The Myth of Hitting Bottom

A letter from one of our readers…

Dear Jeff and Debra,

My daughter is an alcoholic, and she refuses to get help. People tell me there’s nothing I can do until she hits bottom, but she has two small children, and I just can’t bear to watch this go on much longer. Is hitting bottom the only way?

Worried Mother


Dear Worried,

Why not raise the bottom to right now? You don’t have to wait for a drunk driving or a medical problem or an accident with the children. You don’t have to wait for something terrible to happen. You can take action right now, without waiting for her to hit bottom (whatever that means).


The idea of hitting bottom is difficult to define, when you examine it closely. What does it take for an alcoholic to realize they’re sick and accept help? For some people it might be the loss of a job or a marriage, but many people will keep drinking anyway. For other people, it might be a medical or legal problem that opens their eyes, but many people will keep drinking anyway.


So, what is hitting bottom? What will cause a person to hit bottom, and realize they’re an alcoholic? How can we define “bottom?”


Simply put, an alcoholic’s bottom is a moment of clarity, and a moment of action. At the bottom, an alcoholic will admit that they can’t go on drinking and they don’t know how to stop (and stay stopped).


Dr. Vern Johnson, an episcopal priest and a recovering alcoholic, realized in the 1980’s that there had to be a better way than merely letting a person free-fall to their bottom. He developed the first popular intervention technique to help bring about this moment of clarity, without the dire consequences.


Over time, the technique was evolved to truly harness the power of love and concern, so family and friends could break through the wall of alcoholic denial and help the alcoholic accept help. Using a love-first approach, we have learned how to raise the bottom to right now, and begin the recovery process before it’s too late. Remember, for some people, the classical bottom has no bounce. They simply die of their disease.


This post originally appeared in the Grosse Pointe News


You may also want to read this excerpt from No More Letting Go:

The Silent Treatment

A letter from one of our readers…

Dear Jeff and Debra,

My little brother is successful in business, but his life is being ruined by alcohol. He’s already lost his marriage because of his drinking and verbal abuse, but he’s still playing a blame game. Some of his friends and I tried to talk to him about his drinking, but he wouldn’t listen. Some people say I should cut him out of my life until he accepts help. Should I stop talking to him?

Big Sister

Dear Sister,

Just the opposite. When a person doesn’t accept help for an obvious problem, it’s usually more effective to increase communication. Alcoholics usually want to isolate themselves from concerned family members and friends. They do not want to talk about their drinking. When forced to talk about it, they will reframe the issue and blame others for their dilemma.


Your informal intervention didn’t have the desired effect because it wasn’t well planned. When we do a good, structured family intervention, we spend a lot of time in training and rehearsal. There are three keys to a successful intervention: Plan, Plan, Plan. We need to use the power of love and concern in a very specific and organized way, so we can break through the natural denial and defenses of the alcoholic, and bring them to a moment of clarity where they will say Yes.


If we can’t reach an agreement for treatment, the family members and friends should promise to continue the conversation at every opportunity. They should no longer avoid the issue. If the person we’re concerned about was avoiding treatment for any other life-threatening illness, we wouldn’t walk away. Why should we do it with addiction?


Mental health and addiction problems thrive in the dark. They grow in islolation, and snowball with other negative emotions. When we continue to bring the issues into the light with care and compassion, we make it more and more difficult for the alcoholic to refuse help.


Rather than give your brother the silent treatment, you should consider a better-planned approach and keep the conversation going. We don’t recommend nagging him, but we do recommend a family commitment to recovery.


This post originally appeared in the Grosse Pointe News



Hitting Bottom: A Family Affair

When addiction begins causing serious problems, a family’s greatest fears turn into reality. They watch with disbelief as the alcoholic continues drinking while their lives are falling apart. Unable to convince the alcoholic to stop drinking, families begin searching for answers. In my years of working with the relatives of alcoholics and addicts, I have found that families rarely reach out for help until the drinking and drugging hits a crisis point, and then they are often told:  “There’s nothing you can do until the alcoholic wants help. You’ll just have to let him hit bottom.

