The Myth of “Rock Bottom”

Tip prior to reading: “Rock bottom” oft refers to substance use and addiction. I left the majority of terminology broad to allow it to be applied to other areas such as mental health and self-care. Feel free to apply as needed.

While running a group therapy session about three or four years ago during my short stint as a drug and alcohol counselor, the group got around to talking about their “rock bottom.” For those of you who are not familiar with this term, it normally refers to the moment when an individual experiences the worst time of their life. It is usually at this moment that the individual accepts their situation and takes steps towards betterment including asking for help (Carise, 2013).

As we went around the circle, one of my clients interjected bluntly, “There is no such thing as rock bottom…unless you’re in jail or dead.” The group went silent with the realness of this statement. The gentleman made a strong point. Here we were discussing a myth.

When broken down, the idea of “hitting rock bottom” loses its merit rather quickly. Foremost, the definition lacks consistency and varies from individual to individual (7 “Rock-Bottom” Myths and the Truth Behind Them; Patterson). Some individuals experience “multiple bottoms” and not one defining event that led to their realization. Furthermore, the whole notion is counterproductive and discourages any action from being taken. While waiting for such a life-changing event to occur, damage accumulates without intervention. The individual suffers. They are stripped of their resources (e.g. relationships, financial security, housing, safety, employment) (7 “Rock-Bottom” Myths and the Truth Behind Them). Mental and physical health deteriorates with each passing day.

Instead, “raise the bottom.” Research has shown some resource loss can provide a source of motivation (Gruszczyńska, Kaczmarek, & Chodkiewicz, 2016). Therefore, rather than awaiting total devastation, utilize minor resource loss as a sign of change. The impact of the resource loss does not have to be debilitating in order to be impactful (Patterson). Supporters of the individual in question can also assist in “raising the bottom” by avoiding enabling behaviors. Natural, negative consequences carry a strong message and increase the motivation for intervention long before “rock bottom” ever has to take place. Supporters can also replace enabling behaviors by encouraging healthy ones instead. Allow the individual to resolve their own conflicts rather than feeling the need to play the role of “savior.” Maintain consistent boundaries and limits. Be there when necessary.

Contrary to the “rock bottom” myth, there are a number of ways to solicit motivation for change within yourself and others (Patterson).

  • Situational distress. Excessive stress is a sign that we are experiencing internal turmoil and that part of our well-being is in a chaotic state. It acts as a beacon signaling for change to bring peace to that area of our life.
  • Critical life events. Major life events always throw us for a loop and tend to have a significant effect on us whether we like it or not.
  • Cognitive appraisal. Once in a while, conduct a self-inventory. It does not hurt to evaluate yourself to see where you are and where you want to be.
  • Negative consequences. Seeing the cause and effect relationship between one’s actions and outcomes is a reality check. What better motivation than to stay away from unwanted results.
  • Positive and external incentives. Rewards systems work. Setting up goals and personal incentives will provide that little extra kick to get someone through. It is also a more positive form of motivation than the other aforementioned ways.

While the remainder of the group remained silent, I looked directly at the gentleman. “People have a choice then. They can pull the trapdoor and keep going down. Or they can grab onto the ladder to start their journey upwards.”

-The Caring Counselor



7 “Rock-Bottom” Myths and the Truth Behind Them. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2017, from

Carise, D. (2013, June 24). Waiting to Hit the Elusive “Rock Bottom”. Retrieved December 22, 2017, from HuffPost:

Gruszczyńska, E., Kaczmarek, M., & Chodkiewicz, J. (2016, July). Hitting rock bottom? Resource loss as a predictor of alcoholism treatment completion. Nord J Psychiatry, 70(5), 351-357. doi:10.3109/08039488.2015.1123293

Patterson, E. (n.d.). The “Hitting Rock Bottom Myth”. Retrieved December 22, 2017, from


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