What It Means to Hit Rock Bottom

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Alcoholics will almost always reach rock bottom after reaching the bottom of the bottle. Rarely does it happen during our dry periods. (Morrison/Shutterstock)
Alcoholics will almost always reach rock bottom after reaching the bottom of the bottle. Rarely does it happen during our dry periods. (Morrison/Shutterstock)

There is a pervading theory in the world of addiction recovery that addicts and alcoholics must hit “rock bottom” if they are ever to accept the fact that failure to control their substance abuse has made their lives unmanageable. Due to the very nature of the disease, it is quite difficult for addicts to accept their own powerlessness if they have not yet suffered any consequences. There is no use telling them that they are in denial, because the evidence appears to be in their favor. Until they hit rock bottom, they will likely see no reason to discontinue their use.

So what is rock bottom, anyway? Simply put, it is the point at which the addict has lost (or is about to lose) something or someone they cannot bear to be without. It may seem as if this should happen early in the addict’s downward spiral of addiction, but this is not always the case. High-functioning alcoholics generally take much longer to hit bottom than those with much lower levels of tolerance, and there are others still who may never hit rock bottom due to either an inability or flat-out refusal to be honest with themselves.

Many, however, will eventually reach a point at which they can no longer deny the consequences of their addiction and will see the value in seeking treatment. As for the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back, the answer may be slightly different for every addict or alcoholic depending upon their own personal brand of morals, values and ethics. We may, however, identify a few rough categories which cover some of the most common tipping points that will inevitably convince many addicts and alcoholics of the need to seek help.

Mounting Legal Issues

Lady Justice sometimes forces us into treatment against our own wills, but this is often the jolt we need to wake us up. (ER_09/Shutterstock)
Lady Justice sometimes forces us into treatment against our own wills, but this is often the jolt we need to wake us up. (ER_09/Shutterstock)

There is no shortage of patients who enter treatment for alcoholism and addiction under court order to do so. Quite often, the case is that they have racked up too many DUIs. This, however, is not always the situation. Many addicts and alcoholics have committed far graver infractions, either while under the influence or for the sole purpose of attaining their drug of choice. Those who have always pictured themselves as law-abiding citizens may find themselves at rock bottom from the sheer threat of jail or other legal sanctions if they do not enter treatment and learn how to stay sober.

We have previously covered the many legal issues faced by addicts and the ways in which we attempt to help them through our court liaison services, but some of these issues bear repeating. If an addict or alcoholic is to truly hit rock bottom, then the infraction they have committed will often be rather severe. For instance, many have not only committed DUIs but have also been in terrible accidents. In many cases, such individuals are faced with the gravity of knowing that they may have taken a life. In even worse cases, this is more than a hypothetical fear but instead a grim reality.

But a life does not have to be taken in order for an addict to hit rock bottom. We have known at least one addict who broke into two houses after drinking to the point of blackout. We have known yet another who was beaten with a baseball bat by a frightened homeowner after breaking into a house and falling asleep on the couch. Others have gotten into bar fights, or committed other violent crimes—sometimes against their own family members. Some addicts, while seeking money to purchase their drug of choice, have committed robberies or even resorted to prostitution.

Not every addict or alcoholic who commits a crime is given the option of entering treatment. Some receive jail time, with no alternatives on the table. Many cities now have programs (such as Operation HOPE in Scarborough, ME) to ensure that addicts with legal troubles receive the help they need. But many find rock bottom after undergoing the agony of detoxification and withdrawal during a long stay in a jail cell.

Most addicts who truly understand the seriousness of their situation will make the most of their opportunity to stay sober, while others will unfortunately use treatment as little more than a means to escape harsher punishment. Some of the most successful patients are medical professionals who have been placed on monitoring programs after committing the highly illegal crime of diverting drugs from their place of employment. But it is not only medical professionals who are monitored. Some addicts and alcoholics have been placed on probation, and must report for regular drug screens. This type of monitoring is not necessary to sobriety if the addict has truly hit rock bottom, but it can certainly help.

