You can’t spend much time around recovery circles without hearing talk about “hitting bottom.” But what exactly is ‘bottom’?
Conventional wisdom has it that one’s bottom is that event which causes one to see the problem and seek help. These events are as individual as the alcoholics themselves; the only common characteristic is that they are sufficient to break through the shroud of denial and convince the alcoholic that “something has to change.”
A few examples of bottoms might include:
- loss of job (or the threat of losing one’s job)
- loss of family/friends (or the threat)
- loss of the family home
- loss of health
- embarrassment/shame over drunken behavior
- remorse over actions committed while drunk (DUI, abuse of significant other, etc.)
Some folks hit their bottom simply by coming to the realization that they are increasingly unable to manage daily life without drinking. Yet they can’t stop on their own, as shown through failed attempts at control or abstinence. Regardless of how dramatic or mundane the bottoming event is, for that person it is sufficient to overcome whatever arguments they may have not to seek help for their drinking. For some this happens sooner, while others go for years before they hit their bottom. (It took me around 30 years.)
Is That All There Is?
The above definition of ‘bottom’ is fine as far as it goes. I don’t think it goes far enough, though. It’s in the same category as the saying “You’ve hit bottom when you stop digging.” They’re both true, but neither takes into account those of us who seem to be unable to stop digging, and we end up with lots of alcoholics running around having multiple bottoms, riding on clouds of various rainbow hues, relapsing over and over again.
Consider what Dr. Harry Tiebout, a psychiatrist who became a friend and advocate of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote after a discussion with an alcoholic patient who was describing her recent recovery experience:
“Guided by this clue, I realize that “hitting bottom” is ineffectual if not followed by a surrender. Hitting bottom must produce a result, which is surrender.”
And further on in the same article:
“One fact must be kept in mind, namely the need to distinguish between submission and surrender. In submission, an individual accepts reality consciously but not unconsciously. He accepts as a practical fact that he cannot at that moment conquer reality, but lurking in his unconscious is the feeling, ‘There’ll come a day’ — which implies no real acceptance and demonstrates conclusively that the struggle is still going on. With submission, which at best is a superficial yielding, tension continues. When, on the other hand, the ability to accept reality functions on the unconscious level, there is no residual battle, and relaxation ensues with freedom from strain and conflict.”
I relapsed many times over the years. Each relapse ended with a ‘bottom’ of sorts, always different in outward appearance/circumstances and usually worse than the previous episodes, yet always the same in that they didn’t result in recovery. I called those events that brought on my periods of abstinence ‘bottoms’, mainly because I was told by others that that’s what they were. But it seems I had to keep picking the shovel back up and digging some more, over and over, until I finally hit bedrock and couldn’t dig any more. It turns out that was my bottom—rock bottom. The point in time (as opposed to an event as discussed above) when I had to admit I couldn’t dig any deeper (drink any longer,) because the actual pain, both physical and emotional, from continuing to drink became greater than the anticipated pain from not drinking. All those ‘bottoms’ I thought I’d experienced were false bottoms; they did not induce the subconscious surrender and acceptance that together are recovery. I hit my true bottom when I quit fighting, surrendered to the fact that I was an alcoholic and accepted into my innermost self that I could not drink any more.