Rock Bottom and the Downward Spiral

You are waking up in an alleyway as the sounds of traffic and people moving about get louder. You found an inconspicuous area that kept you safe and allowed you some rest. You think about your situation, realizing things can spiral out of control in what seems like an instant. But it started probably more than a year ago.

You were stressing about a relationship problem and losing sleep consistently. As a result, you were late more often, and when you were at work, your performance was clearly diminishing. Because of this and the strict work environment, you were fired. It took about three weeks or so to find a new job, and as a result, you became a month behind on everything. You used credit cards to float. You wouldn’t get paid for another 2–3 weeks due to being new in the payroll system.

The time it took to get your first check made you a total of two months behind on everything, including rent, and you weren’t making enough to catch up. The eviction notice was sent immediately after the first missed month. By that second month, the court date was set. You were thinking that you’d be able to catch up by the court date in another month by not paying any other bills and eating beans and rice.

Yet the final straw hits. Just after your first few weeks of work, a horrible setback occurs that isn’t your fault this time; the company went bankrupt. They have to let most of the workers go, including you.

The Spiral

When you are struck with a series of tragic events and have landed in a predicament, you’re in a hole and have to work three times as hard to get out. Often, along with it is a host of strong and debilitating emotions, especially when there are relationships involved. Facing this negative spiral, you just want to ball up into a corner and sleep the troubles and pain away.

The last thing you want to do is think about what you could have done, or how you are or are not responsible for your situation. Sadly enough, you have no choice. You must channel those negative emotions to get you through to the next phase.

The thing is, unfortunate events have a similar parallel to fortunate or positive events. They compound onto each other. Someone having a successful trend could easily keep swinging upward. We’re always on the verge of a single simple mistake or random unfortunate event that could start that downward spiral.

Simply forgetting to change the oil in your car could result in a blown engine leading to not being able to get to work on time, to losing your job, to not being able to pay for child care or other bills, to having bad credit, to being slated for eviction, to taking an illegal job to get a quick win, to going to jail. For those in nice conditions, this sounds extreme, but the sad fact is, when living paycheck to paycheck, this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Something like this can happen in a couple of months with just a few bad decisions or events along the way.

This negative compounding effect is extremely dangerous and is likely how many of us get ourselves into these predicaments.

What Is Rock Bottom?

For those in homeless situations in a wealthy country, there is an extremely high possibility that the series of events that occurred could have been and can be overcome. You can’t go a mile in any major US city without encountering a help wanted sign. A homeless person without any major mental conditions or drug addictions is likely not at rock bottom.

True rock bottom is mental conditions, disease, famine, war, drugs, and impoverished societies. We can recover from anything else, and we have very little reason not to break out of the negative spiral.

Yet, typically when we talk about rock bottom, we aren’t using it in that extreme context. We are usually talking about our mental rock bottom – the point when we can’t take anymore mentally or emotionally. Something gives, something breaks inside of us, and we either change for the worse or change for the better.

The interesting thing about mental rock bottom is that it is very different for everyone. One person’s rock bottom for change could be going to jail. For another, it could be almost dying. And for another, it could be having to live with their parents after moving out. It’s all a matter of personal perspective.

Drowning in Emotional Chaos

Hitting rock bottom mentally is like drowning in emotional chaos. The thing is, with strong emotions, the body is screaming for something to happen. Why is it so often we make horrible, poor choices in these situations? I like to think of strong emotions like an alarm; what is an alarm actually telling you? A fire alarm is saying there might be a fire; it doesn’t say how big or how bad the fire is. A security alarm is saying someone might be in the building that shouldn’t be; it doesn’t say if the person is armed and dangerous or not.

Our emotions ratchet up those alarms based on the importance of whatever the situation is to us. Since we have similar alarm systems, the real difference is the levels to which we are alerted. Losing a football game may send extremely high priority alarm signals for one person but may be completely absent of a signal for others.

The problem is, the bodily reactions to a high priority alarm are similar, whether it’s losing a football game or losing a job. Fear of speaking in public has a similar bodily reaction to fear from being hunted by a killer ape. Of course, we typically have the ability to realize this, and while we may be petrified, sweating, and unable to think about anything other than the threat of being on stage, we won’t typically run off and hide.

However, imagine if that fear was mixed with constant anger, sadness, and disgust all at once? Plus, instead of a singular simple problem like being on stage and presenting, you have to figure out how you will get your bills paid, how you will have enough money for food, and where you will live next. Then imagine having a family member or significant other also feeling emotional and having to interact or argue with them. Then add in a simple addiction – nicotine, alcohol, caffeine – and go a day without it. The emotional burden of all of those factors essentially becomes the same as cornering a wild animal.

Tame the Beast

Find a quiet place. Thinking sanely is the most difficult part since the emotions have been consistently bombarding you with various thoughts and feelings. If your mind is in chaos, remove yourself from any stimuli, somewhere you can focus your thoughts and take a few minutes. We aren’t trying to be a Zen master. We can’t expect our emotions and thoughts to ever quiet down completely, but taking no action for a couple of minutes should be enough for you to take the next real step.

Acknowledge the reasons for the emotions. Be sure to acknowledge and understand the reasons, not the actions the emotions are pushing you to take. This could make your emotions start to boil again, so take your time, remove blame and unnecessary pressure. This is solely to understand what is causing the emotional pain.

Introspect at least three levels deep. For those not used to introspection, often we focus on the symptoms or causes outside of our control. Instead, we want to focus on ways we can avoid the situations in the future, which ultimately can lead us to how to change our current situation. In our scenario, the first level: We got evicted because we lost our job twice and didn’t pay rent for too many months. The second level: We didn’t pay rent because we didn’t have enough income to support our job losses, and when we did have one, it was too little to dig out of the hole. Third level: We lost our job once because we weren’t getting enough sleep and were too preoccupied with relationship problems.

Find the light, the north star. Emotions are all about balance. The negative emotions you’ve encountered should always have a light at the end of the tunnel. The north star is a way to always know how to navigate – some form of hope, whether it’s a month, a year, or ten or more years away. This is the most important step of rock bottom. We can’t find this light if we’re jaded by chaotic emotions, if we haven’t acknowledged our emotions and our responsibilities. If you cannot find a positive light, you will almost certainly sink, crash, and burn. This is your lifeline. This is what you look to as you fight out of your predicament. If you cannot find it, quiet your mind and create it. Paint the ideal situation and use that as your light. If you can’t see it, it’s because you don’t believe it is possible; break those chains. This is not an option. See the possible in the impossible.

Attack the problems. Once you’ve done those steps well, you are ready to attack the problems. Each one of the problems could take long amounts of time to resolve. As such, you have to plan things out so that you can get small victories to help you along the way and also so that those problems that cause the most emotional chaos are addressed first. Prioritizing the problems you attack is imperative to breaking out of the spiral.

Don’t fall victim to easy fixes. This is a step only to remind ourselves; you are in this position because life isn’t easy. If there’s an easy way out of your emotions, out of your predicament, it is almost guaranteed to have a lot of other risks involved. Now, this isn’t to say never take chances, but you have to do it smartly, not when you are at rock bottom. Get out of the spiral first, get back on your feet from rock bottom. Learn the lessons from being there before even thinking about ‘easy.’

Repeat. The thing is, being at rock bottom will be a nightmare; it will be difficult. Getting through these steps is something you may have to do every single day for a long while. You’ll be handling extreme emotions until you get your bearings. There *will* be setbacks, so you’ll have to take them in stride repeating this process until you are free.

Life Isn’t Fair. 

You will have to fight twice as hard as someone who isn’t in a negative spiral. If you compare yourself to someone in an upward spiral, your situation will look ridiculously bleak. As if the whole world is against you. The hand we are dealt may not be fair, and it’s almost impossible to sugarcoat that unfortunate truth.

You may have to toil away for years to get out of a negative rut due to a bad life hand. Where someone else could have been born into riches and doesn’t have to worry about wiping their own butt. The thing is, getting stuck thinking about another’s perfect situation is exactly the type of thinking that will keep you in the downward spiral.

Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death.” – William Goldman



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