I want to take you on a visualization trip, so sit back and make yourself comfortable, now close your eyes… Just kidding. Keep your eyes open and continue reading, please.
Imagine we are out in a field and there is a deep hole next to us. It’s not a wide hole, but it is deep. As we stand on the edge looking down the shadows are too dark to see the bottom, but we assume there are some nasty jagged rocks down there. Rock bottom.
You might mention to me while we stand above this hole that you’ve noticed something amiss in my life and you are concerned for my welfare. I may reject your observation and thank you for your concern. Perhaps you push it and suggest I seek help to make a change in my life. Maybe I say “you’re not the boss of me” and turn away.
What happens next?
If you follow traditional thought about addiction you might say, “Well, I can’t help you unless you hit rock bottom, so…” and then push me into the hole.
If you have ever used the “rock bottom” approach, it’s okay, you were probably doing the best you could in that moment, only please don’t do it again. Remember imagine moving on? Until a person begins to imagine a new future there likely won’t be much change. I’m suggesting that hitting rock bottom will not bring about that new future vision in any useful way.
I believe the idea of a person needing to hit rock bottom before they can make a change, such as overcome an addiction, is totally bogus and dangerous. Again, if you’ve said it, or done it, no judgment from me. We don’t know what we know until we know it, even then sometimes it takes a while to recognize we know it. We can’t change what has happened in the past, we can only prevent it from happening again in the future.
Back to the visualization. We are standing next to the deep pit and I have turned down your suggestion of help. If you believe I need to hit rock bottom, you will push me towards it, even if unconsciously. By denying me healthy help (which is incredibly difficult to identify and provide, I know! More on this in the future) you are allowing me to drift towards that rocky bottom if not pushing me there directly.
So you say the “rock bottom” part and I turn away and take a step closer to the edge and lose my footing. I catch myself at the mouth of the hole and hang on by my finger tips. I ask you for help now that I see the precarious state I am in and you repeat the refrain, “You need to hit rock bottom before you will make a change.”
You deny helping me when I am a few feet away, when all that is needed is for you to take a knee and reach out a hand. Instead, you watch, or turn your back so you don’t have to see, as I lose my grip and fall into the pit…or you put your foot out and tap my forehead with your toe after saying “You’ll shoot your eye out, ho, ho, ho.”
I fall deeper into the pit, further from your ability to help. As I fall I ponder our relationship while confusion and injury creep over the love and attachment once felt, like a mold. Finally I hit rock bottom, we were right, jagged rocks. I lie in a bloody heap, isolated and abandoned, or at least that’s how it feels. I yell up to you, possibly from a gurney in an emergency department, hopefully not from a pine box. “I hit rock bottom,” I say.
Put that on pause for a second. At the same time I’m experiencing this change to my perception of our relationship, you are doing the same thing. It probably didn’t feel right for you to leave me to hit rock bottom, but that’s what the professionals said, so you let it happen. And now you are experiencing dissonance. The quickest way to resolve the dissonance is to change how you classify me, thereby tearing apart the fragile bond between us. Resume.
Justified in your beliefs, you now say, “Great, grab my hand and let’s get out of here.” We both reach, with all our might, but can’t quite cover the distance.
That’s how I see the whole “rock bottom” thing. I don’t like it and don’t recommend it as an approach to helping someone dealing with addiction. Why punish pain? If feelings of disconnection lead to addiction then how can disconnection help to overcome addiction?
It’s like fighting fire with fire. The phrase suggests that we strike back at an aggressor with whatever method the aggressor has employed. Taken literally it paints a different picture. When was the last time you saw a fire engine pull up and the firefighters strap on flame-throwers and go after the blaze? Never? Fighting fire with fire isn’t practical and would likely make things worse. We use water or other agents to extinguish the consuming flames.
Fighting addiction (which may be more accurately labeled a symptom of disconnection) with disconnection is fighting fire with fire. The best you can hope for is that your fire will use up all the fuel and oxygen so the other fire dies. Death is the best outcome from fighting fire with fire. This doesn’t mean you sell your house to fund someone’s heroin use, but maybe you spot them $20 if you can manage it. Heresy! No, just being human. You see, the thing about addiction is that the drug doesn’t actually matter. It’s not about the drug. The drug does not cause addiction. Substance or behavior is only part of the equation, and it seems to be an interchangeable part, meaning it could be alcohol or crack or pornography. Substance/behavior + past experiences + current situation = addiction.
So I just tore apart the “rock bottom” approach, or at least said I don’t like it, now what? Unfortunately there is no easy answer. Using the fire fighting analogy, water is the usual approach to extinguishing fire, but not always. Instead of letting someone hit rock bottom I’m going to suggest compassion and love, radical acceptance and unconditional forgiveness. Those aren’t tangible behaviors, however, so the specific what’s and how’s are going to vary case by case. As long as the methods follow this approach I have hope it will be successful. Remember, addiction is a symptom of disconnection, or dislocation. Compassion, love, radical acceptance and unconditional forgiveness are the remedies for disconnection and dislocation.
There are so many thoughts here that I want to expand upon, it’s going to take some time. Someday I plan to write a book called We are All Sick Things: a call for radical acceptance and unconditional forgiveness. So expect a post on here by that title sometime soon. In the meantime, please stop pushing people into pits with rocky bottoms. It isn’t good for them or for you. Literally or figuratively.