Help an Addict by “Raising their Bottom”
“After speaking with and emailing hundreds of parents, spouses and other family members, I know this is a lot easier said, than done. Raising the bottom is especially difficult for mothers and is one of the reasons I wrote the book Why Don’t They JUST QUIT? — to get this message to as many as possible.” ~Chaplain Joe Herzanek
This is a question we recently received:
I frequently help other parents when they need to discuss their child’s addiction. I am just a parent, not a professional. But since we “came out” as a family, people will frequently seek our advice. One concept that is frequently coming up that prevents them and their children from getting help is the “hitting bottom” issue. They think that not enough bad things have happened, their child hasn’t hit bottom, so it is too early to seek help. It is really bothering me because, as I tell them, hitting bottom could mean death, serious brain damage, or jail. To me, it seems that the concept is more that parents are using “hitting bottom” as an excuse to defer treatment for whatever reason. Do you have any experience or thoughts on this? Thanks, ~Lori
This post excerpted from Chapter 18 (Pivotal Teaching Moments: The “rock bottom” myth) of Why Don’t They JUST QUIT? What families and friends need to know about addiction and recovery.
Yeah, when he hits bottom he’ll be ready.
A user has to hit bottom before he will change.
Sooner or later she will hit bottom. Then she’ll be ready to get some help.
Help an Addict by “Raising their Bottom”
Exactly what do I mean by “raising the bottom”? This whole idea of “hitting bottom” is out of date. Some people will wait years—even decades-—for their friend to reach this mythical point in their alcohol and drug use. But why wait for them to “hit bottom”? Why not help them by raising their bottom? There are ways to encourage someone to reach for help much earlier. In doing so, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary pain and heartache and maybe even save their life. For some people, hitting bottom will be six feet underground.
I’ll use my son as an example. Jake is a great kid, grew up in a Christian home, attended church camps and is doing well in college. He’s studying and has found a major that he is excited about. He also works at a part-time job where he has recently been promoted to manager. We are extremely proud of him.
But life hasn’t always been this promising for Jake. He began his early teen years pretty much as I did. At age thirteen, Jake began to experiment with alcohol and pot. He did this in spite of the fact that his father was an addiction counselor (or maybe subconsciously because of it, since that would be a good way to rebel against Dad). Jake was also very aware of how genetic predisposition could play a role in his life, as he knew my own addiction story well. However, he made some wrong choices, which to me reconfirmed that there was some truth to the genetic correlation.
At times he was out of control, and as a result he was often suspended from school. He got in trouble for fighting and pulling the fire alarm during school. He even managed to get a ticket for reckless driving in the school parking lot. He and some friends tore up a golf course one night with a 4 x 4 truck. He was also selling drugs. One night we had four police cars in front of our house when he was arrested, and they searched our house with a drug-sniffing dog. His probation officer came by frequently, and he had to take random UAs (urine analysis tests for drugs). At one point, he couldn’t leave the house for several weeks because he had an ankle bracelet (a monitoring device on his leg as part of one of his probation requirements), so he figured he would sell drugs out of our house.
Eventually the principal of his high school told him, “We’ve had it, don’t come back.” Right before our eyes, he had almost turned into a stranger. Jake was frequently running away from home and running from police. He soon found his life swarming with issues he could not handle because of his substance use. For a time, Judy and I were on edge, just dreading to hear the phone ring. Someone was always calling us about Jake. Although his police problems were not major, we did often have a patrol car in our driveway. It was great excitement for the neighbors! We had many sleepless nights worried about our son’s safety. At least four of his friends had been killed in alcohol-related incidents. How long was this going to last? How much more trouble could he possibly get into? This painful phase of drug abuse in my own life had gone on for sixteen years, which made me determined to help Jake all the more. I couldn’t bear to see him go through the same thing I did. Judy and I pursued counseling, parenting seminars, and other resources for support.
Most of our attempts did little to help. There were some very low times for us. During one counseling session Jake got up and stormed out of the room. Nothing seemed to be the answer for our son. Though we continued to try, we learned that this was not something we could control. All we could do was hold things together and continue to hope and pray for Jake.
Addicts like me, and potentially my son, often need to learn things the hard way. Judy vividly recalls a time when Jake was about three years old. She was ironing and told him not to touch the iron—that it was hot. He looked directly into her eyes, stuck out his finger and touched it. At that moment she knew this was not going to be an easy road. Jake was going to have to learn things the hard way.
“We cannot learn without pain.”
The Value of Pain
Pain can be a wonderful teacher. Pain usually means that something is wrong or perhaps broken. Without pain, most people would have even larger problems. Pain is a signal that we need to do something different if we want it to stop.
We decided to not rob Jake of these pivotal learning opportunities. We weren’t going to lie for him, put up his bail, or pay for lawyers. In one of the seminars we attended, we were advised not to argue with our son; just let the consequences be the “bad guy.” When the police brought him home late one night, we let the law take its course. A traffic infraction while Jake was on probation had turned into a search, and drugs were found in the car. The officers told me what happened and asked me what I wanted to do. Jake was a minor, under the age of eighteen, so I was still responsible for him. I asked them what they would normally do if we had not been home. The officer told me that the normal course of action would be to put him in jail. I said, “Okay, go ahead, and do what you would normally do if we were not here.” I was told to pick him up in the morning.
