There is a misleading and dangerous idea floating around that addicts need to reach ‘rock bottom’ before they can recover. But hitting rock-bottom is not needed to heal from addiction. Not at all.
Rock bottom generally refers to as the lowest or crisis point reached by someone with an addiction. It will supposedly act as a catalyst for them to stop drug use or seek treatment. Its origin is often and incorrectly attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous but is more likely a construct of reality TV.[i]
Families of addicts are told they must wait while their loved one reaches their rock bottom and only then can they start the recovery process. Addicts themselves are led to believe they must lose everything of value before they can hope to regain it by entering treatment. Addicts are therefore left to sink or flounder in the hope that their desperation will drive change.
There is zero logic to this and no evidence to support it. Like any illness, the earlier someone receives treatment, the better their chances of recovery. The longer we wait, the more mental and physical damage is done.
There is evidence however that shows that addicts who are treated involuntarily, for example through a court order, have the same chance of getting and staying clean as someone who has sought treatment voluntarily[ii]
In 2015-16 I lost four friends to addiction-related illnesses. All of them were good and decent people. They were loved. They had families and pets. Three had jobs. None of them sought help. Their ‘rock bottoms’ came when they died.
The facts are that some individuals get into recovery before disaster strikes, while others die before things get very bad. Others undergo crises yet are not motivated to change their drug use. A crisis is no guarantee of change.[iii]
Research also indicates that a crisis does not have to precede ending drug use. Some people are motivated to quit by the stresses and expense of the drug lifestyle. Some act when they are forced to. Others weigh the consequences of future drug use and make rational decisions to change, while still others just drift or mature out of the scene. [iv]
Those that stay at 'rock bottom' for years become ravaged by drugs, their brains damaged, living in cars, in and out of prison, producing and raising drug-damaged children – while their families live in perpetual crisis, their lives suspended while they watch this horror movie play out.
Our job as carers is to get services to people early before irreparable damage is done. Severe and dangerous drug users need an ambulance to pick them up and tend, not to their broken bones, but their broken childhoods and hearts, livers and brains.
We need to see ‘rock bottom’ as the consequence of our failure to arrest dangerous drug use and start talking about how we can stop the decline of those with addictions and lead them to health, well-being, and social acceptance. To bring our addicted children and partners to safety and start the healing process.
Mandy Whyte is an independent social worker specialising in empowering parents to support their addicted children. She is the author of Dancing on a Razor’s Edge, the story of disrupting her son’s severe addiction and helping him to recover.
[i] Seven ‘Rock-Bottom’ Myths and the Truth Behind Them, drugabuse.com
[ii] National Institute on Drug Abuse in ibid
[iii] Kemp R. Existential Analysis 24.1: January 2013 Rock-Bottom As An Event of Truth
[iv] Robinson D. (1979) The Alcohologist’s Addiction. In: Robinson D. (eds) Alcohol Problems. Palgrave, London, DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16190-4_8