By Lauren Smith

Updated: 05 June 2024 & medically reviewed by Morgan Blair

In many popular narratives of addiction, popularized in films and TV, the journey to recovery begins with the addict hitting rock bottom—a place of desperation where they’ve lost so much they finally are motivated enough to quit. Some people struggling with addiction find the metaphor of rock bottom helpful. However, rock bottom looks different for everyone, depending on what they value. You also don’t have to hit your personal rock bottom to seek help for your addiction and successfully quit.

Dispairing woman reflected in broken mirror

What does rock bottom look like?

Rock bottom is usually defined as the lowest point in someone’s life and addiction. But an individual’s darkest moment is subjective and depends on their life experiences, their values and priorities, and their tolerance for loss and discomfort.

For one person, a single DUI might be their rock bottom, while another may not believe they’ve hit rock bottom until they’ve caused an accident or had their driver's license suspended. Tensions with family members may amount to rock bottom for one person, while another may continue until they're estranged from everyone in their life.

If you continue abusing substances despite previous lows, your rock bottom may deepen. While previously, your lowest moment was a temporary separation from your spouse or disciplinary action at work, it may soon be divorce and termination from your job.

Related: Drugs and alcohol in the workplace

Signs you’ve hit rock bottom

We’ve explained that rock bottom is highly personal. But common markers of rock bottom include:

  • Breakup of your relationship, such as separation or divorce

  • Legal issues as a result of your addiction, such as arrest, conviction, and/or imprisonment

  • A DUI or DWI, suspension of your license, and/or involvement in a car accident, including one that injures yourself or others

  • Loss of your home, eviction, and/or homelessness

  • An overdose

  • Health issues such as alcoholic hepatitis, injury, myocarditis, HIV

  • Disciplinary action at work or the loss of your job

  • Public embarrassment

  • Loss of custody of your minor children

  • Estrangement from your adult children and family members

  • Dropping out or being kicked out of education

  • Serious financial issues

  • Becoming angry or violent with loved ones

  • Stealing money from loved ones

  • Selling your possessions

  • Having to give up your pet

  • The death of a friend who also used

  • Withdrawal symptoms when you don't use

  • Withdrawal from your family and friends

  • Depression, despair, and hopelessness

  • A mental health crisis

  • Feeling you have no control over your life

  • Lack of interest in anything but using

  • Feeling overwhelming guilt

  • Feeling there’s no escape

How do you climb out of rock bottom?

Hitting rock bottom may be the kick you need to seriously pursue recovery. But reaching your lowest point doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all up from there. Recovering from addiction is hard work, especially when you’re rebuilding your life, and often isn’t straightforward. But, as your darkest moments show you, it’s worthwhile.

Escaping rock bottom in addiction often involves pursuing formal treatment, usually beginning in inpatient rehab and continuing through counseling sessions and support groups. 

Once you’re clean and stable, you’ll have to take other steps to rebuild your life. These may include:

  • Asking for forgiveness from people you’ve hurt and seeking to repair those relationships

  • Speak to a therapist or counselor

  • Re-entering education or work

  • Resolving your legal issues

Beyond those practical steps, the following tips may propel you out of rock bottom emotionally:

  • Feel the pain of rock bottom, without numbing yourself with substances

  • Have compassion for yourself and treat yourself kindly

  • Try to forgive yourself for your past actions, acknowledging what you did wrong but trying to move forward without being weighed down by guilt

  • Accept your flaws but also celebrate your strengths

  • Take responsibility for your life

  • Seek help, such as with a support group

Do you have to hit rock bottom before going to rehab?

Some people avoid seeking out treatment for addiction because they think their problems aren’t serious enough and they haven’t hit the “rock bottom” they see depicted in films and addiction memoirs.

But you don’t have to be kneeling in the bombed-out remnants of your life before you seek help. In fact, seeking treatment for addiction earlier can prevent you from suffering the worst outcomes of addiction, from health troubles to legal difficulties to relationship breakdowns. You may enter treatment with more support, from family members and friends, and with your health intact.

You don't have to wait until you have a rock star flameout or a Trainspotting-esque comedown before seeking help. You can always decide your current lows—that tension with your partner, your employer’s impatience, your repeated hangovers—are your rock bottom and focus on ensuring your life only gets better from there.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse then visit our directory to find support groups, rehabs, and counseling in your area.