I was at a meeting last night where the subject was “bottoms.” The person who brought up the topic was fairly explicit about what he meant when he used the word, but it was clear from the discussion that some of the folks there had rather different ideas.

I had some of what some of those folks were calling bottoms. There was the foreclosure on our home because of my inability to pay attention to the details that could have prevented it. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, or that there wasn’t any money. I was making decent bucks at the time, but I was too messed up by alcohol and other drugs to focus. I felt horrible about losing the home, but it didn’t stop my drinking and drugging; in fact, they increased.  Nothing like feeling horrible to give you an excuse to mood-alter.

Then there was the eviction from the rented home with pool (the rent of which was about twice the payment on the foreclosed home). Seemed like a good idea at the time we rented it — unfurnished. It was still unfurnished when we moved out a year later. I was upset with the landlady for not being more understanding about the rent and damage, but it didn’t affect my drinking and drugging, nor did getting fired by the doctor who had been feeding my pill addiction for years, or the frantic scramble to find another medical enabler, or the foreclosure on my folks’ home — again not due to penury, but to lack of focus.

Those bumps on the downward slide were just that — bumps. They taught me a lot in retrospect, after the booze and drugs were out of my system, but I didn’t learn squat until I reached a level of misery that left me no discernible choices. I knew I had a major problem with substance abuse — hell, I’d known it for years! — but I was convinced that if I admitted it I’d lose my job and be living on the street. It took the misery of living in a motel room with another drunk and more than a dozen cats, subsisting on beer and hot dogs from the convenience store across the street, and a direct order from my boss to go to treatment or lose my job, to get me into treatment and some long-term recovery.

We don’t make changes until it’s too uncomfortable to continue as we are, and we tell ourselves all sorts of lies to avoid it. Willingness to change may come from boredom, fear, pain, health, marital or legal problems or myriad other reasons, but it’s never random. We always believe that the change will involve less discomfort than staying where we are.  We fear the unknown; we like to know what to expect.  Even when an outsider might look at our situation and think that only an insane person would remain in it, at least it’s familiar.  Other possibilities are obscured by fear, and in the case of addiction there’s a good deal of insanity involved, as well.

Humans remember pleasure far more easily than discomfort.  We alcoholics and other addicts continue to seek things that used to bring us pleasure, even though they now bring pain. We do (you can sing along here) “the same old things, over and over again, and expect different results.” Those bumps on my slippery slope weren’t bottoms. They created apprehension, fear, worry and regret, but no change, and a bottom is something that forces a sincere, sustained attempt at substantial, lasting change. It’s not something that causes us to waver in our path, it’s a realization that so alters our perception of the road we’re on that we find that we have to strike out on an entirely different one. It’s understanding the Grave and Shovelneed to restructure our lives, and to maintain that structure in the face of temptation and urges to change back.  As my friend Pierre says, “The old me will drink again!”

So my idea of a bottom is simple: We’ve hit bottom when we’ve stopped digging the hole. A bottom isn’t something that makes us uncomfortable. It’s not something that causes us to make little changes to avoid hassles. It’s not something that causes us to go to a few meetings to find out how to “drink like a gentleman.” We can put on performances for others, march, dance, and turn cartwheels. We can slow down, walk backwards, sideways, or on our hands, but until we run into something that forces us to strike out in a different direction from the road we’re on, we’re still in the same rut.  And what’s a rut but a long hole?

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