Why Hitting Rock Bottom isn't Always Necessary for Recovery

Jun 20 2017

Why Hitting Rock Bottom isn’t Always Necessary for Recovery

Hitting “rock bottom” is a byword in the addiction field. It holds a different meaning for different people, but the basic idea is that a person will reach their personal worst – and the experience will convince them to change everything about their lives.

For many people suffering from addiction, hitting rock bottom is absolutely necessary. If there is any glimmer of hope that an addict can continue using and get by, chances are they’ll continue doing it. It sometimes takes a traumatic event to drive home how destructive drug use can be. It can be the death of a friend, the loss of a job, being arrested and sent to prison, or enduring a long binge on the streets.

Whatever it is, many addicts swear that hitting rock bottom provided them with the turning point they needed to address themselves honestly, and begin to change. However, there are many people out there who don’t have to hit rock bottom to recover, or at least not in the traditional sense, and I was one of those people.

I had many opportunities to hit rock bottom. A stand-out in this category was when I was a freshman in college. I drank a bottle of liquor, crashed my car, suffered a sexual assault, and had to tell every lie in the book to get my car back from the police, and yet, I was out drinking a day or two later. What gives? You see, at that point, I felt that alcohol was getting me through all the pain in my life; I didn’t see that alcohol was causing all the pain in my life. That is a fundamental difference and it kept me drinking for a few more years.

So, if life-shattering consequences didn’t help me to recover, then what did?

I first started to surrender to the idea of long-term sobriety when I was 22 years old. I went out to a bar because of loneliness and boredom and at closing time was approached by three Arabic men who said they knew of an after-hours club. I went with them (to their apartment, the after-hours “club”), gave them a fake name, did some middle-eastern dancing and drove their Mercedes around at three o’clock in the morning looking for my apartment when it occurred to me that I could continue to do stupid things like this for the rest of my life, and really, what was the point? Nothing bad happened to me that night, certainly not a “rock bottom” event, but it was a turning point in my drinking career that eventually led to sobriety.

A person suffering from diabetes doesn’t need to amputate a foot before realizing they need treatment. There are few diseases out there in which “waiting until they hit rock bottom” is considered the preferable form of treatment. Still, many people need that moment of desperation or humiliation to shed some clarity on their addiction.

“Recovery is a choice,” says Kevin Watkins, co-founder of Another Chance Recovery in Baltimore, Md. “We can give an individual the tools to recover, and help them build a new life, but they have to choose it. They have to really want it.” Wanting it can come as the result of a “rock bottom” moment, or in just realizing they don’t want to live this way any longer.

Some people hit multiple bottoms. What they thought was the worst that could happen, was in fact just the first step on a long and treacherous descent into the depths of the human predicament. Being homeless one night and smoking crack cocaine might seem like the worst that can happen, until that night becomes a week, the smoking session becomes a month, and the whole ordeal ends in violence, someone’s death, or police involvement.

For people suffering from addiction, being able to honestly assess their situation – all of the choices they’ve made, the people they’ve associated with, and the many bridges they’ve burned – requires a moment of clarity that only rock bottom can provide. And then, transitioning from that moment of clarity to choosing recovery is just the first step.

Shedding light on the subject

In my case, I really “got it”, the clarity I needed, not when I “hit bottom”, but when I wrote a journal about every single time I remember using, from the first to the last time, the negative consequences I experienced, and how I felt about those consequences. It was akin to jamming my hand onto a hot stove burner and leaving it there until I realized something very important, that for me using equals pain.

So, it wasn’t just one earth-shattering experience that helped me to get sober, but looking at all of them at the same time, and realizing I didn’t want to use because I didn’t want any more pain.

Maybe my experience is unique, but without looking at my negative consequences collectively, I would have had many more “rock bottom” moments without getting sober at all.

Many people believe that addiction is a disease. Certainly, this is the model that is touted in AA meetings the world over. While I believe that to be true myself, it is not a disease in the conventional sense, but a disease of the mind and one of forgetting. When I go to a 12-step meeting, it reminds me that using equals pain and it convinces me to continue to stay sober. When I get away from meetings, I forget that using equals pain and I start to look at drugs and alcohol as numbing agents and something attractive to me. This is the reason for the necessity of recovering addicts to spend time together. As a group, we can help each other to remember why it is that we don’t drink anymore.

If one rock bottom, earth-shattering moment has alluded you, and yet, you still long to be sober, try adding everything together and asking yourself, “Do I want more pain?” If not, then get help.