03/07/2012 09:55 pm ET Updated May 07, 2012

Demi Lovato's Long Road to Recovery

I didn't expect much from the MTV special Demi Lovato: Stay Strong, figuring it would be a lot of spin about the former Disney star's rehab stint -- a generic, PR-laced message of salvation with no real details about what the 19-year-old is truly like.

I'm happy to be proven wrong. For a star with a primarily tween and teen audience, the show is shockingly raw. Cameras followed Lovato as she toured, post-rehab, to promote her album Unbroken last year, and she speaks openly about her struggles with bulimia and cutting. In one awkward scene she allows cameras to follow her home for her first Thanksgiving after treatment, an environment loaded with triggers for anyone with food issues.

But the moment that hit hardest is when Lovato admits that she can't say she hasn't made herself throw up since leaving treatment, and that she can't deny self-harming since then, either. "People think that you go into rehab and come out fixed," she told me in a phone interview. "That's not it. You have to work every day, you have to fight every day. It's really important to get the message out there that if you do slip up, it's OK, because you are human. Just try, and try harder next time."

This sort of candidness about relapse helps set realistic expectations about recovery, and it's a stance that you don't often hear on the celebrity rehab comeback trail. What makes it so important here is Lovato's reach. We're talking about a young woman with almost 6 million ardent Twitter followers, many of whom are teenage girls struggling with body issues similar to hers. "I definitely had a lot of pressure to look perfect and be perfect," she says in the documentary, admitting that it's a position she didn't want to be in. She's still not entirely comfortable with the responsibility, but she accepts it and wisely uses it to aid in her own healing process. In one pivotal moment, a young girl with cancer arrives at a concert, and upon meeting Lovato, she states that the singer's ability to be open about her troubles enabled her to find the strength to leave the house without a wig to hide her baldness. The cancer survivor's bravery, in turn, inspires Lovato to be stronger, and while it's clear that the whole scene is basically the director's money shot, you're made of stone if you don't tear up just a little.