the abuser may use the victim’s vulnerability to their advantage, prolonging contact to suit their own agenda. This is something the prosecution mentioned specifically in Weinstein’s trial, describing his maintained contact with his victims as the actions of a predator.

Yet it can be healing just to know it’s “normal”

Demi Lovato is clearly someone who has had to recover from a lot of damage and trauma, a child star who paid a high price for early fame and fortune. But the fact that she is talking openly about what happened to her, and the fact that she’s discussing freely the fact that she made what can appear to be such bafflingly self-destructive choices, is — I think — encouraging.

Lovato says that if she could speak now to her younger, suffering self, she would say:

“When the time is right, and when you feel ready, you can talk about it — and you’re going to heal from it. You’re going to feel so much more empowered. You’ll be free of the shame. It’ll be an up-and-down journey, but when you do finally decide to confront that [trauma] and do the work around it — really do the work around it — it’s so rewarding and freeing. I want not just my 15-year-old self to hear that, but anyone else who’s been abused.”

And that’s the thing: other people who have been abused will hear it.

Lovato has a platform, and a lot of people want to hear what she has to say. In her forthright honesty (which I do think takes bravery because it doesn’t always paint her in a media-friendly or appealing light), there’s likely to be healing for other people. And she openly states that she is finding the experience healing for herself.

Even though I am at peace with a lot of the decisions I made when I was younger, when I learned in therapy afterward that my response to abuse was “normal” it still felt very validating and helped me begin healing from a place of believing myself to be a “true” victim.

I hope that this is the experience of anyone else who has questioned their own response to trauma and finds some answers or some recognition in the story Lovato tells of her life so far.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.


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