  No More Letting Go


Hitting bottom is an old idea, still imposed upon families as if it were an absolute. Many families sadly believe that they must wait for alcoholics to hit bottom before there is any hope for recovery. They rarely stop to consider that this belief sentences them to years of unhappiness and devastation. No one ever mentions the fact that alcoholics and addicts don’t take the trip to the bottom alone–the family goes with them. Families are never warned that the journey to the bottom takes even the smallest children.


Hitting bottom should never be our first strategy; it is a strategy of last resorts. Only when every reasonable intervention technique is exhausted, should we let someone freefall. Even then, there are ways to raise the bottom, to stretch out the safety net of treatment and recovery. Addiction always presents new opportunities. The trick is recognizing them and knowing how to take action.
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The premise of hitting bottom is that addicts hit one bottom and, when they get there, they are either struck sober or go running for the nearest treatment center. But addicts are resilient. They find people to rescue them. They often bounce along the bottom for years without a flicker of recognition that they need help. When they find themselves in a tough spot, alcohol whispers reassurances: There’s nothing to worry about as long as you have me.



Debra Jay

Debra Jay

I was having dinner with some recovering alcoholics, and a particularly nice fellow in his late fifties was celebrating fifteen years of sobriety. He talked about living in a roach infested, one-room apartment above a bar for twelve years, drinking and doing drugs every single day. He said his life was miserable, but he just couldn’t stop. He came close to dying several times before getting help. One of the people in our group said, “Well, you just weren’t ready.” Someone else piped in, “It takes what it takes.” Everyone’s heads nodded up and down in agreement. Stunned that my dinner companions thought that this man had to lose some of the best years of his life before he was ready to get sober, I asked, “Where was your family?” He said his wife divorced him and his kids never came around. “All for the better, really,” he added, “I wasn’t any kind of father worth having.” I asked what might have happened if everyone in his family, along with his closest friends, had come to him with a solid plan for recovery and an outpouring of love. Might he have accepted their help? Could it have turned out differently for him and his kids? Would his marriage have survived? He looked at me for a moment and then said, “I never considered that before. Who knows, I might’ve taken them up on their help. Maybe we could’ve saved our family.”



Do alcoholics ever hit bottom and then climb their way up into sobriety? Of course they do. But we never know who’ll be the lucky ones or what price they’ll pay along the way. Three hundred and fifty people a day find a bottom with no bounce – death. Countless others go to prison, go insane, or just go nowhere. Families are torn apart, children lose one or both parents and relationships are damaged beyond repair. But many begin a journey of recovery before hitting bottom–tough and rocky at first, but easier to travel as time goes on. Many things motivate alcoholics to make a turnaround before tragedy strikes, but it is usually family, friends or employers. When the Hazelden Foundation asked sober alcoholics what set them on their new course to recovery, seventy-seven percent said a friend or relative intervened. Someone cared enough to raise their bottom.



The best cases against hitting bottom are the real life stories: A college educated, 47-year-old divorced father of three loses everything, lives in his parent’s basement drinking and smoking pot daily and is unable to hold a job. A 24-year-old trades his girlfriend’s new car for crack cocaine. The police find a 72-year-old grandmother half naked and passed out on her front lawn. Babies are strapped in the backseat as a mother drives drunk to buy more wine; the police stop her, taking the children to protective services and mom to jail. A young father goes to bed drunk and suffocates on his own vomit. A successful 32-year-old woman driving home intoxicated kills a father and his daughter as she slams into them on the freeway. Each of these stories comes from families I’ve worked with and no words can express their pain or deep, abiding sense of loss. Waiting for alcoholics to hit unknown bottoms results in much tragedy and heartbreak.



