Of all the popular addiction catchphrases, one has completely saturated the fabric of society and taken on a life of its own. That phrase is “rock-bottom.”
When addiction professionals talk about chemical dependency, they often use the phrase “rock-bottom” as a way to say a person struggling with addiction has reached his or her lowest point. In theory, when we hit this low, we have no choice but to give in and seek treatment.
The Birth of a Slogan
Thanks in large part to the birth of reality television, addiction became a guilty form of entertainment. Millions of people eagerly tuned in to see the chaos and pain this disease brings along with it. The format was simple: follow an addict and his family members, stage an unexpected intervention, manufacture a rock-bottom moment and usher him off to treatment.
Sounds easy enough, right?
These televised rock-bottom moments seemed to work flawlessly; everyone generally got their “happily ever after.” And with that, thousands of concerned family members around the globe began thinking a rock-bottom moment – manufactured or organic – was the key to overcoming addiction.
Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding “rock-bottom,” there’s a lot more misconception than truth. Without the proper facts, that rock-bottom train of thought can actually do more harm than good. In hopes of clearing up some of these murky myths.
Myth #1: We Have to Hit Rock-Bottom to Get Sober
Many people firmly believe that for treatment to be successful addicts must want treatment. And, before we can want that treatment, we have to hit rock-bottom. That creates a general consensus that, if we haven’t “seen the light” or if we continue to relapse, then we haven’t “hit rock-bottom” yet.
Believing things have to get worse before they get better feels pretty counterintuitive.
Rock-bottom is not a prerequisite for getting sober. Addiction, like most other diseases, progresses with time. The longer the wait, the more mental and physical damage is done. A colossal fallout isn’t necessary for someone to realize they truly want and need treatment.
“Research has shown that even addicts who go into treatment only because they’ve been forced to go – perhaps by a court – have the same chance of getting and staying sober as anyone else,” explains Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).1
Myth #2: We’re Automatically Ready for Rehab Once We Hit Rock-Bottom
The basic concept of hitting bottom is that addicts will continue down a slippery slope until we have absolutely nothing left. If enough time passes, we will ultimately end up unhealthy, alone, on the verge of financial ruin and spiritually broken. Following rock-bottom thinking, we’re led to believe that we’re only ready to accept treatment at our lowest point.
We’re afraid of dealing with all the emotions we’ve suppressed with drugs and alcohol. We’re scared.
The truth is that no one looks forward to entering treatment. The important thing to remember, however, is that our resistance isn’t based on a burning desire to stay shackled to drugs … our resistance is based on fear. We’re afraid of the physical withdrawal pains. We’re afraid of dealing with all the emotions we’ve suppressed with drugs and alcohol. We’re scared.
Fear is the one thing that prevents us from seeking treatment. When we’re strong enough to look that fear in the face, we’re ready to wholeheartedly accept help.
Myth #3: Rock-Bottom Looks the Same for Everyone
Addiction changes your life in many ways. As addicts, we often find ourselves saying or doing things we never would have considered doing before drugs or alcohol came into our lives. People who once hated cheating or stealing can find themselves doing those very things in order to feed an addiction. Is that rock-bottom? It depends how you look at it.
The key to understanding the concept of rock-bottom is acknowledging that it’s a unique process. Rock-bottom means something different for everyone. For you, rock-bottom could be the loss of a marriage; for me, it might be the loss of a job.
It’s nearly impossible to know what anyone else’s rock-bottom is. There’s not a tried-and-true method of predicting what your personal rock-bottom moment will be or how it will feel. The important thing is not what rock-bottom looks like, but what it represents.
Rock-bottom means something different for everyone. For you, rock-bottom could be the loss of a marriage; for me, it might be the loss of a job.
Simply put, rock-bottom moments have the power to make someone feel so incredibly uncomfortable that they actively seek out change.
Myth #4: It’s Easy to Manufacture a Rock-Bottom
On television, creating rock-bottom moments looks so easy. The parents threaten to cut off financial support or the husband threatens to file for divorce and presto—they’ve suddenly created a catalyst for sobriety. Things generally don’t work like that in the real world.