As parents, it wasn’t easy to watch them put handcuffs on him and drive away. This would be the first of three incidents like this. Jake learned that we were not going to rescue him.
From then on, we allowed the natural consequences be his teacher. For ten days in January, he was sentenced to wilderness work camp (unofficially called hoods in the woods), where he slept in a tent high in the Rocky Mountains. He later spent ten days in juvenile detention, and we didn’t bail him out or hire a lawyer. All this was painful for him and for us as well.
Jake didn’t like being locked up, and he was beginning to connect the dots. But still, we endured a few more difficult years. Jake didn’t change overnight and his problem continued to be a strain on our family. His problem was all-consuming, taking up the majority of our physical and mental energy for a time.
Eventually, Jake’s substance use took its toll on our marriage, as we didn’t always agree about what to do next. Judy was always willing to give Jake the benefit of the doubt. In an effort not to unjustly accuse Jake, she felt a need to almost be an eyewitness before she would accept his drug problem. Mountains of circumstantial evidence were not enough. I, however, looked at the situation differently. Although I wasn’t an eyewitness, I was convinced that Jake had a substance abuse problem. This strained our relationship. Sometimes we were cold and silent, not communicating for days.
How did we make it through this? We remained committed to each other and to our marriage. We attended counseling, seminars, read books, prayed a lot and just plain “stuck it out,” believing this too shall pass. Eventually it did.
“Don’t rob your friend or loved one of the wonderful
learning experience they are about to have.”
It’s not easy for a parent (especially a mom) to watch her child suffer—even when she knows it is exactly what is best for him. We believe the decisions we made about how to handle Jake’s problems made a significant difference in his life. God was at work—behind the scenes.
Jake eventually graduated from a special high school, located in the Boulder court-house outside of the juvenile court room. This school, Justice High, consists of kids whom many people have given up on. Their combination of encouragement and tough, structured guidance provides troubled youth with another chance. Jake played on the football team, graduated as class valedictorian and was inducted into the National Honor Society!
What could have gone on for many years was cut short. Sometimes our natural inclination is to rescue those we love, but often this is the most harmful thing we can do. For Jake, his big battle was from about age thirteen to seventeen. It could just as easily have been from ages thirteen to twenty-nine—just like his Dad. What did we do? We raised his bottom. We allowed the consequences to pile up fast. And we allowed Jake to take care of them himself. His personal victory over his struggles gives him great motivation and confidence as he now realizes that he has what it takes to succeed in life.
“My parents tried to control me for years. I remember waking up to the sound of my dad sawing through my door at 7 o’clock in the morning, taking a big fat permanent marker and writing a date on my wall of which I had to get a job. My parents, mainly my father, tried to control me so much . . . and were so afraid that I would end up addicted like they were, that one time I had a rule sheet five pages long telling me when I was supposed to be home and what I could and couldn’t do. . . . My life started to go downhill and out of control very quickly. I had never successfully gotten off probation . . . I had my parents worried, the police or someone’s parents were always calling . . . From the time I got arrested for selling coke, I realized that this was basically my last straw with the court system. I finally decided to do what I had to do, to get off probation and stay out of jail. I got away with everything that I could, but I was smart enough to realize I was out of chances . . . I couldn’t make any more mistakes.”
So does everyone have to hit rock bottom? I would say no. Tough love can prevent a substance abuser from prolonging their usage. There are loving ways to refuse to rescue someone who in the long run will help him or her to choose recovery. Loving means doing the right thing to help. This can take all of our strength and energy at times. “We all hate to see someone suffer even when the suffering is a consequence of their bad choices.
This approach, or some form of it, is something you might consider: Raise the bottom. Whether it is a teenage son or daughter, a spouse, boyfriend, aunt or uncle, the same principles can apply. A few nights in jail could be the best thing that ever happens to them. The next time this person you care about appeals to you to get them out of a bind (loan them money, pay their electric bill, buy them gas, pay for a lawyer), think twice. You just might be prolonging their disease and robbing them of the natural consequences they need to experience in order to seek help and begin to connect the dots.
Don’t bail them out. A few nights in jail
could be the best thing that ever happens to them.
~Chaplain Joe Herzanek
If you found this article “Raising their Bottom” helpful please see our “Ask Joe” posts listed at the bottom and consider reading “Why Don’t they Just Quit? What families and friends need to know about addiction and recovery.”
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Best book ever about addiction. Written by one whose done it and is recovering. Easy to read, not preachy, just honest. I recommend this book to anyone with an addict in their life! ~Lynda A
Got an addiction problem in your family? Read this book. Joe knows his stuff. This book helps you to better understand those who are dealing with friends and family that are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I have read several of these books but this one is the best. ~RJ
I, like many people, have some knowledge of what drugs and addiction are, but are clueless on what the process of recovery entails. This book does a great job in what it would take to help a loved one, who is an addict and is willing to get clean and stay clean. It also gives one hope that your loved one will survive the nightmare they are living through with their family. ~CG
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