The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

In recovery, “hitting bottom” is a core concept. To be willing to do the work required to overcome addiction, a person has to reach a point where they see that their life is not working. This happens when we experience suffering as a result of our addiction.

Hitting bottom happens differently to different people. What might cause someone to hit bottom might not be enough for someone else. In the early days of AA, the only people trusted to really “be in recovery” were those who’d lost everything to alcoholism. It was assumed that, unless someone had lost it all, they hadn’t hit bottom, and wouldn’t be ready to fully participate in the program.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to find that newcomers to the program had “hit bottom” in other ways. They’d experienced enough pain from family relationships, even if they hadn’t lost their family; or they’d experienced enough negative consequences in their work, even if they hadn’t been fired from their job.

“Hitting bottom” happens whenever you decide it happens. Actually there is no “bottom.” You can always lose more. I’ve seen people “hit bottom” when they were confronted by a teary-eyed loved one. I’ve seen othersblow past that, and only change when they lost a job because of their addiction. I’ve seen others blow past all of those, and wound up alone, and/or  incarcerated. I’ve seen others who were incarcerated for addiction-related offenses, and still act out later.

The only solid “bottom” is when a person dies. At that point you have no more to lose. Until then, each addict gets a chance to decide when he or she has lost enough, has experienced enough suffering to believe that — and this is the important part — the pain and hardship required to change is worth it because it will be less than the pain and hardship that will come by staying on the current path.

The Spiritual Word We Don’t Use Much

This reminds me of a spiritual word — one that we often use in church, but seldom is heard in recovery meetings (or anywhere else, for that matter) — repentance.

Repentance is a key concept in the Christian and Jewish spiritual tradition. Several words from Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek are translated into English with the word “repent” … and there is a constellation of meanings and nuances to the term. To simplify, I think it’s fair to say that there are two aspects to its meaning:

(1) to feel sorry for, or regret something — to change your mind about it
(2) to turn around — to change from going one direction to another direction

We only do the second (change direction) after the first (change our mind about or regret something) happens. Then — and only then — are we willing to change.

Helmut Gollwitzer was a German theologian who opposed the Nazis and wrote against them during Hitler’s ascent to power. Reading him today, you might think he’s writing about our own time, because the trends of division and lack of the ability to deal with differences, marked both his time and our own. He writes about this, and identifies the problem as people’s unwillingness to repent.

What happens when we hit bottom is that we come to the end of ourselves, and we become willing to accept advice and help from other people. That’s what happens in any kind of repentance. And if that never happens … if we don’t come to the point of facing our failures and acknowledging our vulnerability and need … we’re going to have a hard time dealing with life, and dealing with other people.

Listen to what Gollwitzer had to say to people in his generation, and how it resonates with our own:

“The word ‘repentance’ turns the door into the narrow gate, the most despised, and yet the most important word of our time. It is a time when no one wants to repent, and yet is is precisely in this unwillingness to repent that we find the secret to the misery of our time.

Because ours is a time that cannot tolerate this word, the most vital thing linking people to each other lies broken and shattered: the ability of a person to give another his rights, the ability to admit one’s own error and one’s own guilt; the ability to find the guilt in himself rather than in the other, to be gentle with the other but strict with oneself. …

Who cannot admit his guilt before God can no longer do so before men. Then begins the insanity, the insanity of persecution that must make the other person into the devil himself in order to make himself into a god. Where repentance stops, inhumanity begins….

This is what happens with repentance: my life is annihilated and destroyed not only outwardly but also inwardly. All my defensive weapons–both those pointing externally toward others and those pointing inwardly toward myself–have been lost.”

— Helmut Gollwitzer

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