I know this guy who died once. He was depressed, an alcoholic, not taking care of himself. He fell into a diabetic coma. After a month, the doctors called it. They told his parents it was time to let him die. I mourned with his friends the night they pulled the plug. He was so young, we said. An important reminder to take care of yourself, we said, as we got drunk in his honor.
Then he woke up.
A few months later, I was sitting with him on a Chicago porch. I drank beer while he crushed La Croix. After the coma, he told me, he’d quit drinking, started taking his career seriously, and professed his feelings for a girl he had liked for years. Now he was sober, successful, and in love.
Rock bottom, I presumed. Not exactly. He smoked a big fat bowl as soon as he could. He felt like he felt he could have kept going the way he had before, with some obvious changes to keep the grim reaper away for few more years.
But he also realized that this was an opportunity that he didn’t want to lose. He had a choice: he could continue on his current trajectory, or to rewrite the formula. When he chose to get sober, it wasn’t because he saw clearly how his addiction was a barrier, or for the first time saw how precious life was. He knew, however, that he didn’t want this event to be an outlier, a blip. He wanted to take advantage of the momentum in his new, unexpected life.
We talk about rock bottom as a fixed point. In storytelling, we craft narratives around a pivot point. The hero’s journey is round and symmetrical. There’s a predictable dip into hell, a spark of revelation, and then the protagonist returns, forever changed. If you watch enough movies, rock bottom can start to seem like a romantic ideal.
But when you’re living the experience of changing a habit or behavior, it doesn’t feel so smooth. The journey is in the context, and we don’t know where we are until we can look back on where we’ve been.
For our friend, his coma became the pivot point because of the trajectory that followed. That point could have been any moment before or after.
The day my partner quit smoking, he got two Italian beef sandwiches and a sausage at 5 in the morning and ate all three while watching the sun rise. Then he smoked three cigarettes and felt like death. That wasn’t the last time he gave in to the temptation of smoking or binge-eating, but it’s his narrative: the pattern he sees when he looks back on his hero’s journey.
Any point in time can be your turning point. And you can have as many as you need.
I haven’t experienced addiction and recovery firsthand like many of my friends, but I’ve been close enough to know it’s rarely a smooth trajectory. We all have own methods of avoiding pain, and, mountains or molehills, it’s a matter of continuing the upwards climb.