Addiction is a disease, but it is different from anything else most families have ever dealt with. Combined with the fact that it’s extremely difficult to predict someone else’s lowest point, manufacturing a rock-bottom is a massive hurdle.
Loved ones might feel as if they’ve created a sufficient rock-bottom, only to be disappointed by the lack of results in the end. Hanging all hope for positive change and recovery on a manufactured low point is never a good plan.
Myth #5: There’s No Hope for Recovery After This Point
Another popular rock-bottom myth is that if we let the moment pass without seeking treatment, the hope of getting sober is all but gone. For those on the outside looking in, this statement can feel like it holds truth … at least to some degree.
In theory, rock-bottom is an event that sparks change. Some people reach their bottom quickly and seize the opportunity to ask for help; others never seem to hit rock-bottom at all. The thing to remember, however, is that there’s always hope.
If an addict goes through rehab and relapses a couple months afterward, that doesn’t make him a lost cause … he needs to try something different.
Recovery isn’t on a time schedule and there’s never a point of no return. We live in a time when there are more recovery tools and therapy options available to us than ever before.2 Cutting-edge research in this field is conducted on a daily basis.3 If an addict goes through rehab and relapses a couple months afterward, that doesn’t make him a lost cause. It just means he needs to try something different.
Seeking out rehab programs that appeal to the individual is a setup for success. Maybe medication-assisted treatment would work better for an individual who has relapsed multiple times; maybe adding in holistic treatments such as acupuncture, drumming circles or pet therapy are the keys to sobriety.4 No matter when the lowest-of-lows occurs, there’s never a reason to give up.
Myth #6: There’s No Relapsing After Hitting Rock-Bottom
Surviving rock-bottom moments don’t make an addict immune to the temptations and pitfalls of the disease. Many people complete addiction treatment programs, only to relapse within hours of leaving. They mistakenly place themselves in situations that are just too tempting, and the addiction wins out in the end.
Making it through rehab successfully does not grant us superpowers. Recovering alcoholics will never be “safe” in a bar surrounded by shots of Jack Daniels or cold mugs of Budweiser.
Making it through rehab successfully does not grant us superpowers. Recovering alcoholics will never be “safe” in a bar surrounded by shots of Jack Daniels or cold mugs of Budweiser. Recovering heroin addicts will never be “immune” to the lure of the drug. We have to accept these things and try not to place unnecessary temptations in our paths.
There will be hurdles and bumps along the way, but staying motivated and consistent is important. Even in the face of a relapse, treatment offers benefits. Once those recovery skills become automatic learned responses, the motivation to stay sober returns.
“You want people self-motivated to be in treatment,” says psychologist Michael Pantalon. “But you can work on that once you get them in.”
Myth #7: It’s Best to Wait for Rock-Bottom Before Seeking Treatment
When people spend years addicted to drugs or alcohol, the situation can feel consumingly dark and hopeless. Many are waiting for that “aha” moment when something clicks and sends them barreling toward sobriety. They’re waiting for rock-bottom … at least that’s what they think.
The truth is that not everyone has a bottom to hit. This rock-bottom event has built up such a status that many addicts feel like they have to wait for it to happen before they seek out help. Rock-bottom has become a mythical place where we finally admit we can no longer manage our chaotic lives; it’s supposed to be a pivotal moment in which we instinctively know that things could never get worse. The problem, however, is that every situation could always be worse.
To be blunt, the only true rock-bottom is death. It’s the only scenario in which we have no control or opportunity to turn things around. And waiting around for death is no life at all.
For those who want help, for those who want change, it’s time to reach out and take it. You don’t have to wait for a sign; you deserve a life in recovery.
Go after it like your life depends on it … because it does.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Director’s Page.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).
- Winkelman, M. (2003). Complementary Therapy for Addiction: “Drumming Out Drugs”. American Journal of Public Health, 93(4), 647-651.