The Rock Bottom Myth

by Maximilian Eyle

Everyone is familiar with the concept. We see it in movies, books, and on stage. Someone’s life spirals downward until they are struck with a lightning bolt of clarity and begin to make amends and change their ways. The message is clear: What do people who use drugs need to do? Hit rock bottom. How do we help them? Tough love or they’ll never learn. In many cases, we are afraid to show support or compassion for fear of becoming an “enabler”. There is an assumption that the person needs to be “torn down” before they can decide to change their behavior. The problem is that this concept is patently false. Not only that, but it has led to disastrous public policy results.

But what about all of the stories from people who described “hitting rock bottom” before changing their behavior? The key here is precisely defining what we mean by Rock Bottom. Many people do decide to make a change in their lives once they recognize the damage that their behavior is causing. However, this does not mean that they have to be coerced or “lose everything” to reach this point. What it does mean is that they experienced a shift in perspective. To quote Dr. Peggilee Wupperman, a professor at both John Jay and Yale University, it means that “they reached a point when they realized their life was extremely (and distressingly) different from the life they wanted or a life that fit their values.” Yet it is extremely important to recognize that this can be achieved without being torn down in therapy or experiencing severe material or emotional loss.

This idea that fostering shame and suffering is somehow the right thing to do is the natural conclusion of the Rock Bottom Myth. As a result, we turn our backs on our instincts for compassion and support. Tragically, this only makes things worse. Dr. Wupperman is a vocal critic of this philosophy. She points out that: “Despite widespread (and erroneous!) beliefs, shaming does not stop dysregulated behavior. In fact, the reality is the opposite. Shame actually increases the chance a person will continue to engage in dysregulated behavior.” This should not come as much of a surprise. We know that many people use mind altering substances to self-medicate their trauma and to ease their suffering. Consequently, when we increase the trauma and suffering in their lives – they will often consume more, not less.

It is imperative that we disengage ourselves from the punishment approach to substance use. The failed War on Drugs, the AIDS crisis, and the overdose epidemic are just some of the examples of how our determination to shame and marginalize people for their substance use has only served to worsen the problem. We have the opportunity to rethink our approach using evidence-based strategies that emphasize compassion over stigma, and empowerment over persecution.

Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He works as a media consultant and writes each month about a variety of issues for Spanish-language papers across New York State. Maximilian has a love of Hispanic culture and learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at maxeyle@gmail.com.

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