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Questioning The Concept Of Rock Bottom

Most people who have even a basic knowledge of addiction and recovery are familiar with the idea of a “rock bottom.” As put forth by Alcoholic Anonymous’s establishing “Big Book” and reinforced by much of the thinking that followed, for an addict to be sufficiently motivated to recover, they must first be driven by their addiction to a point so low that they are forced to come to grips with the depths that they have fallen to and begin the work of turning their life around.  


In theory, it is only after hitting this “rock bottom” that the addict will realize that they have no choice except to get sober. This idea resonates with many people in recovery, plenty of whom can recount some devastating life event that shook up their self-conception enough to shock them into seeking treatment, or perhaps a particularly humiliating drug-related incident that they realized they would never want to relive.


Perhaps this rock-bottom incident went on to play a powerful part in their decision to finally seek help. Or, after they got sober, the memory of their pain in this rock-bottom moment or of all that they lost or nearly lost to their addiction may serve as a reminder to them of why they cannot ever go back.


But not everyone who recovered from addiction can report such a singular lightbulb moment, and not everyone who struggles with addiction waited until they were at what they felt was their lowest point possible before they decided to seek help.


AA explains such cases as being those of “high-bottomed” addicts, but it may also be necessary to question the concept of a rock bottom altogether, or at least the idea that hitting bottom is something that must occur before an addict can seek help. 


In fact, at their worst, these ideas may actually discourage recovery by perpetuating the false idea that addiction must be allowed to worsen or “run its course” before an addict has a chance of being able to improve their life. 


This in turn can encourage a dangerous passivity, as those in the midst of their addictions may take these ideas as an excuse to linger in their harmful behaviors until they actually reach such a low point.


However, this kind of thinking ignores the fact that addiction can be a progressive disease, with the longer someone spends in its depths resulting in progressive damage to their physical and mental health. 


The longer someone spends in active addiction, the harder it will be for them to reacclimate to a substance-free lifestyle, and the more connections they risk losing with their sober lifestyle and healthy self. 


Especially given how vital structure and support can be to helping former addicts find a footing in sobriety, someone who chooses to get sober before they get to the point of losing their relationship or their livelihood in a rock-bottom moment likely has a better chance at being able to recover then someone who has already done irrevocable damage to their life.


The belief in a rock bottom can also be harmful to the family and friends of addicts, who may feel like it is futile to try and convince their loved ones to get help before they have reached this “bottom” instead of trying to intervene earlier.  


In other cases, loved ones of those suffering from addiction may try a harsh “tough love” approach to push them towards this bottom. While there are some cases where such behavior might result in someone who is struggling with substances becoming desperate enough to seek change, it might also drive them further towards their addiction, which could have tragic results. 


Evidence to support the idea that falling to a rock-bottom is necessary to make one “ready” to seek recovery also includes studies that have found that people who complete court-ordered treatment have the same ultimate chance of getting sober as those who begin treatment of their own free will.

Becoming too invested in a narrative of recovery involving a lowest rock bottom from which things can only go up can also hamper an understanding of recovery as the more non-linear process that it often is in actuality.

Someone might assume that a relapse means that they haven’t yet hit bottom, or that relapsing even after a point they consider their “bottom” means that there is nothing out there that will be sufficient to scare them into a lasting sobriety. 

The truth is that relapse is an unfortunately common occurrence in recovery, but one that doesn’t mean that someone will not be able to get sober in the future, or that every slip has to mean a slide all the way back into their addiction’s darkest depths. 

And another unfortunate truth about addiction is that if you wait until you feel “ready” to recover, or until you’ve hit some imagined breaking point, you may very well end up dead before you ever reach that epiphany. 

As the character Edgar puts it in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.” And so waiting for some perfect worst to break you out of the prison of addiction will rob you of valuable time you could have spent improving your mental health, fully engaging with things and people that matter to you, and pursuing goals more meaningful than just tracking down your next hit. Your wake-up call doesn’t have to be some huge catastrophe; it could be as simple as another miserable day slogged through under the spell of your chosen substance, or maybe even as simple as this post. 

No matter where you are in your addiction, Reco Intensive can help you turn your life around. Our comprehensive treatment programs led by a professional and empathetic staff can help you process your past, however painful it might be, and our robust alumni network will lay the groundwork for your lasting sobriety. To learn more, call Reco Intensive at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future.

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