“Bottoms” can be temporary. Alcoholics resist getting sober even when things are going badly in their lives. They are good at weathering storms. Perhaps they’ll swear off alcohol for a while, but as soon as things cool down, they begin drinking again. The addicted brain can’t make lasting connections between alcohol and the problems it causes. Once the problems go away, alcohol is their best friend again. Addiction is both invisible and sacred to alcoholics: they deny its existence yet sacrifice everything to it.
Addicts don’t want to cause trouble or hurt the people they love. Quite the contrary: they struggle to be the person they think they still are, the person they were before the addiction took hold. They can’t make sense of their own actions. As their addiction progresses and troubles mount, they work harder to manage their lives, but addiction never lets anyone lead a life free of trouble. There are always problems, big and small. Bad behavior, poor decisions and emotional upheaval are all symptoms of this disease that affects both the brain and soul. Families are confused, too. Not understanding what is happening to their loved ones, they mutter: “When will she learn?” But addicts can’t learn because addiction keeps tightening its grip, demanding complete allegiance.
The apostle Paul could have been describing an addict when he wrote: “I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate. Though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not; the good thing that I want to do. I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do.” As alcoholics try to resolve the conflict between how they want to behave and how they are behaving, in the end, the only solution they can see is another drink.



-from No More Letting Go, by Debra Jay





We Made It Together

My life was in a downward spiral and suicide seemed like a good idea. I was homeless, penniless and very sick from the effects of addiction: a bleeding ulcer, a bleeding colon and transient neuropathy in my legs. I was twenty-six years old.


Suicide wasn’t just an idle thought. I’d known someone who’d killed himself and I figured I’d do it the same way. It seemed like an easy solution and I saw no other options. I’d been president of the student association at Grosse Pointe South High School and a National Merit Scholar. Now, I was living in a flop house in California, down to my last few dollars. I was too sick to work and too delusional to get help on my own.


In dire situations like mine, the sick person can’t be expected to make the right decisions. I certainly couldn’t be my own doctor, therapist or friend. Yet I would argue stubbornly with anyone who tried to reason with me. Friends and family had tried many times.


Jeff Jay, author and clinical interventionist

Jeff Jay

Fortunately, my family didn’t give up on me. At the eleventh hour, they tracked me down again, struggled past my stubbornness again and offered me help. This time, their long-distance intervention broke through my defenses and denial. The next day, I checked into a hospital for medical stabilization and was transferred ten days later to a month-long treatment program. Against all odds (and by the grace of God), I followed the directions I was given and joined the local community of recovering people. I’ve never looked back.


It all sounds easy, but there are few things more difficult. Most important were the continuing interventions that ultimately saved my life. Some people have the luxury of “hitting bottom,” coming to their senses and then getting appropriate help. But at that time in my life, I couldn’t find my backside with both hands. If it hadn’t been for the active involvement of my parents and the help of many other people along the way, I never could’ve made it. Recovery isn’t an “I” program, it’s a “we” program.


In many ways, we made it together. My parents had no idea how to help me, and their willingness to seek out and follow professional advice was a model for me to follow. They didn’t pretend to have all the answers, but they showed by example that they were willing to do the work and make changes in their own lives. Their example made it very difficult for me to deviate from the advice I was being given. If they had followed only part of the directions, what would I have done?


Some important points. My parents weren’t intimidated by my stubbornness. I was an adult and they let me go out into the world and find my own way. They stayed in touch, but only to offer support, not to enable. When they finally succeeded in getting me into treatment, they attended the family program, visited on weekends and followed the advice they were given. When I got out of treatment, they got involved in Al-anon.


Over the weeks and months that followed, we all got better. I worked a full-time job and continued my one-day-at-a time directions. My parents watched from a distance, but were quick to challenge my crazy thinking when it reared up every now and again. Together, we made our way to safe ground.


My father died an untimely death at 58, not long after the first anniversary of my sobriety. I’ll be forever grateful that he lived to see that much. He played an instrumental role in getting me back on the right track, not by force, but by love. Over the decades that followed, my mother has seen me go from derelict to something better than that and then something better still. Her constant faith and surprising wit have buoyed me up when nothing else would.


Their intervention paved the way for a life in recovery, a life beyond my imagining. None of us could have predicted how the years would unfold, but everyone could see the tragic path I’d been on. Their actions made all the difference.


