“Do I need to hit rock bottom before I can get better? What does rock bottom look like? Have I hit rock bottom?”
We hear these kinds of questions in recovery circles and in treatment from many addicts and alcoholics who are new to recovery. There is a sense that you need to face losing, or actually lose everything in order to find recovery.
The very first paragraph of Step One in the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book talks about “complete defeat” and the admission of our powerlessness over our addiction is central to Step One:
We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.
But how do we define “Unmanageable”? It goes on to say:
“Why all this insistence that every A.A. must hit bottom first? The answer is that few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A. program unless they have hit bottom. For practicing A.A.’s remaining eleven Steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can dream of taking. Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done?” 1
So, what does that mean for those of us who managed to hang on to our jobs, whose families haven’t completely given up hope? Can we recover too? Some very wise person in treatment said to us: “You hit rock bottom when you stop digging”. And then it made sense. Rock bottom is a very personal thing.
For some it is a profound realisation of how far off course they have gone, for others, it is a sudden and deep sense of the pain they have caused, or the pain they have been hiding from. But for many, this realisation can occur in hospital, in jail, or on the street.
And then, of course, we find the reference in the AA Big Book:
“Among other things, I told him I hadn’t had a drink for about a month but didn’t go to A.A. When he asked why I had avoided A.A., I told him it was because I didn’t think I had hit bottom. Somehow, he didn’t laugh but said, “You hit bottom when you stop digging.” 2
This quote comes from the second half of the book, which is dedicated to personal stories. It is telling that besides the stories of the pioneers of AA, there are two sections here: “They Stopped in Time” and “They Nearly Lost All”. It is as though the authors are asking us: which are you? Will you stop in time? Or do you need to lose everything before you stop?
The difficulty we have as addicts and alcoholics is that we suffer from a disease where the body is fighting to stay sick. The human body is incredible at healing itself, the wonders of a healthy immune system, and the regenerative capabilities of human tissue are incredible to behold. But when it comes to the psychology of addiction, it’s clear to us that we don’t want to get well. This is where denial comes in, and why it can be hard to work out our own definition of rock bottom. We say things like “It doesn’t matter if I sometimes oversleep after a night of drinking, because I always get my work done” or “I don’t do as much as other people.” and “If my job wasn’t so stressful, I wouldn’t need to drink so much or use as many pills.” In treatment we’re taught to recognise the different types of denial to be able to come to grips with our reality. It is our denial that makes it very difficult to recognise our rock bottom. Many of us come into treatment thinking we are so-called “high-bottom” addicts, but as we chip away at our denial, we start to realise just how deeply we’ve been digging.
Our wish is that as you read this, with yourself or someone you love in mind, you take a good look at where you are, try to strip away the denial and see how deeply you are digging. And remember the words: “Your rock bottom is where you stop digging”
1 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous, 1953. 77th Printing – p. 24
2 Alcoholics Anonymous 1939, Fourth Edition p. 325