One does not have to spend much time in recovery circles before hearing the term “hitting rock bottom.” While the words have an easily perceptible connotation, “rock bottom” may mean different things to different people. Certainly, in the earliest days of treatment for addictions, “rock bottom” may have implied the stereotypical town drunk slugging down booze from a bottle in a brown paper bag, or an addict raging and sweating, barely able to hang on until the next fix. While those images still hold true in some cases, “hitting rock bottom” applies to physical, mental and emotional depravity and despair.
Hitting a physical bottom
Alcoholism and drug addiction take a definite physical toll. Physical problems progress as the addiction problem progresses. What may begin as a bad hangover, with symptoms of dry mouth, headache, nausea and fatigue, eventually can become alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver. Recovery from severe addiction may include delirium tremens and seizures. “Hitting rock bottom” might be anywhere along this spectrum, depending on an alcoholic’s or drug addict’s willingness to seek help before the most serious physical effects occur. The ultimate “rock bottom” for an addict is death.
Deterioration of mental processes
Hitting “rock bottom” mentally means suffering “wet brain.” The official medical term for “wet brain” is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is a dual medical problem, the first caused by lack of vitamin B1 and resulting in damage to the parts of the brain connected with vision and balance. The second part, which can occur at the same time, affects memory and can be a chronic condition. Some of the symptoms of “wet brain” can be cured if they are diagnosed early enough, but often the mental deterioration is permanent.
Alcoholics and addicts have difficulty experiencing and expressing emotions in a healthy manner. They choose to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, and they manage to stifle their feelings and emotions. An emotional “bottom” means experiencing an episode so devastating that it breaks through the denial inherent in addiction. It is a sense of absolute despair and hopelessness caused by the realization that one is on the brink of losing everything. This emotional “bottom” may be just what is needed for the alcoholic or addict to surrender and to accept help.
Although “rock bottom” may differ among individuals, ultimately the progress of addiction will lead to the worst-case scenario unless one picks up the tools of recovery.