Failure at Work or School

Our addictions may cause trouble at work, even to the point that we are no longer able to provide ourselves with shelter. (Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock)
Our addictions may cause trouble at work, even to the point that we are no longer able to provide ourselves with shelter. (Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock)

One of the major signs of addiction is that the addict will often begin to struggle at work or school. This may occur at a gradual pace, so it may be quite some time before the addict suffers enough consequences to hit rock bottom. The first effects may simply be a slight loss of efficiency or a drop in punctuality as the addict or alcoholic suffers the impact of increasingly long-lasting hangovers. But as time wears on, it may not be long before the addict or alcoholic is attending work or school while intoxicated. At this point, the consequences may become much, much worse.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has actually compiled a list of the most frequent consequences arising from the use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace. On the lower end of the scale are mere disciplinary issues and lower morale. On the other end of the scale, however, are workplace thefts and work-related injuries. In some cases, substance-related accidents in the workplace have even resulted in death.

While not every consequence listed by the NCADD’s list of substance-related issues in the workplace will apply to students, many of them will. Students may not be as frequently subjected to fatal accidents, but they are just as likely to suffer consequences such as tardiness and loss of efficiency. And as they continue to favor drinking and drug abuse over homework and studying, they may resort to plagiarism or other forms of cheating that could result in major disciplinary actions.

Whether we are talking about the workplace or the classroom, the end result of these consequences will generally be the same. After long enough, the addict or alcoholic may lose their job or find themselves facing expulsion from school. This can result in rock bottom at its worst, as all hopes for the future are dashed. In a few cases, the addict or alcoholic may be fortunate enough to have an employer who is willing to send them to treatment on leave, so that they may return and keep their job with the stipulation that they do not use again.

But many will not be given this opportunity. Some will experience such major financial issues that they may find themselves on the streets. Sadly, there are many who will embrace this new, tragic lifestyle. Others, however, will realize the extent of the pain that addiction has caused them and will seek treatment.

This is especially true of those upon whom others are dependent. One may already find themselves at rock bottom after the loss of a job, but the gravity of the situation will be quite punctuated when the addict or alcoholic in question is responsible for supporting their family. Because as much pain as we may cause ourselves when we fail to become successful, the harm we cause others may cause an onset of guilt and shame so deep that no amount of substance abuse will allow us to escape it.

Loss of Friends and Family

We may hit rock bottom after the loss of somebody important to us, such as cases of divorce or loss of custody. (Twin Design/Shutterstock)
We may hit rock bottom after the loss of somebody important to us, such as cases of divorce or loss of custody. (Twin Design/Shutterstock)

Those who are not sent to treatment by judges and employers will sometimes be sent by their families. This often occurs following a successful intervention, during which the family may pose an ultimatum that the addict either seek treatment or else suffer consequences such as divorce or loss of custody. In the case of younger patients, the family may even threaten to remove them from the household if they do not seek the help they need to begin recovering from their addiction.

It isn’t surprising that many of us hit rock bottom when such an ultimatum is presented to us. Some younger patients may have already been cut off from their parents financially, but the concept of losing them entirely is too much to bear. Even those of us who have had numerous screaming matches with our loved ones over our addictions may not have been fully aware of the pain we were causing them until we realized that they were ready to cut ties entirely. At this point, it is nearly impossible to deny that a change must be made. Not just for the sake of those we no longer wish to harm, but for the sake of ourselves so that we will not have to be alone.

Losing a relationship can be a major catalyst in hitting rock bottom, but it doesn’t always have to be a spouse or immediate family member. In fact, since addiction is often a family disease, it might take the loss of an altogether different relationship to do the trick. Even a bad break-up will be enough in some cases. Then, there are others who may realize that they have been pushing their friends away through their use of drugs and alcohol. As more and more people abandon us due to their sheer inability to watch us continuously hurt ourselves, our loneliness will grow and we may realize that we can no longer sustain our self-destructive way of life.

