While conducting public speaking engagements on alcohol and other drug issues, I have been asked a wide range of questions. One common question was generally been phrased, “Is it true you cannot help someone until they hit bottom?” An accurate response to the question is tricky. There is both some truth and some myth contained in the phrase, “hit bottom” and what actions may help someone begin a life of recovery.
What it takes for an individual suffering from AOD (alcohol and other drugs) dependency to “hit bottom” is often defined differently for each individual. Hitting bottom implies that an individual has reached the point where the pain and suffering experienced is too great for them to endure any longer and they recognize the need to change. Everyone has a different threshold for their tolerance for pain and suffering.
I have often looked at some of the individuals I have worked with and wondered to myself, “they have got to believe their current painful state is too much to endure” and to my surprise realized I was not even close. For me, the pain and suffering I witnessed might have been enough, but I was not in the middle of suffering from AOD dependency. I came to understand that some individuals had developed such a high tolerance to pain and suffering, that for them to “hit bottom” meant descending to a very deep, dark valley. Just how deep they needed to go down into that valley, looked quite different from individual to individual. Some individuals descend so deeply in their pain and suffering, they mistake their current situation as normal existence and all they will ever have.
One of my colleagues told me a story, about a man he had worked with for several months for alcoholism after a DUI conviction. This man, like many others, simply was unwilling to see the damage his alcohol use had created for him and others and the consequences he could potentially experience in the future from DUI. One day, he came into the office looking very depressed and despondent. He declared he was ready to stop using alcohol. When he was asked why he had so suddenly arrived at this conclusion, he explained an experience from the day before.
Despite his court ordered conditions which stated he was not to use alcohol or drive, he had been doing both for several weeks. He described that he was intoxicated and got into his car. He backed out of his driveway, ran over his dog and killed him. He stated that while he held his dog's lifeless body in his arms, he realized that his careless disregard for his alcohol use and behavior had caused the death of the only creature on this earth who loved him. Everyone else he knew in life, he had driven away. This dog loved him without condition and was always there for him and now he had just killed his best and only friend. For this man, at this moment, he had hit bottom, the consequences and the pain had become too great.
The circumstances in any individual's life, if painful and harmful enough from that person's perspective, may produce the conditions we call “hitting bottom” and start them on the road to recovery. The danger is that most individuals will die, become imprisoned, or suffer serious mental or physical disability before they hit their bottom and some who do get there come to believe they are beyond hope, because they have “burned all their bridges.” Understanding and stopping enabling behavior among family, friends and other professionals can help get more people into recovery. In part two of our series we will talk about the difference between helpfulness and enabling.
This is the first of a three part series on enabling behavior with individuals suffering from AOD related problems.
Lee McDermott, Contributor