The Rocky Foundation of Rock Bottom

Case study. Joel had been addicted to Methamphetamine for a couple of years when his parents invited him to be a groundskeeper at a camp they were running for the summer. Joel was done with Meth. He knew it was killing him and he wanted a way out. He’d tried quitting unsuccessfully multiple times. The offer from his parents to get away for the summer seemed like a lifeline. Joel realized he would be far away from his using buddies and the triggers to use. He could detox and recover in nature. And he could keep himself busy with the groundskeeper duties.

 He took the offer. And amazingly, he quit and has stayed sober for over 16 years.

How can it be? Joel’s story sounds incredible. Most people assume that addicts only quit after a jarring event called hitting Rock Bottom. Yet Joel’s story is not unique.

Tom was physically dependent on alcohol, consuming several six packs a night while quietly dissociating from family life on the living room couch. His wife nagged him for years, but he didn’t want to listen. He can’t remember why or how, but he finally decided to listen to his wife. The time to quit had come and he called a national hotline. He told the person at the hotline how much he drank every day and asked them what he would experience if went cold turkey. They told him he would get shaky, and they were right.

But he followed their advice and quit--staying sober for 2 decades now.

Statistics on alcohol and drug abuse suggest that most people quit without a dramatic shock to the system. For example, most veterans who were addicted to opioids while in Vietnam, did not continue to use heroin in when they returned to the United states. So, it was a positive event--coming home from war--that led to them quitting. And studies show that about 3 quarters of people who are dependent on alcohol quit on their own, many after a brief conversation with their doctor. Click Here. Click here.

Rock Bottom. The concept of rock bottom has been a mainstay of the recovery movement since it began in the 1930’s. Its proponents say that only a rock bottom experience can shake off the cloak of self-deception and allow the addict to surrender to the need for help. Without such an experience, the power of addiction is too strong. The addicts’ ego won’t accept the truth that they are addicted and need help.

Rock bottom experiences definitely do exist. For a percentage of alcoholics and addicts, a rock bottom experience can be the deciding factor in choosing to start treatment. The words of Jeremiah 17:9 come to mind when thinking about Rock Bottom: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Based on this verse, it does seem like something drastic has to happen to cut through the heart’ defenses and get a person ready to quit.

But you don’t have to wait for rock bottom. Stories like Joel and Tom’s remind us that each person’s path to recovery is unique. There is no one size-fits-all approach to recovery. In fact, there are some reasons not wait for rock bottom if you don’t have to.

Holding fast to the idea of a rock bottom can be too pessimistic. If so many people quit on their own, why place limits on what God can do? He can use natural means to help people quit. And he can provide supernatural support, too. Allow him to be God. Believe that anyone can quit at any time in the progression of an addiction.

The idea of rock bottom can become an excuse to keep using. Too many times professionals attempt to comfort a person struggling to quit by suggesting that they just haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Although this strategy may seem kind and non-judgmental, it can cause people to give up. “Ah, I really want to quit, but I must not have hit rock bottom yet.”

If rock bottom exists, it doesn’t mean that quitting will suddenly become easy. Quitting is hard no matter what.  Rock Bottom experiences don’t make cravings disappear and they don’t give you will-power made of steel. So, don’t wait for something devastating to happen because you think a Rock Bottom experience will give you motivation and power to quit. Get help at the first sign of an addiction.

Don’t allow the idea of rock bottom to prevent you from encouraging a loved one. It can feel vaguely wise and virtuous to wait for a loved one to experience a come-to-Jesus moment. After all, it is impossible to control another person’s behavior. Trying to do the impossible can wear us down and make us feel like we are losing our minds. But keep in mind the words from 1 Corinthians 13, “love never fails.” It’s never a bad time to tell some one that you love them. Never a bad time to be hopeful about their recovery. Don’t suppress your thoughts. Express your concerns and your hopes.

What is the alternative? The science on behavior change is clear. People move along a pretty standard set of steps whenever they make any kind of change. These steps, called the stages of change, are pretty universal. The authors of the stages of change recognize that the most common feeling we all have about any change is ambivalence. Ambivalence simply means that we have reasons for wanting to quit and reasons for not wanting to quit. 

 In a future article I will talk about how ignoring ambivalence when talking to an alcoholic or addict can actually increase their use.  But for now, just be encouraged that if you really take the time to listen, the defenses will come down and you will hear that even the most “resistant” person has some ambivalence. In a moment of clarity, they have reasons to keep using, and they have reasons to quit.

Warnings and caveats. Although many people who quit using substances never experience a single rock bottom experience, that doesn't mean they don't happen. They do. They are real. I am also not suggesting that because many people quit on their own, you should quit on your own. It is still a good idea to get professional help. In fact, there are medical risks to stopping some substances cold-turkey. Tell your primary care physician what is going and see if you need medical oversight while quitting.

Also, there is solid scientific evidence that having social support and declaring your intentions publicly can aid you making a change. So, getting connected to a community of people who have made the same choice to quit that you have is a fantastic idea.

Finally, quitting and recovery are two very different things. To really live as God intended, it's not enough to just quit. You need a new heart, new hobbies, and new habits. You need to GROW! Formal treatment, or informal 12-step or other recovery groups can help you grow. 

If you or someone you know are considering quitting, here are some great resources to help you make a decision: