Do You Have to Bottom Out?

By Nic Sheff 04/24/12

Sometimes people ask me if they can avoid losing everything before they get clean. My story offers a simple answer: I lost more than I ever could have imagined, and then I lost even more.

Till meth do us part Photo via

One question I am almost always asked when I speak at high schools and other places is if it's necessary for someone to “hit bottom” in order to get sober. Or is it possible instead to be forced into treatment or AA meetings, and somehow prevent actually hitting bottom and and losing everything.

It’s a common concern, especially for parents or the loved one of addicts are trying to figure out the best way to help them get clean. And it’s something the AA Big Book talks about. There’s actually a section where Bill W. asks the question, “Why all this insistence that every AA must hit bottom first?” And their answer is that “few people will sincerely try to practice the AA program unless they have hit bottom.” 

Okay, so that’s what the Big Book says about it. But that’s just for AA. And, as I’ve learned over these past few years researching addiction and writing about it, there are other ways that alcoholics get sober. The fact is, each one of us is different. We all need different things to get sober.

I realized that if I did go with her, we were both going to die. And it wasn’t going to be some romantic Kurt Cobain death.

But all I can do is share my own experience. Because for me, well, yes, I did have to hit bottom—like 10 times. 

What happened for me was that I’d written about half of my first book, Tweak, and I got a small chunk of money for it—which, at the time, seemed like a huge chunk of money. I’d been sober 18 months when I got re-involved with this older woman who I’ve written about a whole lot in both my books. In the books I called her Zelda, so I’ll just continue on with that here. Basically, she was this super beautiful, super cool, super everything I wanted to be person, and I felt like, man, if she could love me and want me—well, than that would have to mean that I was actually worth something.

Because, the truth is, I’d never felt like I was worth anything before. In fact, I pretty much hated myself. And so I really would have done whatever it was going to take to get her to want to be with me. My whole identity was wrapped up in her—and the fact that I was writing this book.

Of course, it turned out she was using again and lying to everyone that she was sober. She was smoking crack. And so I started smoking crack, too. Smoking crack led to a drug binge that would turn out to be absolutely the worst relapse of my life. We were shooting coke and heroin and meth and taking tons of Klonopin and Xanax and Suboxone every day just to keep from going into withdrawals (when you use enough heroin, it counteracts the Suboxone effects). We sold basically everything we owned to get more drugs. I almost lost my arm from an abscess. I kept going into convulsions from shooting too much cocaine. 

But, really, of all the drugs, it was the meth that fucked us up the most. We’d shoot meth and she’d go crazy, thinking I was hiding drugs around the apartment. I came into the bathroom once to find her ripping out the tiles, convinced I had somehow hidden drugs there. It was the same with the lining of her clothes and bags. She thought I’d sewn drugs in there (which is especially absurd ‘cause I can’t sew at all). Anyway, it got worse and worse until she ended up straight up attacking me one night.

All the while I was sick as hell so my body started to shut down. I had cement in my insides and I’d have to sit in the bathroom for hours trying to get it out of me. 

But I was still trying to write. I had this absurd fantasy that somehow I would finish my book and Zelda and I would get clean or I don’t even know what. Either way, I’d stay up writing for days, sending my pages to my editor. Of course, she’d write me back being like, “Nic, these pages make no sense. You need to get help.”

I didn’t give up, though.

One night, however, I guess the meth really started making me go crazy, too, because I had this brilliant idea to take apart my computer and then take apart my cell phone so that then I’d be able to put them both together and make an amazing super computer cell phone thing.

Now, keep in mind, this was like 2003 or 4, so it would have been like the first I-Phone, or something, and I would’ve been a billionaire.

As it turned out, though, I took my phone apart and I took my computer apart and I couldn’t put them back together again. So then I didn’t have a computer (or a cell phone, obviously) and I was freaking out because without a computer, I couldn’t write my book. And if I couldn’t write my book, then none of my dreams could come true, right?

Fortunately (or unfortunately) I knew my mom, who also lived in LA, kept an old computer in her garage. So I drove over to the Palisades with Zelda and I dropped her at the Ralph’s there and said, “Wait here. I’m gonna go steal this computer, I’ll be right back.”

And so I drove to my mom’s house and broke into her garage.

It was 6 a.m.

What happened next is still kind of a blank for me. I guess I just went into a super bad psychosis and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the garage and I thought there were people talking outside and I ended up climbing up into the rafters and trying to tear away the shingles so I could climb out the roof. 

Anyway, it turned out I must’ve been in there for five or so hours because my girlfriend, who was stuck waiting at the supermarket, freaked out and called everyone—including, eventually, my mom. So my mom came out and found me, along with a member of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Then they gave me a choice: either I go to detox or jail. And so I decided to go to detox, since the idea of having to detox on a jail cell floor seemed a billion times worse.

And so that started a month, basically, of the worst detox hell I have ever experienced in my life. I slept a bunch at first, but then I didn’t sleep forever and I had all these tiny seizures in my brain and I was in so much pain.

But something crazy happened—which, I believe, changed everything. It was, as they say in the Big Book, my “white light moment.” 

Zelda showed up at the detox and said, “Hey, I figured out a way for you not to have to go to jail. We can go stay at my friend’s house. I have all these drugs in the car. Come with me.”

Now as I said, that is seriously all that I had wanted: just to be with her forever. And so I went to my room and started packing up my stuff. But then I looked at her and, suddenly, I realized that if I did go with her, we were both going to die. And it wasn’t going to be some romantic Kurt Cobain death. It was going to be real, an end of everything, no-more-chances, no-more-hope death.

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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.