Continuing on with our mini-series, Dr. Dean Robb of Next Stage Recovery and I discuss helping people who have fought to beat their original substance or behavioral addiction, but who later face a new set of challenges, a “new bottom”, and are now being confronted with the underlying issues that likely caused their addiction in the first place.
Dr. Robb says there are several parts of next stage recovery, including hitting a new bottom, mining the “shame-core”, and individuation and releasing the “false-self”.
Today we’re talking about what it’s like to hit a new bottom, how you know you’re at this stage, moving toward opportunity rather than shying away and risking relapse, and some tips to make you more successful when you find yourself here.
So let’s get right into the conversation with Dr. Robb and see what we can learn today:
Question: What does hitting a “new bottom” feel like, and how do you know you’re there?
It doesn’t feel the same for everybody, but in general it feels like “hell”. The classic worst case scenario is that your life starts falling apart; nothing is working out for you, you’re involved in really unhappy, unpleasant, dysfunctional relationships, maybe you’ve lost a job or career doesn’t work for you anymore. It can feel subjectively as though God has abandoned you. Or it could be a little less severe; maybe a sense of meaninglessness or emptiness, like life just isn’t what you want it to be, or you’re deeply unfulfilled.
Question: And why do you suppose those feelings occur?
Those feelings occur because on the outside those things seem to be happening to you, but what’s happening on the inside is that parts of you (coping strategies, attitudes, beliefs, feelings that used to drive your life) are starting to wear out. What’s really going on is that the “false self” that you’ve been living your life in accordance with is starting to break down – that always happens. False things ultimately decay and fall apart, they cannot stand forever because there’s no foundation underneath them. It may take years and years, but ultimately false things fall apart. When you are hitting a new bottom in recovery, it means that some part of you, some false part of you, is wearing out. And underneath that is your authentic self starting to rear it’s head, saying, “Look at me, pay attention to me. Find me and acknowledge me. Stop being a fake and living somebody else’s life. Start living your own life.” That’s what’s going on.
Question: You’ve said that trauma and a stressful upbringing are what precipitate this in the first place. Can you talk about how this leads someone to where they are, and eventually to this new bottom?
Yes. In the simplest terms, when we grow up in dysfunctional households, we learn dysfunction behaviors. That’s because we’re not taught how to live in a functional, mature way; we’re taught childish, dysfunctional behaviors, such as codependency which is rooted in dysfunction. We also learn who we think we are by growing up in that developmental framework, and to survive in that type of environment we have to develop survival strategies that help us avoid abuse. We try to please our parents, teachers, or religion. So we learn who to be and how to be from our parents, schools, religions, neighborhoods, and those are survival behaviors. Not all of them are healthy, and not all of them are in alignment with who we really are. In fact, a lot of them aren’t, but they work for a little while and even a long while; maybe well into our forties or fifties for some people. But ultimately, because they’re not in alignment with who we really are, they start to become painful.
The birds come home to roost, and the dysfunctional patterns start to destroy and undermine our relationships whether that be intimate relationships, work relationships, career choices that may have been conditioned by our parents or schools. They start to wear out because way down deep it’s in discord with who we really are, and that’s painful. That pain begins to manifest, and like I said, it can take a long time but the chickens ultimately come home to roost and that is when we start getting into a new bottom.
Question: Someone might say, “I understand the concept of how trauma leads to this, but my trauma wasn’t that severe and I was never abused.” Some feel they have an issue with codependency without severe trauma. What’s the minimum level of severity the trauma can have? Can it be as simple as mom and dad weren’t there enough for me in my opinion, and I felt abandoned even though I wasn’t abused?
Neglect is a form of abuse. It’s not overt abuse in that somebody’s not hitting you. It may be subtle, but the child isn’t getting his or her needs met. The child is not getting the love, attention, support, warmth, mirroring that they need to grow up. Children are delicate. To this day I get heart pangs watching little children because I can see how vulnerable and fragile they are, and how much love and care they need, and when they don’t get that there’s a deficit. It may not be severe trauma but it affects them. You can have codependency grow up in an atmosphere of neglect or what I call subtle forms of abuse. You may not need deep ongoing psychotherapy with a trauma specialist, but that doesn’t mean you’re not affected and that you don’t need to address your codependency issues. Maybe you just want a better life, more fulfilling or healthier relationships, or a more fulfilling career. Those subtle forms of trauma, abuse, neglect, or abandonment can cause you to be unfulfilled and unhappy in your life.
Question: Is hitting this new bottom a sign that there’s something wrong in your life, or is this a normal, natural progression of recovery?
