“Hitting rock bottom” is a common phrase in addiction recovery and twelve-step programs. Addicts will include it when describing the shocking depths they descended to before they were willing to wholly commit to recovery. They lost jobs, were imprisoned, lost their families, declared bankruptcy, were excommunicated from their church, lost their physical and mental health, and perhaps even found themselves on death’s doorstep. In short, they sunk as low as they possibly could, and then, having “hit rock bottom,” they finally started to look upward.
This pattern is so common that some addicts will attest that no one will ever find real recovery until they first hit rock bottom. It’s not that everyone’s rock bottom is the same, but they claim that one must hit their personal moment of absolute devastation before they can recover. Some will even tell newcomers who haven’t suffered enough hardship from the addiction that they aren’t possibly going to get better until they first get much worse.
I absolutely disagree with such claims. I think there is a real pattern being recognized, but extrapolating that pattern to say it is an absolute rule for each and every single individual is a terrible mistake. No one should ever be told that they cannot yet begin the process of getting better.
The Power of Fear)
But as I just said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real pattern occurring here. I saw it in my initial recovery group of six members. We each had our own highs and lows, but only one of us totally stopped working the program. I have to say, from the very first meeting I had my doubts about his commitment. The most obvious difference between him and the rest of us was that he was still young, unmarried, and had relatively little to lose if he didn’t get better right away.
Well, that’s not true, we all had just as much to lose, but for some of us the losses were occurring in the present, whereas for him much of the potential losses were still in the future. Since that time, I have met other young addicts who were able to stick to a program, even without their feet being held to the fire by the threat of losing marriage and family, but they are a small demographic in our ranks.
Fear of real and dramatic loss is one of the greatest motivators for change. It isn’t the only motivator, and people can achieve recovery without it, but there will always be more scared and desperate individuals in recovery than cocky and sure.
Of course, fear does not properly account for the phenomenon of getting sober after “hitting rock bottom.” Fear is an emotion that comes from potential unpleasant outcomes. Fear is always looking forward to a future experience, usually one that may or may not even occur. But “hitting rock bottom” would mean that the thing you were afraid of has already occurred. The loss has happened, the relationship has ended, the freedom has been taken. Fear has already been replaced with reality. So what else is it about these moments that might inspire real change?
Well, these are pivot points. They are moments that force a huge reality check on us. Up until these moments we might have been in denial, finding other things to blame for our problems, but huge tragedies like these usually make us take a hard look inside. We finally see ourselves as we actually are, and having gained that perspective we get to make a choice whether we will accept what we see or not. We have a chance to say to ourselves “no, I cannot tolerate this. I cannot be this way. I will do whatever it takes to change.”
Each new low presents a new chance to have that introspection and to make that commitment to change. They are stations along the railway, and at each one we have the option to change trains if we want. There is a train station when you are caught the first time. There is a train station when you lose your marriage. There is a train station when you go to jail. One might take the first exit, another the second, another the third, and another might never get off the ride at all.
Thus, “hitting rock bottom” really means the time you reach the pivot point where you finally decide enough is enough. Each person has a different point where this occurs for them, and it is based entirely on their individual personality and choice. Many of us are too stubborn to choose to change until we have suffered great loss, but as I have said already, I do know others who made a real change far sooner on their journey. It’s entirely up to you.