The Bottom: Do I Really Have To Hit It First?


I hear a lot of talk about “hitting the bottom.” Oftentimes it’s when I overhear someone talking about another addict. It’s not usually compassionate. Here’s what I hear most often: “She just hasn’t hit her bottom yet. Once she does, she’ll get recovery. Until then, anything you say [recovery wise] is a waste of breath.”

Is this true?

Is it a waste of time to try and get someone into recovery who’s not yet hit his or her bottom? In the official literature of AA, it talks about “raising the bottom” for those who don’t have to lose everything first – in short, for those who don’t really hit anything remotely like rock bottom. They can, rather, see where their addiction is taking them, glimpse that bottom on the horizon, and choose to enter recovery before calamity strikes.

I know a woman who finally quit when she reached the very last moment of being able to keep her meth usage secret and hidden from her family. Her health issues were mounting. The next run would push her over the edge to where everyone in her family would find out and all her friends would know. She told me if not for her aging parents, whom she knew expected her to take care of them one day, she would have most likely let the drug win, even to the point of losing her apartment and living on the street. But she couldn’t put her mother and father through that suffering. Her older brother had died from meth use and she knew how much it would hurt her parents if they found out she too had this addiction. It would have “broken something inside them” for the rest of their lives. This knowledge—realization—was close enough to a “bottom” for her. She checked into an out-patient rehab, which she chose over an in-patient so her parents wouldn’t wonder why she’d disappeared from her life for 28 days, and is still clean today.

She didn’t so much as hit a bottom, as find motivation—motivation to start the recovery process.

But, don’t get me wrong, hitting a bottom can indeed help one’s motivation. I believe we can hit several bottoms that do not, individually, have to be “the” bottom. In the book, I write:

Let me tell you about my first bottom. I was hospitalized for a blood clot in my leg, due to my IV use of crystal meth. If the possibility of the clot traveling to my lungs or heart wouldn’t make me hit bottom, what would? I was in the hospital for five days and firmly resolute that, after I left, I’d continue the clean and sober life with a program of abstinence and several support meetings a week. I left the hospital hobbling on a cane, with an ankle and calf swollen to the size of a small watermelon.

I assumed this physical consequence would be enough to make me quit. Whenever I had the urge to use, I looked down at my monstrous “cankle” and remembered what a disaster my using had been. But it was barely ten days before the pipe was back in my mouth. My blood clot was, however, the beginning of the end of my using. It took three more months of stopping and starting, but eventually sobriety stuck.

So for me, it wasn’t one BIG bottom, but an accumulation of misery and, let’s call them, mini-bottoms that came with using. It could have gotten a lot worse. And has for many people.

Just know that, for you, you can make the decision to quit whenever you want. There doesn’t have to be a burn-life-to-the-ground bottom. You can “raise” the bar, see clearly, and recognize the bottom headed your way, so as to stop beforehand.

David Sheff writes in Clean: “Though hitting bottom does describe the beginning of recovery for some addicts, it is a dangerous construct. Many addicts are alive because their families didn’t wait for them to hit bottom. [My emphasis.] And for every person who hit bottom and wound up in treatment, many others kept falling further and further downward. They’d have catastrophes that would have been a bottom for any sane person, but addicts are addicted — many don’t stop even after multiple calamities. For many there’s no bottom — it’s a bottomless pit…. [Insisting that an addict must first hit her bottom is] like letting a diabetic lose her foot before addressing her diet…. The idea that addicts must ‘hit bottom’ is an archaic and potentially deadly myth.”

Whether you get to your own unique bottom (of a sort), find yourself forced into treatment unwillingly, or stop on your own before hitting rock bottom, what’s important is that, at one point, you decide to actively participate in getting well. In other words, you become self-motivated to be in recovery. I can feel the old-school AAers bristling at this notion. But it’s just a fact that many a recovered addict began his or her journey to sobriety without hitting bottom, per se.

If you’re addicted to meth or have a loved one addicted, remember, an accumulation of misery (getting honest about how awful the drug really is) combined with positive motivation to quit (your friends, family, career, and so on) is a powerful recipe as well. It can be just as powerful as hitting that mythical “rock bottom.” You don’t have to wait until you die—or almost die—to get recovery going.

But maybe you do. I hope not. I hope you can look around, accept the misery and that you don’t want to live this way anymore and then find some positive direction to move—a rehab, Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings, private counseling, all of the above, going off to do missionary work, something—that moves you in the direction of healing and recovery.

Ultimately, it’s more of an “up” the addict must experience, than a bottom, when it comes to getting and staying clean in the long run. Once more: you can make the decision to quit now. It is not required you hit rock bottom first. You can “raise” the bar, see clearly, and recognize the bottom headed your way, so as to stop beforehand.  Stop now.

photo credit: haunts of solitude via photopin (license)