I think it’s a normal part of recovery. In a way it means something you’re doing is right. My old therapist used to say the unconscious won’t present you with anything until it knows that you are ready to deal with it. So what that’s saying is you’ve been successful in dealing with your primary addiction. You’ve been successful in adapting yourself to living as a functional member of society, and now you’re unconscious is saying that you’re ready to start dealing with this other stuff that’s been lurking. So while it may feel bad it’s really, in my opinion, a sign of success. You’re psyche is saying, “Thank you for taking care of me to that point, now you’re ready to start dealing with these deeper issues that need to be addressed so you can have a healthier, happier, fulfilling life that is in accordance with who you really are.
Question: Is it realistic to think that you should be confronted with this new bottom one time, or can this happen over and over again? Are people intimidated by it?
I can’t make a blanket statement about anybody, but I can tell you about the types of things I’ve seen. To be honest with you, most people tend to run away from it as long as they can and postpone dealing with it, and there’s a good reason for that – it’s painful!
A friend of mine said that for many years he circled it because he said it’s like circling a volcano, and in the center is a bubbling pool of magma. Who wants to jump in? Nobody. It’s painful, so you run from it as long as you can (that’s if it’s severe). Regardless, it is painful and people don’t like to deal with it until they’re cornered; until the pain of not dealing with it begins to exceed the pain of dealing with it. But even at that point it’s rare to work through all of this stuff all at one time, there’s too much usually. Somebody I know in recovery has a saying, “Issues are like tissues; you pull one out and get rid of it and another one comes up right behind it.” And what that’s really saying to me is that these issues are kind of in layers. It’s like peeling an onion. You deal with one and then you deal with another. And you may have a series of what I call “mini-bottoms” along the way in which you are bottoming out on one type of issue, then you bottom out on another type of issue. And that’s probably a good thing because it would be just too painful to deal with everything all at once. So yes, it tends to be a process that unfolds over a series of years and involves a series of “mini-bottoms”.
Question: In one of your blog posts you wrote about what people do when they’re confronted with this new bottom. They either move towards opportunity or they move towards crisis. What’s the biggest key to move towards opportunity and work through it rather than shy away from it?
I do recall that post. It said that the Chinese character for “crisis” is actually comprised of two characters. Those characters are “danger” and “opportunity”. What that says to me is that crisis or hitting a new bottom has two sides to it; there’s crisis or danger, but there’s also opportunity. The danger is not addressing it. If you don’t address it, it is not going to go away. And if you don’t address long enough it could lead you into relapse of your primary addiction, a deep clinical depression, or even suicide or homelessness in extreme cases.
The other side is opportunity, meaning that if I turn toward the bull, grab it by the horns, and decide to work on these issues, then there is going to be new opportunity on the other side which will be a bi-product discovering and recovering from the abuse and trauma that’s buried down in there somewhere. You will find and mine your inner-gold, find out who you really are, discover your true gifts, and start to embrace and honor those gifts. What we’re doing here is discovering our God-given gifts and that is always going to bring opportunity.
Question: How important is it to have a support network, group, family, or even just some friends you can confide in? Is there some correlation between the success of pushing past this new bottom and having support?
It’s absolutely vital, 1000% needed. This is not a “do-it-yourself” program. If it were, we would have already done it. It is painful, for some more than others, but my own belief is that we were created by a higher power to be in community, to be part of a network of loving supportive relationships. I truly believe man is not an island, and that if you try to do this alone you will probably fail. You need to find a support network whether that be meetings like Codependents Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon Adult Children, etc. The ones where it is safe to talk about these deeper issues and difficult feelings, to develop one on one relationships, find a sponsor or recovery coach if you want. So the answer to your questions is yes, you need help.
Question: Is there a final thought you’d like to leave the audience with regarding hitting a new bottom before we move on into the rest of the steps?
I’d like to say that number one, this is natural and normal, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re in recovery.
Recovery is not a linear line that goes up. It involves setbacks and new bottoms. They indicate that you’re being invited to look deeper into yourself to find out what some of these issues are that are sabotaging your life, many of which are unconscious to you at this time. You’re invited to look deeper, address these issues (hopefully with support), and ultimately look beyond these difficulties and pain, and what’s underneath that is your true, authentic self. You’re being invited to uncover those and integrate them into your life, living more and more in alignment with your real, true self.
What do YOU think? Have you hit a new bottom or believe someone close to you is hitting one? What was it like? What advice would you have for someone in this stage? Comment below.