I can’t count the number of times in the last few months I’ve heard someone, well-meaning, say you’ve got to hit “rock bottom” before you can get better. I’m not sure if it’s an official AA term, but that’s where I first remember hearing it used of sinking to the lowest point in your life, so low there’s no place to go but up.
Since then, I’ve heard it in all kinds of therapy and self-help settings. People I’ve known who suffer from depression have wondered when they were going to hit rock bottom and start to feel better. People I’ve known struggling with spiritual emptiness have wondered where their “spiritual rock bottom” lies, where God will finally find them in their outer darkness or Jesus will work some magical redemption. People I’ve known who live daily with misgivings from their past, nursing the wounds of many wrongs, some of them misfortunes of happenstance, some inflicted by family, old lovers and even friends, yet others self-inflicted, have wondered aloud in my presence whether “experiencing them fully” until they reach the rock bottom of this woundedness is the way to finally move beyond their pain.
But the problem with needing to hit rock bottom is that you never really know where rock bottom is until you’ve been there and can look back at it. Some people never get there. They never get to the point where they feel that things are as bad as they can get and continue to waste away in their addiction or suffering. Or they die before they realize how bad it is.
So let’s do away with romantic notions and be clear. Dying is rock bottom. It doesn’t get any worse after that. But at that point the need for therapy and recovery no longer applies, and rock-bottom is not a viable strategy for getting better.
A little book by Henri Nouwen called The Wounded Healer is often misused in service of this notion. Nouwen wrote, in a nutshell, that the person who has experienced a wound and recovered from it is uniquely qualified to help others who suffer from similar wounds. Nouwen’s hopeful advice is that suffering can be redeemed by using painful experiences to help others.
What Nouwen does not say, however, is that you should seek out suffering, or that you should want to increase your suffering or prolong it in order to become a better healer. Nouwen was not a masochist. The idea that you should intentionally go deeper into suffering or exacerbate your condition would have been abhorrent to Nouwen, though his book has often been misinterpreted in that way – mostly, I should add, by people who haven’t actually read it but extrapolate their interpretation from the title.
The idea of rock bottom makes a great story. “I was at rock bottom, but look at me now!” It’s the American, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps dream in therapeutic clothing. But the myth defies the facts. For every fantastic story of the self-described loser who rose from the depths of addiction on skid row to become a millionaire – or fill in whatever other marker of success you like – there are millions of ordinary folk. Thousands of them hit rock bottom and die every day. Thousands more suffer through endless days of depression and anxiety and trouble waiting to arrive at a mythical, magical rock-bottom moment that always eludes them.
Those ordinary folk among us must find another way to heal before being destroyed by rock bottom. Here’s my un-mythic, un-magical counter-proposal to the rock bottom story:
Less suffering is better than more suffering.
Most people don’t need an intervention. And when you’re suffering, you don’t need more drama. Save the drama for novels and movies. Most of us are better off with less real-life drama. Most of us are not mythic. We’re not Aladdins, “diamonds in the rough”. We’re not Hollywood stars waiting to be born out of the crucible of adversity. And if you watch Entertainment Tonight on any given evening, you’ll know that those who are Hollywood stars tend to carry their adversity with them into their stardom. Fame and millions don’t save them from their bad marriages and addictions.
Less suffering is better than more suffering. Less wallowing in your pain and resentments is better than more wallowing. Less dwelling on the past is better than more dwelling. Less abusing of substances is better than more abusing. Less abuse in a marriage is better than more abuse.
I’ve had thoughtful people object to this. I’ve had people tell me that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” therefore I must plumb the depths of my pain to the fullest extent and experience the total depravity of my soul to it’s outer limit.
This is bullshit.
Your pain is not your Everest to climb. Mount Everest is a physical reality. “The depths of your pain” is a mental, metaphysical construct. That’s not to say it isn’t really painful. But in the case of emotional pain, the suffering comes from the meaning you attribute to it. In the case of psychological pain, it is reconstructed and reinforced again every time you visit it.
Less negative drama is better than more negative drama. Less despair is better than more despair. Less anxiety is better than more anxiety.
