Hitting ‘Rock Bottom’ – A False Prerequisite That Does More Harm Than Good?

hitting rock bottom

Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, written by Maia Szalavitz, suggests that one of the main issues surrounding addiction is that the majority of people altogether misunderstand it. Szalavitz argues that addiction should be seen as a simple learning disorder, rather than an innate spiritual deficit or a disease of intrinsic emotional shortcomings. She writes that addiction does not merely develop because an individual begins to take a substance regularly, or because neuropathways begin to steadily shift with the continued use of booze or pills. Rather, she believes that using drugs and alcohol as a means of emotional improvement is a learned behavior, and has a history rooted in individual cultural, social, and cognitive developments.

Author Argues That Addiction is ‘Learned’

People learn that using makes them feel better, and they ‘fall in love’ with feeling good. In spite of the inevitable blackout and puke fest that most alcoholics experience upon taking their first drink, the newfound feelings of social acceptance and immense relief that proceed the sick-as-death aftermath are what linger – and drive continued use. Szalavitz suggests that, “Falling in love doesn’t harm your brain, but it does produce a unique type of learning that causes cravings, alters choice, and is really hard to forget.”

Is Addiction Merely a Love Affair?

This school of thought may help to explain many addiction-related actualities. For example, the fact that the majority of those who try heroin once never become addicted. Or the repeatedly proven reality that early childhood trauma greatly increases the risk of developing substance dependency later on in life. Think of it this way: If someone offers you an alcoholic beverage for the first time while you are studying for the Bar Exam, going through a divorce, and attempting to cope with the death of your parents, you are exceedingly more likely to develop an unhealthy dependence on booze to help get you through these emotionally tough times. If everything is going swimmingly during the time when you are first introduced to alcohol, the chances that you develop an emotional and mental dependence are reduced significantly.

Of course, innumerable contributing factors determine who will develop addiction and who will not, and they intertwine in complicated and completely unpredictable ways. This is why we can predict that one who undergoes extreme abuse and neglect in childhood may turn to chemical substances as a means of coping – but we can never be sure.

‘Hitting Rock Bottom’ – An Outdated Notion?

Szalavitz herself underwent several years of extreme and almost lethal drug addiction, transforming from an Ivy League scholar to a hard-core heroin and cocaine addict by the time she was 23. Her book focuses largely on how misunderstandings surrounding addiction frequently lead to bad treatment – and she is able to speak on this subject from a place of ample personal experience. She believes that a gross amount of unnecessary trauma and death occurs as a direct result of the mislead belief that an addict must hit ‘rock bottom’ in order to recover. She further explains that this outdated notion is taken from the Alcoholics Anonymous approved text, The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions (commonly referred to as ‘The 12 and 12’).

“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, the 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? Who cares anything for a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself.”

This excerpt can be found on page 24, in the chapter entitled ‘Step One’. Szalavitz goes on to explain that (according to AA) having all base necessities of humanity ripped harshly away at the hands of alcoholism is required in order to reach the level of sheer desperation needed to truly go to any lengths necessary. She concedes that one of the major flaws within the 12-step program, and within many inpatient treatment programs, is the insistence that patients must hit rock bottom before getting well.

Abuse Tactics and Tough Love are Totally Different Animals

She argues that most therapeutically based treatment programs utilize abuse tactics in order to drive patients to forced bottoms, allegedly ‘helping’ them to recognize that things have gotten utterly out of control. While some programs undeniably do resort to methods of humiliation and deprivation, many therapeutically-based programs, such as that developed and implemented by Next Chapter, focus on healing and recuperation through support and compassion. Providing addicts with empathy, encouragement, and healthy social networks is crucial to their comprehensive and maintained recovery.

One Person’s Bottom May Be Another Person’s Beginning

The truth of the matter is, the process of entering recovery is entirely different for every individual – it is a highly personal journey, and there is no one right way to go about it. Some alcoholics may need to hit a vicious bottom, losing everything they have at the hands of the disease. Some may agree to recovery solely to appease their own families, unsure as to whether sobriety is really something they desire for themselves – and unwittingly find true happiness along the way. It is often said that a bottom occurs as soon as an alcoholic decides to stop digging. What is important to remember is that addiction is a progressive disease, and if left untreated it will always get worse – never better.

Interestingly enough, even the very book which Szalavitz cited as bolstering this ancient and damaging opinion (The 12 and 12) suggests that a ‘bottom’ can decidedly occur at any point in time.

“It was obviously necessary to raise the bottom the rest of us had hit to the point where it would hit them. By going back to our own drinking histories, we could show that years before we realized it we were out of control, that our drinking even then was no mere habit, that it was indeed the beginning of a fatal progression. To the doubters we could say, “Perhaps you’re not an alcoholic after all. Why don’t you try some more controlled drinking, bearing in mind meanwhile what we have told you about alcoholism?” This attitude brought immediate and practical results. It was then discovered that when one alcoholic had planted in the mind of another the true nature of his malady, that person could never be the same again. Following every spree, he would say to himself, “Maybe those A.A.’s were right…” After a few such experiences, often years before the onset of extreme difficulties, he would return to us convinced. He had hit bottom as truly as any of us.”

Clearly, ‘hitting bottom’ is a very personal and unpredictable experience. No matter what eventually persuades an alcoholic to seek recovery, it is crucial they he or she is met with open arms and a specific curriculum of action once the decision has finally been made. For many, the desperation and willingness are fleeting. Additionally, as far as the whole ‘tough love’ debate goes – setting healthy boundaries and allowing your loved one to see through the struggle will inevitably benefit everyone involved. Tough love is very different than the ‘abuse tactics’ the author notes.

Maybe the terminology is a bit muddled and outdated. Rather than focus on what the term ‘bottom’ means, and whether or not you have hit a personal bottom that adequately compares to those of others, try finding ways in which you can relate. The pain has become too great, and alcohol is no longer working. This is often the only imperative fact of the matter.

Please feel free to share your personal experiences with this subject – how did you find recovery? Did you begrudgingly agree to attend drug rehab after being intervened upon by your loved ones? Or did you hit your knees in a dismal jail cell, breaking down and begging, desperately, to be saved from your mental obsession? Success is not limited to one story or another. We look forward to hearing from you!