In recovery, you’ll hear a lot of talk about rock bottoms. You might hear someone say they stopped drinking because they finally hit rock bottom or you might hear people say when describing a person who just can’t seem to quit despite having numerous consequences “I guess he hasn’t hit his rock bottom yet.” But what does hitting rock bottom actually mean? And do you definitely have to hit one to stop drinking? Well, let’s start with what it is: the dictionary defines rock bottom as the lowest level possible. This can mean different things to different people.
My bottom was driving after having too much to drink with my kids in the car. Luckily, I drove a short distance and arrived home safely. I say “luckily,” because despite the lack of consequence, I was able to see that dangerous behavior as a low point. I was “lucky” I understood right then and there that left unchecked, using Xanax and wine on a daily basis as my only reliable means of stress relief would eventually lead to much worse consequences. My low point could definitely be a much lower point and I was willing to work my ass off in recovery to not let that happen.
But truth be told, that wasn’t my first drunk driving rodeo. In my twenties, I drove drunk on a fairly regular basis. Many mornings, I would wake up after a night out with a spotty recollection of the night before and not know for certain if my car would be parked in my apartment’s parking space. There would be a moment of sheer panic before I peeked through the vertical blinds to check, knowing if it wasn’t there, I’d have no clue where to start looking. It wasn’t that I was too embarrassed to ask someone to drive me home from bars or parties or even that I was too cheap to take a taxi –I just never thought I was that drunk until the next day. On some level, I knew the behavior wasn’t good and that I was dodging a bullet, but since nothing horrible came to pass, I didn’t worry I was anywhere near the bottom. The denial was strong in this one.
I know other people who have had awful penalties from their drinking and still didn’t stop. I have a friend whose hard drinking brother lost several jobs, crashed several cars and once got so drunk while out with co-workers, he took off all his clothes in a bar and peed in the corner. He went to work the next day like nothing happened. Not his bottom.
So is it possible to quit drinking without hitting rock bottom? It is if you can shift what you consider rock bottom. Does rock bottom have to mean your wife made good on her threat to file for divorce and take the kids? Does it mean you have to get fired from the job you love because you got hammered at the office Christmas party and slept with your married boss? What if you brought the bottom up to meet you where you are? Maybe rock bottom could be that you cry at night while Googling “Am I an alcoholic?” or that you once again got drunk and texted your ex-boyfriend that you still love him and then didn’t remember it until the next day when he texted you back to please, please stop texting him because his wife doesn’t like it. My point is, your rock bottom doesn’t have to sink to The Girl on the Train level despair; you can stop at sick and tired of being sick and tired.
In the old days, people only headed to AA when they’d literally been institutionalized or thrown in jail. AA, for many people, was a last resort. But that was a hundred years ago. Now we know better; we know it doesn’t need to get that bad. Your bottom can be whatever the hell you say it is. Your bottom can be whenever you decide you’ve had enough.
Stefanie Wilder-Taylor is an author, blogger and podcaster. She’s talked sobriety on Dr. Oz, Larry King Live, Dr. Drew, GMA, 20/20 and The Today Show. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three sporadically charming children.