In the context of alcohol and drug addiction, people often think they have reached ‘rock bottom’, but they probably haven’t. Because absolute rock bottom is death. Before death there are various levels of despair, degradation and general disaster. We don’t have to visit them all, but some do.
Rock bottom presents the person who abuses alcohol or drugs or haes already developed a chemical dependency with the question: Shall I continue what I’m doing or am I going to reach out for support to do things differently? When one is truly sick of being sick, then enough is enough and they make the decision to change.
Rock Bottom or Turning Point?
So, the real significance of rock bottom is that, when one feels they can sink no further, then the only way is to bounce back up. To be at this highly painful point is to be on the cusp of true change, because to start moving up from rock bottom means that the person has finally faced and overcome the denial of their substance or behavioural addiction.
If viewed honestly, this can be a truly positive moment of insight and change, a turning point in recovery. Without this moment of insight, rock bottom will instead remain a swamp, a ‘slough of despond’ in which the person remains trapped.
Rock Bottom – Degrees of Severity
It is a mistake to believe that everyone has to experience the same degree of this. We are all different and denial comes in many degrees of severity. For some people, the threat of divorce may be enough to trigger behavioural change, for others it may be the threat of a liver transplant. It may depend on the perception of each consequence and the pain it gives.
“We change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.” (Dr Henry Cloud, author of ‘Boundaries’)
Tough Love vs Support
Enabling an addicted person to continue their active addiction is almost always going to be unhelpful, hence the term ‘tough love’, which in practice means caring enough about the person to refuse to help them meet their short term needs for the substance they crave (e.g: lending money).
Some families struggle with this painful reality – the act of saying ‘no’ can trigger very adverse reactions in an addicted person.
However, this does not mean that families have to stand back and allow every adverse consequence to happen from the word go. Sometimes, family pressure or a well-managed family intervention can be effective in helping the person dealing with addiction problems to face reality.
It is however, important for family members not to feel responsible for a loved one’s recovery, becoming involved to the point of co-dependence.
It may sometimes be that after trying their best to help, a family has to stand back and allow the sufferer to experience ‘rock bottom’ with highly painful consequences (and indeed not doing so will often only prolong the agony).
But the situation needs to be handled with great care and advice sought wherever possible. Organisations such as Families Anonymous and Al-Anon provide support in these circumstances and are highly recommended.
Article by therapist By therapist Chris Burn
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | February 25, 2020