Does “Rock Bottom” Have to Be the Starting Point for Recovery?
Conventional wisdom in addiction circles holds that a person must hit rock bottom to be ready to kick an addictive substance or behavior. But “rock bottom” differs for each person. For one, it might be their first arrest on drug-related charges. For another, it might be their 10th arrest that drives them to turn their life around.
A Family Shares Its Challenges and Triumphs
Author David Sheff, who’s written extensively about his son’s addiction to methamphetamine and the effectiveness of common approaches to recovery, frequently uses a comparison first shared by Tom McLellan, the former deputy drug czar under President Barack Obama: “Waiting for someone to hit bottom is like waiting for a diabetic to lose a leg before we treat it.”
“The reason the idea of hitting bottom became accepted as a requirement of treatment is that in the past, people who ended up in treatment had indeed hit bottom,” Sheff said in an interview with addiction and recovery news website, The Fix. “Because we didn’t talk about addiction, because there was such a stigma, people kept it hidden for as long as they could. People didn’t go to a 12-step meeting or rehab until they no longer had a choice. They hit what they felt was rock bottom. If they didn’t stop using, they’d die.”
His son Nic, who entered treatment and is now clean, has said that he needed to “hit rock bottom, like, 10 times” before he could say enough was enough, or perhaps too much. He has written that the pivotal event that it took for him to accept help came when he relapsed after writing half of his first book, then had a psychotic experience while stealing a computer out of his mother’s garage.
Can Loved Ones Hit Rock Bottom, Too?
Many who wait to hit rock bottom consider themselves to be high functioning at work, at school, and in their family and social lives. They deny having a problem, as they often present well and might have family members who enable the behaviors, unwilling to address the issues their loved one is facing.
But family members and other loved ones also have their limits, and those limits can encourage someone with a drug or alcohol addiction to seek treatment. Some might draw the line as the financial cost of supporting someone with an addiction adds up. This person might’ve robbed loved ones of a sense of trust, as well as money and possessions. Other people might cut off loved ones who have an addiction because of a sense of irreconcilable betrayal, particularly because lying is part of what fuels the addiction.
One family’s young adult daughter had begun smoking marijuana as a teenager. By the time a court ordered her to undergo treatment, she’d stolen from her parents numerous times. They weren’t willing to have her leave the house because, as the mother said, “She’s my daughter. I can’t kick her out.” It took incarceration for the daughter to take a serious look at the addiction.
The young woman eventually got clean. At the time of her death, she’d reached her 50s and had already experienced more than 25 years sobriety. She was a regular attendee at 12-step meetings, and her mother attended Al-Anon meetings to support herself as well. But she fell further than she needed to before seeking help. Entering treatment before hitting rock bottom can lessen the struggle required to get back up.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1