I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘rock bottom’ lately. When I say rock bottom and others say rock bottom I‘ve discovered we mean completely different things. Rock bottom is often defined as the ‘the lowest possible limit’. In this sense, rock bottom implies a sense of failure. But when I hear rock bottom I think of opportunity. Rock bottom is a good place to start.
You may find it interesting that what got me thinking about rock bottom wasn’t my own experience. Although I think I’ve been at rock bottom more recently than I care to admit, what got me thinking about the concept of rock bottom was the journey of the Sydney Swans footballer, Alex Johnson. Following victory in the 2012 AFL grand final, Johnson experienced a series of repeated knee injuries. This year, he returned to play in the AFL after 2,136 days on the sidelines. It was a remarkable and inspiring achievement. One quarter into his second game back from injury Johnson ruptured the Anterior Cruciate Ligament on his ‘good knee’. Many said his career was over in a moment.
A lot of media attention surrounded Johnson at the time. And as a footy lover and a Swans fan my heart went out to him. One particular piece on social media stood out to me. A parent had recorded their son talking about why Johnson was their hero. They were preparing the presentation for school and were wearing a Swans guernsey. It was absolutely adorable. But something stood out to me in this small child’s words that reflected how we as a society conceptualise rock bottom. This little boy said he admired Johnson because he was ‘brave’ and ‘tough’ and never got sad.
The thing is… Johnson did get sad. Very sad. Six years on the sidelines, not doing what you love, will do that. I don’t think Johnson being ‘brave’ or ‘tough’ or whatever other word you want to use for ‘not feeling’ is what makes him impressive. Quite the opposite. What makes him impressive to me is that he did feel. He felt every ounce of disappointment, frustration and anger. And he survived. He got back up and he gave it a crack. And he continues to do so. He hasn’t given up. That’s what makes him inspirational to me. He looked rock bottom right in the eye and said ‘fuck you’.
I remember attending a day conference once (I swear this is relevant, I promise) and the theme of the conference was resilience. ‘How do we improve the resilience of young people in a mental illness context?’ I was quite shocked to find that, like my definition of rock bottom, the presenters definition of resilience and mine differed greatly. When the presenters spoke of resilience they meant resistance to developing a mental illness. Resilience meant not getting sick. To me, resilience means getting sick and surviving and even learning to thrive, in spite of it. Or to put it another way, resilience is part and parcel to rock bottom. Rock bottom necessitates resilience.
As evidenced by Johnson’s story, rock bottom can sometimes be a place we need to spend some time in. We can learn valuable lessons about ourselves at rock bottom. For mine, I have survived things I never thought I could have survived. This gives me confidence moving forward that I can overcome other challenges life throws at me. Rock bottom can be a teacher; a cruel one, but a teacher none the less. It is in these moments that we discover how resilient we really are. From rock bottom, we can only learn and go upward.