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What is Rock Bottom?

rock bottomThe expression “rock bottom” is one that has become popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and part of our common language.[1] It means that a person loses everything or has such dire consequences from their substance use that they land at a point where there is nothing else to lose.1 You can fall no lower when you hit rock bottom.1 It is painful, jarring, and often a significant motivator for change.1

However, Peg O’Connor, PhD often wonders whether the expression “rock bottom” makes it seem as if there exists an objective standard for what counts as hitting it.1 Is it always losing everything?1 Not always.1 Also, many assume that people who suffer from addiction will only attempt to make significant changes after hitting rock bottom.1 However, this may not be true.1 In fact, O’Connor believes that thinking this way may, in fact, ironically keep a person from seeking help earlier when their problem isn’t as serious.1

Oftentimes, people rationalize their substance abuse issues by thinking of all of the things that have not happened to them: such as a DUI, an arrest, the loss of family or friends.1 Therefore, by comparing themselves to the standard of devastation, they do not believe they have hit rock bottom.1 Also, family and friends of individuals with substance abuse issues may not believe the person has hit rock bottom yet, and they wait for it to happen before they try to truly help.1 They enable the addict in an indirect manner, based on the vague definition of rock bottom.1

O’Connor believes that the expression “rock bottom” should be replaced with “misery threshold,” a term developed by philosopher and psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).1 A misery threshold is similar to a physical pain threshold, as each person has a threshold for physical pain.1 Some will medicate their pain at the slightest sense of it, while others will refuse medicine when feeling the most excruciating of it.1

The same goes for misery.1 Each person has their own misery threshold and will only be able to tolerate so much.1 Some will often lean towards the sunnier side of that line, where they may be unhappy and miserable at times, but it is not enough for them to cross over and remain there.1 For example, this type of person may find they are drinking more frequently than they intend to, and as they move down the line to substance abuse, will suffer consequences that are too painful for them as an individual.1 They will see the connection and change their actions.1

On the other hand, those who reside on the darker side of the misery threshold are most comfortable and familiar there.1 William James called this “world sickness.”1 This is progressive, and these people can move from experiencing a little joy, to no joy, to angst, to fear and terror about the world.1 These people suffer great despair, drained of hope and life.1

Addicts can experience any of these degrees of world sickness—or all of them.1 It isn’t a one-size-fits-all sickness.1 Some can tolerate more and suffer longer, while others cannot and suffer for shorter periods of time.1 As addiction progresses in different ways and at different speeds for people, the concept of misery threshold is more appealing than that of rock bottom.1 We can all understand our misery threshold, as it is real to us—but rock bottom?1 What is that for us? For anyone? When do we know we have hit it? It is a dangerous way of thinking, and not a realistic one.1



[1] O’Connor, P. (2014, May 9). The Concept “Rock Bottom” May Perversely Keep People Using . Psychology Today. Retrieved May 12, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/philosophy-stirred-not-shaken/201405/the-concept-rock-bottom-may-perversely-keep-people-using

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