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The “Hitting Rock Bottom” Myth

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The spread of myths is an incredibly problematic issue in the world of substance abuse, addiction, and recovery. Misinformation around addiction can result in missed opportunities for treatment, worsening conditions, and significant injury.

Consider the “rock bottom” myth. Generally, this myth states that someone that is abusing alcohol or other drugs will not seek out or benefit from treatment until they “hit rock bottom.” This suggests that everyone, including the person using alcohol and drugs, is powerless to assist the substance user until they have arrived at this supposed “rock bottom.”

This myth can have serious repercussions, in that it can significantly influence the perceptions and behaviors of family members and treatment professionals towards the addicted person. Also, it can affect the expectations of the user towards him or herself. Believing this myth can propel a counterproductive course of action, or may discourage any action at all.

What is “Rock Bottom”?

The myth begins on a problematic note because there is no concrete definition for “rock bottom.” It will not be consistent from person to person, and it may lack consistency for an individual. A person may have thought they reached the bottom only to fall even further.

Essentially, “rock bottom” means the lowest point that a person can sink to due to substance use and addiction.

Resource Loss

A significant factor in the discussion of “rock bottom” is resource loss. “Rock bottom” seems to signify losses commonly associated with addiction. Individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction risk losing or damaging multiple resources, including:

  • Supportive relationships.
  • Financial security.
  • Employment.
  • Housing and safety.
  • Physical health.
  • Mental health.

The “rock bottom” theory would imply that treatment will not be effective until most or all of these resources are damaged or lost completely. The rock bottom myth paints a devastating picture — only someone who has lost it all (e.g., someone who’s homeless, unemployed, and sick) can truly benefit from getting help.

The Risk of Believing the Myth

The problem of the “rock bottom” myth is that it leads to many dangerous outcomes that would never be suggested in other fields. An oncologist would not suggest waiting until the cancer has metastasized before beginning treatment, so why would someone with an addiction wait until “rock bottom” to receive treatment?

Delayed response leads to increased likelihood of harmful physical and mental consequences.

Don’t wait to lose everything. Call to get help now.

Finding a Better Way: Raising the Bottom

As is often the case, there is some truth in the “rock bottom” myth. Some research has shown that resource loss is a good predictor of treatment completion (Gruszczy?ska, Kaczmarek, Chodkiewicz, 2016). The difference is that resource loss does not have to be catastrophic to be impactful.
This is the concept behind “raising the bottom.” If the person abusing substances can respond to minor changes in their life, they will not need to experience “rock bottom.”

Supporters of the person using substances can aid in “raising the bottom” by avoiding the risk of enabling current use. By allowing natural, negative consequences to occur, the probability of the addicted individual seeing the need for treatment can increase. For example, clearly stating the consequences of continuing use or not getting treatment, such as no longer receiving money for rent, may provide the motivation to enter a program. This serves to provide a crisis point that builds motivation instead of waiting until the addict “loses it all.”

At the same time, the bottom can be raised by encouraging healthy behaviors. To complete this, a friend or family member can:

  • Allow the addicted individual to resolve his or her own personal conflicts.
  • Practice consistency when setting limits and boundaries.
  • Discuss and support treatment options.
  • Provide transportation to doctor or therapy appointments.

Influencing Motivation

The  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has identified several factors that are opportunities to increase the motivation of someone addicted to drugs or alcohol to seek treatment. These factors include:

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  • Distress levels. Someone experiencing high levels of distress from a situational stressor will be more likely to seek a change.
  • Critical life events. Something like a death, a prevalent health issue, or another major life event can trigger interest in treatment.
  • Cognitive evaluation and appraisal. This involves the individual analyzing their current status in life. A negative appraisal can lead to change.
  • Recognizing negative consequences. This is the ability to accept the cause and effect relationship between substance use and unwanted outcomes.
  • Positive and external incentives. Not all factors have to be negative. If someone sees enough positive reinforcement associated with ending use, they will be more likely to do so.

These factors increase motivation. Motivation is a key agent of change associated with substance use disorders. If enough motivation is present, the recovery process has a higher chance of success. Previous views of motivation saw the level as unchangeable unless the person was confronted with a major crisis.

The “rock bottom” myth supports a way of thinking that may stigmatize the addicted person by equating their continued use with a lack of desire to quit using. If treatment was unsuccessful for whatever reason, it is often perceived as the fault of the client, and other factors such as the quality of treatment may be ignored. In actuality, the National Institute on Drug abuse characterizes addiction as a chronic condition that is associated with periods of recovery and relapse, so resistance, continued use, and poor outcomes are likely during the process.

Presently, the concept of motivation is changing to view it in different terms. According to  SAMHSA, motivation is:

  • The center aspect of change.
  • Multidimensional.
  • Fluid and changing constantly.
  • Impacted by the social environment.
  • Affected by the style of the treatment professional.

Based on this information, a lack of success does not speak to a total lack of motivation from the client. Rather, it indicates a momentary lack of motivation that can be easily corrected in a short amount of time through the individual:

  • Reevaluating their position.
  • Recognizing the negative consequences.
  • Receiving motivating incentives for returning to treatment and sobriety.

This contrasts the rock bottom myth and indicates that effective treatment can be initiated at any time. It is true that events associated with resource loss can boost motivation, but motivation can be increased through a number of other methods like self-appraisal and a different social environment.

Even Involuntary Treatment Can Work

Although motivation is an important element of treatment, it is not essential. Another false myth of recovery is that it must be voluntary. Actually, the  National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that treatment can be successful even when court ordered or mandated by family. One treatment is started, the individual has the opportunity to experience the benefits 6.

Treatment Options

Certain therapeutic styles focus on helping to influence a recovering user’s motivation to get and stay sober. Two such treatment methods are contingency management and motivational interviewing. Contingency management (CM) is a program that has been tested to improve treatment success for people abusing:

  • Alcohol.
  • Stimulants.
  • Nicotine.
  • Opioids.
  • Marijuana.

CM works to exploit positive and external incentives by rewarding individuals in treatment for activities that are congruent to recovery like:

  • Attending therapy.
  • Participating in support group meetings.
  • Providing drug-free urine screens.
  • Maintaining healthy coping skills like working.

For each positive activity, the client will receive immediate, tangible rewards or the opportunity to be rewarded with a lottery system. These positive incentives work to negate the perceived positives associated with substance use.

Motivational interviewing (MI), sometimes called motivational enhancement, is a form of talk therapy where the therapist works to increase the client’s intrinsic desire to begin or maintain recovery rather than depending on the therapist to provide continual motivation. MI can be used alone to treat substance use or in collaboration with other methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat addiction to substances like:

The best news is that any type of drug addiction treatment can be started at anytime  without waiting for the mythical “rock bottom.” All treatment will focus on the pros and cons of past substance use and the risks of continuing in the future. Many treatments will build healthy coping and communication skills to avoid use and triggers of use. There will be a focus in reinvesting time and energy towards productive actions and positive people.

If you are interested in learning more about effective treatment options for any stage of addiction or recovery, consider calling . Remember, waiting only allows more damage to your physical and mental health. Recovery does not have to wait.

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Eric Patterson, MSCP, NCC, LPC, is a professional counselor who has been working for over a decade to help children, adolescents, and adults in western Pennsylvania reach their goals and improve their well-being.

Along the way, Eric worked as a collaborating investigator for the field trials of the DSM-5 and completed an agreement to provide mental health treatment to underserved communities with the National Health Service Corp.

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