Why has the term “rock bottom” been engrained in so many family’s minds that are dealing with a loved one suffering from mental health issues and substance use disorders? Hearing a family say that their loved one just needs to hit rock bottom in order to get help is one of the scariest statements to hear. This idea deters families from taking the necessary action to save a loved one, time and time again. As an individual in recovery who has tested where my bottom could go countless times, and as a person who has witnessed families hold off on getting help for a loved one because they need to “hit rock bottom first”, I have seen devastating outcomes. I am here to tell you that we have to look at this idea of letting someone hit their bottom differently.
What is rock bottom? According to Merriam-Webster the definition of rock bottom is, “being the very lowest” as well as “the lowest or most fundamental part or level”. For someone struggling with mental health diagnosis or substance abuse, is “the bottom” being homeless? Is it going to jail and being tangled in the court system, or ending up in a hospital countless times due to overdoses? For some it is all of those things while for others it could be one or none of those examples. Please here me when I say this. . . IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE ANY OF THOSE TO GET HELP FOR YOURSELF OR FOR A LOVED ONE! Ultimately, rock bottom is an individual’s perception of their specific situation. A bottom is not always physical issues, such as an overdose or losing a friend due to substances or mental health issues. It could be the loss of possessions or losing a job which is creating an opportunity for an emotional bottom. From my experience, I now understand the importance of helping individuals reach a higher bottom. Instead of saying we need to let Jim or Jane hit bottom so we can get them help, we need to retrain our minds to say, what am I willing to do to support Jim or Jane find a path to success, how do we raise their bottom up to them?
In my own story rock bottom came differently than I expected it to.
I grew up in a nice area of Birmingham, Alabama with a loving family. My father suffered from a substance use disorder when I was young and was able to get on a path of recovery by the time, I was 8. Shortly after, he began working in the treatment field helping countless families. My mother also began working in the field of addiction. I say that to make this clear… No matter how much you know about addiction or the process of getting someone help, it is a different ballgame when it is your own family or a close friend. It takes strength and a focus on getting yourself healthy first. At any rate, armed with the knowledge of addiction and spending countless evenings at 12 step clubs at a young age that was not enough to stop me from going on my own path of wreaking havoc on my family and those around me due to my substance use. By 11 I was smoking pot, by 13 taking hallucinogens. When I was 16 years old, I was using pain killers, benzodiazepines, and sleeping medications while smoking massive amounts of pot daily. I should say that from the time my use began, consequences incurred but nothing was to stop me from finding my next high. These consequences ranged from failing drug tests weekly that my parents gave me, to getting arrested on school property, ending up on probation at 15, and much more. I began going to treatment programs right after my 16th birthday. I was in and out of programs until finally, at 21 years old on August 10th, 2011 I made it to another program and have been fortunate enough to maintain sobriety since. From ages 11 to 21 I struggled with about every substance one could think of. I would go to treatment and stop whatever the substance I was primarily using at the time but always held to the thought that I could smoke pot and still be a productive member of society. After banging my head into the wall time and time again, I finally came to the conclusion this was not true. Through those years I was homeless at times and without the means to get food, I had no contact with family, and I was losing friends left and right. When I got sober that August, I was using the least number of substances I had been on in years. I was smoking THC oil all day every day and using hallucinogens. The two substances that I knew I would use the rest of my life because they didn’t interfere with anything, at least that’s what I believed. The reality of the situation was that I was more depressed and anxiety ridden than I had ever been. Since I had gone to so many programs before and went back to using, I truly believed I was just one of those individuals who is “constitutionally incapable of being honest with [myself]”. (Alcoholic Anonymous 4th edition, page 58) To say the least I was hopeless, and felt like I could never get better. Beyond that, I didn’t know how to ask for help. On August 5th I was arrested at a Phish show outside of Spokane, Washington. This was the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me. The moment I was surrounded by undercover police officers I did not feel panicked. I felt relief and I knew I did not have to go on living like this.
I feel it is important to understand the over view of my story and how raising my bottom saved my life. At the end of my using, I had a roof over my head, a girlfriend, food on my table, and a job making fairly decent money. I never ended up in the hospital from an overdose, I never stole from others, and I had very little legal consequences. None of these things mattered to me in reality. I got to the point of being miserable. It may seem as though I had a low bottom compared to some but a high one compared to many others.
So, what was is that raised my bottom? Simply put, my family took care of themselves, they got the strength to support me only in the direction of getting help. Now to do this, they sacrificed a lot, stayed awake crying countless nights and had constant fear of the next phone call. They held every boundary they could so that they absolutely knew they were not supporting my negative life direction in anyway. I had no financial support, no emotional support, and no contact with them other than the calls I made to them begging and manipulating them with no avail. They did not cave a single time in the end. Though these boundaries seem harsh to many, I wouldn’t be here if they had not been put in place. If my family continued to support me in all of these ways my bottom would have gone lower and lower. I wouldn’t have had to work, I wouldn’t have had to worry about where I got my next high, my only focus would be to use and feel “normal”. To be frank, with that as the possibility I guarantee I would have ended up dead. My family and friends raised my bottom up to me by preventing an unending downward spiral from unhealthy support based in a codependent mindset.
In conclusion, changing the ideas behind letting someone hit rock bottom has to be changed. Ultimately, I do believe one does need to get to a “bottom”, but we do not have to let this be an endless bottom that results in prisons or even worse but too common, death. As friends and family, we do not have to sit idly by just waiting. There are things that we can do! We can begin by taking a look at what we are doing to support someone’s downwards spiral. It does not matter if someone is a daily drinker or pot user or using IV opiates. The feelings each of those individuals have are the exact same when it comes to needing a substance to cope with their life, for whatever reason is underlying. When we see a loved one struggling with mental health or addictions and their life is being affected negatively, we can step up to the plate in various ways. There is not a one size fits all process in this support. We all may have different boundaries we are willing to put in place. The most important piece in this process is to be consistent! A broken boundary is worse than no boundary at all. Someone once told me that I would hit rock bottom when I decided to put my shovel down. I don’t know how far down I could have gone with out my family helping to raise a bottom up to me. My life choices were not the result of a lack of will power. They were the result of the disease of addiction and other underlying issues that took lots of work to get through. I do not say that to make an excuse and not take responsibility for my actions. My family was able to look past those behaviors in order to come from a place of love. They taught me true unconditional love and they showed me it can come in many forms. The people around me taught me to be the person I wanted to be and to make amends to those I have hurt. They taught me how to be a dad, a husband, a brother, a son, and most importantly a person living a life of recovery.