In the world of substance use disorders is a concept of a “bottom” or “rock bottom.” Even those outside of recovery programs recognize that to find a way out of the deep well of those that suffer from substance use disorders, there is a kind of desperation that must occur. It’s the theory that “it gets worse before it can get better” and a person must go so far down that well, that the only direction left to go is up. It may sound like just another cliché or overused euphemism but it’s all true in all the different ways a “bottom” is experienced by those that suffer from substance use disorders.
Before I recognized my own disease I was convinced that I knew, well actually, a lot, including what a drunk was. A drunk was dirty, lazy, poor, probably homeless, and could be found begging for money which would certainly end up being something in a brown paper bag. A drunk was someone who occasionally walked the streets talking to themselves and often ended up in the hospital for withdrawals or other frequent health issues. A less harmless kind of drunk was the abusive husband. He goes to work, usually at a poor-paying job, and either stops at the bar or the liquor store before going home to rage on his wife and kids. Then there was the rich drunk lady who is so bored with her life, and so lonely without her busy business-focused husband that all she’s left to do is drink all day long. The last type of drunk I concluded exists must be the enabling drunk couple. One partner convinces the other that it’s perfectly normal to spend the evenings stumbling back and forth from the kitchen to retrieve drinks and then to endure the hangover until it’s time for Bloody Mary’s at breakfast.
I knew everything there was to know about alcoholics before I realized I was one.
The truth is, living with a substance use disorder looks a lot different from the inside.
In recovery, I learned that I have had more than one “rock bottom.” Sometimes it was simply having hurt someone I love with my behavior. Sometimes it was physically assaulting another person or even myself. Sometimes it was finding myself in front of a judge. I went to work hungover, often. I woke up in places I didn’t recognize and have been told stories about things I did that I don’t remember. I slept with people I didn’t know. I cheated, I lied, I stole. I was carried out of a crack house in Detroit by four men and then pushed out of a car while one of them drove. I’m not even sure how I ended up there in the first place. For me, all of these are bottoms. High or low, all bottoms. Looking back it was apparent that I wasn’t ready to quit digging.
Even after all that, the lowest I’ve ever gone is the moment I realized that I had everything I ever wanted and I was STILL miserable. I had a realization that if I couldn’t change the patterns I created in my life over years and years, then I really didn’t want to live anymore. Life was truly good and inside I was suffering from a disease that wouldn’t allow me the ability to see that. Stuck in the proverbial purgatory of living with a substance use disorder: I didn’t want to live but I didn’t want to die either.
Enter sacred desperation.
I was desperate to have meaningful relationships and enjoy life. I wanted to know myself, feel I had a purpose, and fix the many things I broke inside and outside of me. I wanted to stay married and be a better mother to my daughter. I once heard in a meeting that a “high bottom drunk” is a person who didn’t have lose everything before getting sober. Many of us still had good jobs, functional marriages, some of us even had people who cared about us despite our inability to realize it. As far as I can tell that is the ONLY difference between me and the dirty homeless drunk on the street (who society had me convinced was the REAL drunk). I haven’t go there…YET.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
I share all of this in detail because I think it’s helpful to shed some light on how we perceive substance use disorder. I have met those that suffer who are of every age, race and gender. I’ve talked to those that suffer who work at fast food restaurants and others who are surgeons. Some have families. Some have none. Some are homeless and some live in gigantic well-furnished houses. Some alcoholics only drink on weekends. Some drink all day and all night. Most have tried many times to get sober and maybe never told anyone. We are your next door neighbor, your in-law, your child’s school teacher. We are the drunk on the street and the surgeon in the O.R. (hopefully sober at the time). We are as diverse as any other group of diseased humans working every moment of our lives to live in the cure that is only a daily remission: sobriety. I am particularly sensitive to topics surrounding substance use disorder and especially alcohol use, as this is how it manifests in me. When I hear of another person who suffers from a substance use disorder that lost the fight for sobriety it pains me inside as if it were my own blood. Because it is. It’s not just my own blood, it IS ME. I get it. What a blessing and a curse to see it from both sides.
Does it Matter?
Really, the short answer to the question of “Does it really matter?” is yes and no. No, because whether or not our bottoms looked the same, we felt the same. And yes, considering myself a high-bottom drunk matters to me, but only in the sense that I could go down a lot farther if I really wanted. All I have to do is pick up a drink. Personally, I experience a healthy fear of getting drunk again because there is so much farther to go, and the farther down you go, the harder it is to climb out.