What Is the “Bottom”?

Andrea writes in with a heartbreaking story.

In your post about helping others, you made several suggestions for helping someone that appears to be in trouble. The item that most struck home for me was:

“Wait for their “bottom,” then gently offer help. Although a low point can often be incredibly painful, it can also be an incredibly valuable learning experience for people. It is at that point that a person realizes, for the first time, that they’re following a path that doesn’t work. It’s at that time when they look around them and see who their true friends are, as they are the ones who are willing to help them at this low point. That’s when your help will really matter. That’s when a helping hand won’t cause resentment, but will be appreciated. That’s when it’ll build into something more than just a quick fix.”

I thought that my sibling WAS at bottom. Had been out of work for 3 years, had not been eating properly for 6 months, was not able to feed their pet of 16 years, AND they were becoming homeless due to not being able to pay rent. Another sibling of ours was helping them to make rent for 6 months.

I offered (w/ my spouses approval) room and board while they continued their job search.

It lasted 6 weeks. Not that they found a job and were back on their feet – no. They couldn’t stand to live in our home with our house rules. What we considered to be simple, they found to be onerous.

example: Turn out lights when you leave a room. After weeks of “please turn out the lights when you not in a room”. I came home from work one day and found 5 rooms of lights turned on upstairs while the person was downstairs in the TV room, with lights on, watching a movie. It was the middle of the day. I was not happy.

example: Their pet of 16 years is old, kidneys were failing, & has lost bladder control. To them it was OK to keep the pet confined to the house and leave to mess inside the house. We live on a large lot that is securely fenced. We keep multiple pets that welcomed the old dog with no problems. The dog could have stayed outside for hours at a time and not bothered anyone. I asked that they clean up the dogs messes. This was inconceivable to them. What did they do in their previous home?? They lived on the 2nd floor of a walk up. Did they never walk or clean up after the dog??

Sometimes, what an outsider may think is bottom, isn’t.

I had very carefully let them know I was there for them. Where I believe that I messed up was that, when approached for help I OFFERED a room and meals. I should have waited to find out what they were looking for. And if I could not accomodate that request (say, cash), then wait for the follow up request.

Andrea’s point here is incredibly valuable. A situation you might consider to be “the bottom” might not be a bottoming-out for someone else.

When we “bottomed out,” we had a pretty large stack of debt – around $20,000 in credit card debt, two car loans, and several student loans. Yet I still receive emails every single day from people who are in comparable situations, if not worse. Sometimes I shudder at the situations people find themselves in.

It gets even worse when you start mixing in other factors. Depression. Drug abuse. Self-loathing. Poor influences from the people around you. You can be convinced that you can never really fix your situation, so why not just keep behaving like you already are?

I watched someone very dear to me spend more than a decade of his life simply not caring very much about the world. He sunk very deep into a mix of mistakes, depression, and drug abuse and got very low before he decided to start fixing things. His bottom was far different than mine.

So, what can you do? In the story above, Andrea quoted me a bit, and I want to repeat one sentence here.

It is at that point that a person realizes, for the first time, that they’re following a path that doesn’t work.

In other words, bottoming out is a matter of self-realization. You personally might find someone’s situation to be unbelievably bad, but if they don’t see it, they’re not going to change the course they’re on. If they see more value in continuing down their current path than changing to a new one, all of your care in the world won’t add up to too much.

They have to bottom out for themselves. It’s an internal thing, where you finally accept that there’s something wrong in your life that needs to be fixed. Some people will reach that point much more easily than others.

Until then, any help you give someone on a downward trajectory will just prolong that downward trajectory. If you think a drug addict has bottomed out and you give them some help, but they haven’t bottomed out yet in their own mind, they’re very likely to use your help to further their downward spiral. The same thing happens for anyone on a downward spiral of any kind. If you help someone that hasn’t reached their bottom yet, your help will mostly just prolong their downward slide.

The help you should offer to someone before they reach the bottom is non-financial help. Talk to them. Lend them an ear. However, offering them material and financial assistance usually doesn’t help until they’ve really reached bottom and have made the internal choice to follow a different path. The best way to judge that is through their actions and choices, not their words.

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