Some people need the help of antidepressants or other medication in order to lessen their pain. I’m all for that. There is nothing wrong with taking medication to correct chemical imbalances in the brain and body that cause you to return over and over to your darkest thoughts. Medicine can lessen the pain and anxiety, one day at a time, and help you not to rush over and over again to climb your mental Mount Everests. If you’ve been prescribed medicine, take it. There’s no shame in using something helpful. It won’t alleviate your real-world problems, but it will help lessen the burden of a mind racing out of control.
Others object that any addiction, any abuse, any suffering is too much. It’s all or nothing. The only way to be better is to be completely free of pain, completely abstinent, to go cold turkey. The only way to find relief is to cut off all contact with old acquaintances and start from scratch.
This, too, is bullshit.
The perfect is the enemy of the possible, an excuse for avoiding taking any action at all. Perfection, like rock-bottom, is for novels and the movies. Less bad is better than more bad. Call it the Ockham’s razor approach to therapy. The simplest explanation, the simplest solution, the small thing you can do right now to get your mind out of the darkness, is probably the right thing.
Less radical intervention is better than more radical intervention. The least intrusive method generates the least resistance to acceptance and the greatest likelihood of sticking with it.
When someone is near death, say from a massive heart attack, radical surgery is needed. When someone is close to rock bottom already, standing on a bridge ready to jump, a full-on intervention may be the only way to save her from herself. But open heart surgery and full-on interventions are not things anyone should attempt at home.
For headache, take aspirin. Because, while aspirin may not cure your headache, less headache is better than more headache. For scraped knees, use Neosporin and a bandaid. They won’t cure your scraped knee, but less scraped-knee pain is better than more scraped-knee pain. Almost nobody says when they scrape their knee, “I must experience the full extent of knee pain in order to be more fully human.”
Not all problems and wounds are merely scraped knees, of course. All of us, I suspect, have been dealt deeper wounds than that. Childhood and marital abuse, divorce, job losses, deaths of loved ones, betrayals of friends – all these cuts go deep and their pain is real. They often require the help and expertise of real doctors and real medications. And fortunate are those who have access to those remedies. If you do, you should take advantage of them.
But what I am saying is that it makes no sense to add to the real pain more self-inflicted pain in the name of reaching some false sense of fulfillment or nobility. And there is no sense in waiting forever for a miracle cure when there are small things you can do to make things a little better now. Martyrdom is overrated. Leave martyrdom for the martyrs.
To experience suffering is part of living on the planet. It is real. It is unavoidable. Sometimes suffering is necessary to achieve a greater objective. But even then, less suffering is better than more suffering. And rock bottom is a place much better to read about than to experience. Less suffering is better than more suffering.
So what do you do?
Exactly what to do in your case today depends on what small thing is at hand. No one day is going to bring perfection, so do whatever small thing you can do and complete. Then you can say to yourself, “I did something.”
If you have medicine, take your medicine. If you have the chance to meet a friend for coffee instead of staying home mulling over how awfully your ex treated you, go have coffee. If you can bring yourself to drain the last two beers in the sink instead of drinking them, drain them. If you can play Parcheesi with your 11-year old instead of stalking that person who hurt you on Facebook, play Parcheesi. Sure, you might think about your ex later, or you might go out and get more beer in a few hours. Maybe you are addicted. But less raging and less drinking is better than more raging and more drinking. And maybe there’s an AA meeting you will go to tonight that you wouldn’t have gone to if you hadn’t drained those last two beers in the sink. Maybe after Parcheesi you’ll feel great and want to make love later on instead of sulking. One small step leads to the next small step. It’s time, even a few short hours, with your friend or your kid or sober that you didn’t have before.
Don’t wait for rock bottom. And certainly don’t try to get there. And don’t wait for perfection either. Do the small things you can do, one at a time. The important thing is to do something, any small thing. The point is not to make the suffering go away all at once, but to engage in something that makes the suffering just a little less, something that is actually in your power to do right now.
What are you waiting for? Go do it. Start.