MYTH : You have to hit rock bottom before you get sober

Hitting rock bottom before getting sober

He won’t get help until he hits rock bottom. She’s hit rock bottom, so maybe now she’ll get sober. You hear these comments often from either family members or addicts themselves. Why do we think that only when a person living with an active addiction “hits rock bottom”, they’ll finally “see the light” and get the help they need?

What does it mean to “hit rock bottom”, and is it the turning point for people living with an addiction?

What does “hitting rock bottom” mean?

Hitting rock bottom means getting to a point where things cannot get worse. It means the person has reached a low end in their life and can’t go any lower. At “rock bottom”, you’ve lost all sense of control and all sense of hope.

The expression – to hit rock bottom – was made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a way of describing the point an addict has reached where “the person can go no lower, there is no lower place to fall”.

The belief is that the “rock bottom” landing is so painful and jarring that it should motivate a person to change. In theory, when we hit this lowest point, we have no choice but to give in and seek treatment. Tragically, it often is not the most powerful motivator.

What’s wrong with waiting to “hit rock bottom”?

“Hitting rock bottom” is one of the biggest misnomers that circle people with substance use disorder. Rock-bottom thinking can be harmful because it reinforces that we’re only ready to accept treatment at our lowest point.

Rock-bottom thinking also reinforces the stereotype of addicts; that they’re destined to destroy their life, get arrested, hurt someone badly or end up in the gutter, homeless, broken and unwanted. Unwittingly, the stereotype of an addict at “rock bottom” may be what prevents people from seeking help earlier. This problem is particularly true for high-functioning addicts.

Someone living with an active addiction may not believe they need help because they haven’t hit rock bottom, haven’t overdosed, haven’t had a serious accident or been arrested and, for the most part, are getting away with their addiction because they can function more-or-less as normal.

The concept is also behind why many family members, friends and colleagues enable a person’s addiction because they don’t see what is happening as “bad enough” to warrant treatment. Perversely, it often takes an overdose, tragic accident, or financial ruin before putting pressure on a loved one to rehab.

Is rock bottom really the bottom

Is rock bottom really the bottom?

Many addicts hit rock bottom many times and don’t get sober. And for many people with chronic addiction, the life-threatening thing that happens to them isn’t always the moment they give themselves up to sobriety.

Family members are often disappointed and frustrated that a rock-bottom moment like an overdose or losing their marriage or job wasn’t enough to force their loved one into an addiction treatment programme. Or it wasn’t enough to prevent them from relapsing after coming out of rehab.

Why “rock bottom” is a myth

A big part of this disappointment and frustration – even confusion – stems from not understanding that addiction is a chronic disease. Long-term abuse of drugs and alcohol changes how your brain works which affects how you behave. Addiction is more complicated than the emotional drive to save yourself and get better, even at rock bottom.

Drugs and alcohol abuse alter the way nerve cells typically send, receive, and process information. They do this in four stages:

  1. Imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers
  2. Over-stimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain
  3. Flooding the brain with excess chemicals
  4. Binding to receptors in the brain

The truth is that rock bottom is a fluid concept when dealing with a disease like addiction. Rock bottom means something different to everyone, and not everyone has a bottom to hit. What an outsider sees as rock bottom may not be the lowest point that person can go.

The only rock bottom that is guaranteed is death. But this “rock bottom” should never be an option. The earlier you get help for an addiction, the better your chance of recovery.

Why rock-bottom is dangerous

Peg O’Connor (PhD) writes on the subject of “hitting rock bottom” in her blog, Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken. She says, “I worry that people assume that hitting this rock bottom is the only way that people will ever attempt to make significant changes. There’s a belief that hitting this bottom will necessarily prompt a change. This way of thinking may perversely and ironically keep a person from seeking help earlier, when the problem may not be as serious.”

Peg O’Connor prefers the concept of ‘misery threshold’ to rock-bottom thinking. The idea was developed by philosopher/psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

O’Connor explains that a misery threshold is akin to a physical pain threshold.

“Each person has a physical pain threshold; some will pop painkillers at the slightest ache while others grit their teeth and refuse any medicine, even when in excruciating pain. The same holds for misery, which is why there may not be a “rock bottom” for some addicts.”

Mike Caro, the ‘mad genius of poker’, refers to the Threshold of Misery in his book University of Poker, Gaming and Life Strategy. In the book, Caro draws a parallel between playing poker and playing at life.

The Caro Threshold of Misery is that point:

“when things have become so bad; you cease to care when they get worse; how many times have things gotten so messed up for you that it simply doesn’t matter anymore?”

“where once we lose a certain amount of money, and the additional losses are easier to accept. Thus, we continue to fail.”

The same holds for drug or alcohol addiction. When we apply Caro’s Threshold of Misery to addiction, “you stop feeling any more pain when you move beyond the maximum you expected you could lose. You’re in danger of damaging yourself further by making weak decisions.”

Getting help for addiction

Get help for addiction sooner rather than later

Advocates of the “Misery Threshold” recommend we strive to identify where our misery thresholds are in all we do and make sure we do not cross them.”  If it becomes apparent that we are heading to or crossing our misery threshold, we should backtrack or stop ourselves.”

That’s easier said than done because addiction is a complex disease. However, addiction is a treatable disease. With the right tools and addiction treatment programme, there is hope that you can pull yourself back from your misery threshold and avoid the inevitable rock bottom, wherever that may be for you.

We’re here to help.

Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained addiction professionals at Centres for Health & Healing in Ontario, Canada.

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