Rock Bottom and Charting the Line Graph of Change

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.


From afar, change might look like this.

chart graph of recovery and rock bottom fixed

Up close, it might feel more like this.

chart graph of recovery and rock bottom fixed

A day, month, or year, can feel like a struggle, with no end in sight.


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.


3 thoughts on “Rock Bottom and Charting the Line Graph of Change

  1. Hi! Ih, how I love and relate to these graphs. It is crazy how many times we can bounce up and down in our lives. Currently I’m trying to get back in shape, and I watched a guy in his 60’s struggling with pull ups and thought, “I can’t believe I’m going to be working on this exercise thing for the rest of my life.” Probably some of our downfall is expecting it should be easy. It will never be easy, there is no coasting, and if we can accept that we can be better equipped to enjoy the bumpy ride. Thanks for this piece and prompting me to think about this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, despite your allegedly not “summoning the muse,” there were some real gems in here. And it was really Tim Urban-ey, so of course I loved that. This post felt like the surprisingly quirky aside in the middle of an otherwise dramatic play. In a good way.
    So yeah. We humans love the hero’s journey, don’t we? And it’s so tempting to simplify it all down to that formula. The story of the repentant criminal who finally sees the light once and for all or the slacker student who suddenly sees their potential and skyrockets straight to success are so compelling. They give us hope that we’ll find that pivot point too where everything will finally be consistently better forever. Yet we all know we’re human with all our messiness. Is anything in this life really that linear?
    I think the pattern you’re describing is “leveling up.” When you look back, you can see that you very clearly are operating on a different level than you were before, but it may not be clear exactly when that changed happened, in many cases.
    I wonder…what is it about the phenomenon of leveling up that makes the fact that it happened at some point in the past obvious, yet very difficult to observe when you’re going through it? Do you think there’s a way to tap into noticing it in real-time and would that help make it more of an intentional (and frequent) act?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh. “Tim Urban-ey” is the best compliment ever.

      I love the question you pose. I’ve been pondering the difference the internal and external experience. While we’re in the thick of it, we can’t see the patterns. I keep asking my friends what I should be when I grow up…

      So how do we hack it? We just need to get out of our heads and reflect externally through writing or discussion. I definitely have a strong resistance to self-knowledge. I know there are strategies, but I avoid participating in them fully so I don’t have to act on that knowledge.


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