AA attaches great importance to this phenomenon and regards the alcoholic who has not hit bottom as a poor prospect for their help. Conversely, they are inclined to explain their failure by saying that the individual who goes back to his alcoholism has not yet "hit bottom."
Certainly many sorts of disaster may cause an alcoholic to hit bottom. Various sorts of accidents, an attack of delirium tremens, a patch of drunken time of which he has no memory, rejection by wife, loss of job, hopeless diagnosis, and so on—any of these may have the required effect. AA says that "bottom" is different for different men and some may be dead before they reach it.126
It is possible, however, that "bottom" is reached many times by any given individual; that "bottom" is a spell of panic which provides a favorable moment for change, but not a moment at which change is inevitable. Friends and relatives and even therapists may pull the alcoholic out of his panic, either with drugs or reassurance, so that he "re-covers" and goes back to his "pride" and alcoholism— only to hit a more disastrous "bottom" at some later time, when he will again be ripe for a change. The attempt to change the alcoholic in a period between such moments of panic is unlikely to succeed.
The nature of the panic is made clear by the following description of a "test."
We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition.127
We might compare the test quoted above to commanding a driver to brake suddenly when traveling on a slippery road: he will discover fast that his control is limited. (The metaphor "skid row" for the alcoholic section of town is not inappropriate.)
The panic of the alcoholic who has hit bottom is the panic of the man who thought he had control over a vehicle but suddenly finds that the vehicle can run away with him. Suddenly, pressure on what he knows is the brake seems to make the vehicle go faster. It is the panic of discovering that it (the system, self plus vehicle) is bigger than he is.
In terms of the theory here presented, we may say that hitting bottom exemplifies systems theory at three levels:
(1) The alcoholic works on the discomforts of sobriety to a threshold point at which he has bankrupted the epistemology of "self-control." He then gets drunk — because the "system" is bigger than he is—and he may as well surrender to it.
(2) He works repeatedly at getting drunk until he proves that there is a still larger system. He then encounters the panic of "hitting bottom."
(3) If friends and therapists reassure him, he may achieve a further unstable adjustment—becoming addicted to their help—until he demonstrates that this system won't work, and "hits bottom" again but at a lower level. In this, as in all cybernetic systems, the sign (plus or minus) of the effect of any intrusion upon the system depends upon timing.
(4) Lastly, the phenomenon of hitting bottom is complexly related to the experience of double bind.128 Bill W. narrates that he hit bottom when diagnosed as a hopeless alcoholic by Dr. William D. Silkworth in 1939, and this event is regarded as the beginning of AA history.129 Dr. Silkworth also "supplied us with the tools with which to puncture the toughest alcoholic ego, those shattering phrases by which he described our illness: the obsession of the mind that compels us to drink and the allergy of the body that condemns us to go mad or die."130 This is a double bind correctly founded upon the alcoholic's dichotomous epistemology of mind versus body. He is forced by these words back and back to the point at which only an involuntary change in deep unconscious epistemology — a spiritual experience — will make the lethal description irrelevant.
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