If your loved one is suffering from addiction or mental health issues, it means you’re suffering right along with them. You don’t have to struggle alone. Professionals may not have a magic wand that will fix the problems overnight, but they do know the way out of the jungle. We can make it together.


Jeff Jay





Crossroads Antigua

For many addicts, the shame of facing their illness is second only to their fear of going to treatment. They don’t want to leave home and they don’t want to get help with a group of strangers.


Imagine the relief the addicted person feels when he or she learns that their family has selected Eric Clapton’s treatment center, Crossroads, on the beautiful island of Antigua. The combination of first-class medical treatment with sea breezes and 12-Step recovery is a special gift.


Crossroads Antigua

Crossroads Antigua

I had the pleasure recently of taking another patient to Crossroads and spending time with Executive Officer, Kim Martin. Under her expert direction, the center has expanded its already extensive services, providing a warm and professional environment for the treatment of chemical dependency.


Many families think that Crossroads must be fabulously expensive, but nothing could be further from the truth. The treatment is very competitively priced and some scholarships are available for those who need it.


Others think that treatment in Antigua must be a glorified vacation, but this is not the case. A discussion with an admissions counselor and a look at the weekly schedule will dispel any ideas that patients will simply be lounging in the sun. Crossroads provides serious treatment for serious people in a beautiful setting.


Another benefit is the family program, offered once per month. It provided critical support and education for families, along with the opportunity to reconnect with their loved ones. What better place to begin again?


I’ve had a number of patients at Crossroads over the years, but every time I come back I wish there had been more. We use many treatment centers in our private practice, many of which are listed on this website. But Crossroads will always have a special place in my heart.


–Jeff Jay



Al-Anon Faces Alcoholism



The official magazine of Al-Anon (Al-Anon Faces Alcoholism) interviewed Debra Jay on the subject of alcoholism and intervention. This article represents one of the first times that an author and clinician specializing in intervention has been interviewed in this journal. The article can be read here:



Debra Jay honored at Bishop’s Award Ceremony

Dr. Patricia Maryland (left) and Debra Jay

The Love First family is so proud of Debra. She was recently honored at the 54th Annual Detroit Bishop’s Dinner for her work in the field of addiction and recovery. She received the Sister Letitia Close Award, which recognized her efforts in helping women affected by the disease of addiction.


Dr. Patricia Maryland, President and CEO of St. John Providence Health System, presented the honor at a sold-out fundraiser. The event was held in the Grand Dining room the Detroit Athletic Club in support of treatment for Catholic clergy at Guest House.


Debra Jay is the author of No More Letting Go (Bantam 2006). She is also co-author of the best-selling Love First (Hazelden 2008) and Aging and Addiction (Hazelden 2002). She continues to work with families whose loved ones struggle with addiction or are in early recovery. Debra remains committed to moving the field of addiction treatment forward by developing trainings for clinical interventionists. She continues to work with the treatment community to develop new programs. For those of us who work with her every day we are in awe of her energy and creativity. She holds herself to a high standard and expects those who work with her to hold themselves to a similar standard. The next few years will be an exciting time for all of us who work with Debra Jay and Love First.




Josh Leonard on the power of family in the struggle against addiction


Actor and filmmaker Josh Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”), in recovery for 13 years, credits the support of his family for saving his life. By being open about his addiction, he believes that he is taking power away from the disease.


This is a great testimonial on the power of family to take action and save someone’s life. Indeed, Josh makes this very point in this short and poignant video.


-Jeff Jay

Eye on Addiction

Jeff Jay and Love FirstJeff Jay was a guest on the Eye on Addiction radio show, with host Joe Herzanek. The show was titled: “How do I intervene?” Jeff talked about the power of intervention, different methods for intervening and the ways family can plan and prepare for a successful intervention. He also discussed what to do when the addict finds out about the intervention in advance. The answer may surprise you.


To listen to this one-hour show, including questions from listeners, visit the Eye on Addiction website and check the show archives.

Eye on Addiction – listen now