Dr. Carl Andersen, founder of the Center for the Study of Addiction & Recovery at Texas Tech University, describes the idea of “rock bottom” as the following: "Rock bottom is not one specific destination. It's more like an elevator. For some addicts, rock bottom is just a few floors lower. When they hit that floor, that's it. They get it. They're done, and they want the help. They're willing to do whatever it takes to stay sober and achieve successful recovery. But for others, they keep punching a lower floor. For some, even the basement isn't low enough. They dig six feet below that."
In other words, rather than viewing an entire list of consequences as the collective manifestation of the “rock bottom” concept, it may be that each individual negative effect is, itself, a level of rock bottom. The latter, along with Dr. Andersen’s theory, would explain the experience of those individuals who report repeat stays in rehab and numerous prison sentences. In addition, it may also account for relapse.
What Does This Mean?
If rock bottom is indeed more like an elevator allotting numerous destinations rather than one, solitary low point, then it is possible for an individual to rise and fall, repeatedly. Moreover, the analogy leads one to perceive sobriety as the top floor and, therefore, still a stop on the elevator—a part of rock bottom. This might explain why such a small percentage maintain their stay in sobriety. According to this theory, sobriety simply isn’t enough.
Though socially and legally punitive measures do provide the consequences necessary to prevent social or legal enabling of active addiction, they also add to the cycle of pain which typically perpetuates it. When pain results in negative behaviors which then result in negative consequences, feelings of guilt and shame typically arise, which lead to even more pain. This reality presents the reasoning behind the revolving door prison system with regard to illegal drug activity and addiction.
Understandably so, there are those who argue against punitive measures altogether and desire the decriminalization of drugs to remedy the revolving door. These individuals also seek to end the current protocol of punishment for the disease of addiction. And, with that, most helping professionals who work from the medical model agree. After all, no one gets tossed in jail for having cancer or diabetes.
The Lowest Floor
We must not forget, however, that it is not addiction itself which results in a prison sentence. It is the advancing stages of it—a perceived inability to reach a low enough floor on the “rock bottom” elevator. There are recovering addicts who have never been to prison and active addicts who will never enter into recovery. Even repeated prison sentences won’t be enough to force a change.
Every addiction specialist and family member of addicts should ask themselves the following: when numerous stays in rehab do not result in successful recovery, what will? Maybe it takes more than detox, rehab and 12-Step meetings. Certainly, negative consequences such as unemployment, financial ruin, custody battles, legal citations, warrants and prison sentences alone don’t solve the problem and eventually add to the cycle of pain. On the other hand, active addiction is enabled when there are no consequences.
Perhaps then, the real solution lies not in consequences, decriminalization or dealing with the behavior; perhaps, at the crux of it all, we should really be focusing on healing the pain instead.