We may lose several relationships over the course of our addiction, but there is usually a friend or family member without whom we cannot imagine life continuing. Those of us who have such a person in our lives are truly blessed, for they will enable us to see the truth about ourselves and the harm that we have done through our actions. And while self-pity is often one of our greatest character defects, in this case it just may be enough to steer us in the right direction. Confronted with the choices of loneliness or sobriety, there is only one right decision.

Severe Health Problems

If none of the circumstances above have swayed us, the threat of liver damage or other terminal consequences may be the final straw. (bluebay/Shutterstock)
If none of the circumstances above have swayed us, the threat of liver damage or other terminal consequences may be the final straw. (bluebay/Shutterstock)

While all of the above catalysts have been primarily outside influences, we may hit rock bottom as a result of something much more personal: a threat to our very lives. Drinking and drug abuse can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds, and the results can sometimes be fatal. And while we might hit rock bottom as a result of seeing a friend or family member lose their life to the disease, we are far more likely to reach our tipping point when it is our own well-being that has been threatened.

The disease model of addiction is partly based on the notion that frequent substance abuse alters our brain chemistry. This is particularly devastating when considering the fact that many addicts and alcoholics suffer from any one of numerous co-occurring disorders that put them at increased risk of mental instability. Even so, our mental defects may not be enough for us to hit rock bottom. If anything, they may be partially responsible for our failure to do so. This being the case, it will often take something more physical in order for us to realize the extent of the damage that our addictions have done to us.

There is certainly no shortage of physical ailments that may be suffered as a result of our addictions. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists several physical consequences of substance abuse, such as liver damage, kidney damage, heart disease, stroke, respiratory effects, and even various types of cancer. For those who have shared needles, there is also a high risk of contracting HIV. And since we tend to lack inhibitions while under the influence, HIV may be contracted in other ways as well. Some of these issues, such as cancer and heart disease, may also result from drinking alcohol.

Note that many of the above conditions are potentially fatal. If a person does not hit rock bottom as a result of the news that they will die if they continue to pursue their addictions, then there may be little hope for them. Fortunately, these sorts of medical issues are often enough to convince the addict that a change is needed. Because the point at which we find ourselves drinking to die is the point at which we have hit rock bottom in more than one sense. It is the point at which we absolutely must turn things around. If we don’t, then we just might lose literally everything that is important to us.

And in Some Rare Cases….

It may not happen all too often, but there are those who see that they are on the precipice of disaster, and pull themselves up before it is too late. (Manuel Fernandes/Shutterstock)
It may not happen all too often, but there are those who see that they are on the precipice of disaster, and pull themselves up before it is too late. (Manuel Fernandes/Shutterstock)

Most people enter treatment not as a result of seeing the light, but of feeling the heat. In some cases, however, an addict or alcoholic may truly come to realize on their own that their addiction has done them no good. This is not completely the same as hitting rock bottom, but it is still important.

Sometimes, this particular form of rock bottom may result from a mixture of the above catalysts. Maybe the addict will not have had any severe legal consequences, and maybe they will not have done anything to cause significant harm to their family. But after a few run-ins with the law and a few arguments with a loved one, they may realize that they simply cannot continue abusing substances if they wish to be happy.

This type of addict or alcoholic is truly fortunate. They are the type of addict who discovers rock bottom as the result of mild financial trouble instead of absolute ruin. They are the type who does not need to lose everything in order to gain a new lease on life. It is unfortunate that more of us could not follow their example, but anyone who struggles with addiction has the opportunity to benefit from the lesson they have to teach us.

The lesson, simply put, is that we only reach rock bottom when we choose to do so. To some, rock bottom exists only in death. But to anyone who wants to live their life to the fullest, rock bottom may be the very moment we realize that drinking and drug abuse have had a negative impact on our lives.

We hope that anyone who is reading this because they think they might have a problem will follow this example. You do not have to lose everything—or anything, for that matter—in order to get sober. If you want to better your life, you can start today. Contact us with any questions you may have about our programs, and we will be more than willing to talk to you. Because rock bottom should not be a necessity. Getting sober should require little more than reach the conclusion that life can be better. So make it better today. We’ll be here to help you.

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