I remember the conversation as if it had taken place this morning.
“I hit rock bottom last night,” he informed me with a tone of broken spirit and an expression that reflected panic, fear and hopelessness.
We were sitting across from each other at a small table in my office. He had called me earlier that morning and asked if he could come over.
The tale he had come to share with me had taken place the previous evening but the story itself had begun many, many years ago.
He had gone to college right out of high school and had immediately formed a tight bond with a closely knit group of classmates who spend every Friday night drinking themselves into oblivion and then Saturday nights, repeating the same process.
The drinking had never stopped and now, some 25 years later, he was confiding to me that he’d spent the previous evening in a jail cell after having been stopped by an alert cop who had noticed his erratic driving.
The tears rolled freely down his cheeks as he described to me, in absolute terror, what he believed his immediate future would look like.
Two years earlier he had been convicted of a similar offense and he suspected that this time he would not only have to serve a prison sentence but may well lose his driver’s license for a very long time.
His conviction two years earlier had not been the first damaging consequence of his years of drinking but rather just another disaster in an endless series of devastating events.
And that day, as he recited all of the terrible things that happened to him over the previous five years – a very bitter divorce, court supervised visits with his children, three job firings, two vicious bar fights resulting in two extended hospital stays, a criminal conviction, a suspension of his driver’s license and the departure from his life of many of his long-time friends – the only constant in his life that had survived all of this was the alcohol that he poured down his throat each and every day.
And so when he told me that this was rock bottom for him I felt it necessary to point out to him a simple yet powerful truth.
I told him bluntly what I know to be true – there is no such place as Rock Bottom. I asked him how many times in the past year he had told himself that he had hit rock-bottom only to continue with the same habits that enabled him to keep digging himself deeper and deeper into the bottomless hole.
Rock Bottom is a distant place and you just can’t get there from here. No matter how hard you try, you will never arrive because Rock Bottom is the place you think you’ve reached when you are at that point in your life when you believe that nothing could possibly get worse, and the sad truth is, things can, and will continue to get worse as long as you keep heading in that direction.
I did point out to him another absolute truth. I told there is good news. I told him that you can in fact create your own mythical Rock Bottom but there’s only one way of doing so. I explained that the only way to get to rock bottom is to begin reaching for the top and the moment you commit to doing so you would immediately have begun widening the distance between where you are and that place called Rock Bottom that you will never reach.
I remember telling him that as devastated, crushed and defeated as he felt right now he should enjoy these feelings for they were as good as they were going to get and that if he did not make immediate and massive changes in his life these feelings would, at some point in the future, seem like pretty darn good feelings compared to what the future held for him.
He asked if I would help him and I told him the best way I knew how to help him was for him to give me permission to call my friend Russell – a man in his 20th year of sobriety and a committed AA devotee – and ask Russell to come to my office, become his sponsor and take him to a meeting.
That conversation took place on September 21, 2007. Yesterday my friend celebrated his fifth anniversary of being sober and so naturally we toasted this wonderful occasion with a drink – of orange juice – as we laughingly reviewed the past five years of his life.
Russell had come over and had spent several hours talking with my friend.
Later that evening he attended his first AA meeting and opened a new chapter in his life.
The next two months were a mix of victory and shame as he doggedly hung onto his sobriety while simultaneously working on cleaning up the many messes he had made in his life.
He was eventually convicted and sentenced to a short prison term. He uncomplainingly served his time all the while never missing a single day of AA meetings.
He asked me to help him with some planning/goalsetting which I gladly did and then watched him enthusiastically take off like a rocket in pursuit of those goals.
He enrolled in a local college and immediately began taking courses that he felt would make him more marketable to an employer. This has become a new habit in his life as he is still a regular attendee in classes at that college. He made the rounds of apologizing to people he had offended and was surprised at how many of his former friends immediately signed up to become his friends again.
One of the people he went to visit to offer an apology was a former employer who had unceremoniously escorted him out of the building during a previous drunken rant.
He was shocked when this person, after hearing of his commitment to sobriety and growth asked if he would like to come back to his previous job. He graciously accepted that offer, is still with the company, and has been promoted twice in the past three years.
He worked extremely hard to develop relationships with his children and now enjoys regular unsupervised visits with them.
He has a new romantic interest in his life – a lady he met during a business meeting.
His life is unquestionably back on track. For the first time in as long as he can remember he feels that he, not a bottle, is in charge of his life.
The pivotal point for him came, he said, was when I challenged him after he told me during that conversation five years ago that he had reached rock-bottom. He said he knew even as he said those words that they were not true because all he had wanted to do at that time was to leave my office and pour himself into the closest bar.
For him, the realization that you have to start moving up in order to stop going down was to take immediate and powerful action, focus unblinkingly on his destination and force himself to move towards it regardless of how badly he felt like moving back towards that familiar dark place he had visited so many times before.
We humans are dynamic – we are always in motion. We are always moving either towards, or away from, where we want to be and if we are constantly moving away from where we want to be in the hope that at some point we will reach an impenetrable floor that will force us to start moving upwards in the other direction, we are setting ourselves up for immense disappointment.
My friend’s journey was not without pain. Those first early months were filled with challenge and struggle. What kept him going was knowing that if he stopped heading towards where he wanted to be he would instantly slide back to where he used to be.
His remarkable change, led by his own determination to do so, is testament to the indomitability of the human spirit.
He shrugs off his remarkable accomplishment by modestly saying that all he did was set a few goals for himself and then worked like hell to get to them.
He said it’s easy to bring massive change to our lives and anyone can.
He says you just gotta wanna.
Do you wanna?
Till we read again.
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