“At the lowest possible level.”

That’s how the wonderful internet defines the term “rock bottom.” So like the Star Wars prequels? Maybe lower than that. Maybe more like the film career of Shaquille O’Neal? Still lower, perhaps. Maybe the idea of McDonald’s McPizza served with an iced cold Crystal Pepsi? But I still think we can go a few levels lower. How about being such a dumpster fire of an alcoholic or drug addict that your whole world implodes? Now we’re talking “lowest possible level” and an idea of rock bottom that I can really relate to.

You hear people talking a lot about their bottoms in the halls of recovery. And before we go any further, let’s get the 6th grade snicker about the word “bottom” out of the way. I am here with you on that and am resisting making obvious childish butt jokes. We can stay strong together and avoid 1,500 words of bottom puns. It’ll be hard but we can do it. Anyway, you hear people talk about their bottoms a lot (tee-hee-hee. already failing.) if you are like me and hang out with sober people several times a week. It almost always comes up in meetings. In case you’re unfamiliar, your “rock bottom” is a way to legitimize our experiences as former alcoholics and drug addicts. It’s like confirmed kills or teardrop tattoos for gangsters but with stories of vomiting in public and peeing yourself instead. When we share our bottoms with each other (extreme snicker required) it’s supposed to unite our experiences and highlight what we have in common. We’re supposed to nod our heads and think to ourselves, “Oh my god I did that shit too.” Looking at our bottoms together (oh good lord) should unite us in the idea that we all come from fucked up places when we drag our sorry selves into the halls of recovery. It should and more often than not it does but there are a lot of times when comparing bottoms (I give up) does nothing but make things worse.

Blow up my darn email or shit post some comments if you feel the need but I am of the particular belief that there is no such thing as a low bottom or high bottom. The very notion does nothing but create division within a group of people who already feel like massive hunks of garbage. Alcoholism and addiction don’t care if it’s high or low bottom. As far as the people who love us and who’ve had to put up with our bullshit are concerned, it’s all low bottom. Still, we sober folks feel like we need to let everybody know what our bottoms are like, inside and out.

If you cling to this idea of being a high bottom, for example, you feel the need to share every time that you open your mouth at a meeting that things never got that bad and you never lost all of your stuff. You feel like everybody needs to know that you don’t have to be a hobo to get sober and that you can still drive your DUI-free BMW to meetings. Thanks for sharing that, Donna but if things never got that bad then why the hell are you in recovery? I have met some first class wackadoodles with major cases of alcoholism who looked pretty darn shiny from the outside. Remember, I got sober in Los Angeles. The foundation of that entire town is built on people who look good on the outside but are collapsing internally. This leads me to believe the insides of drug addicts and alcoholics are all the same. We all hate ourselves. We all made disasters of our lives even if nobody could tell. Mainly, we all couldn’t stop drinking and using once we started. This highbrow ideal that we were a class act when we got bombed is the exact kind of delusion that kept me loaded in the first place.

And you’re not off the hook either, super low bottom drunks. As entertaining as that story you have about smoking crack with a rat under a bridge when you were homeless is, Travis, it wears a little thin. I mean. We get it. You once set yourself on fire when you passed out drunk with a lit cigarette. What else ya got? Super braggy low bottoms want to let you know that they were the worse kind of alcoholic ever and you shouldn’t even bother trying to compete with them. Yet in actuality it’s the same damn thing. If you get to hang out with enough addicts and alcoholics, the one thing you’ll see over and over again is that their thinking is all selfish, self-destructive and batshit crazy. With low bottom drunks more often than not, the conversation verges into all war stories all the time which makes me a little bored and start wondering, “Yeah okay but then what happened?”

As what could be considered a low bottom drunk myself, I admittedly have often rolled my eyes when people share about drinking because they didn’t have the grades they wanted when they went to Yale or getting fucked up because the stock market took a dump. Like I used to snort cocaine off the backs of gay bar toilet seats and had no shame in drinking Steel Reserve so instinctually I want to snap, “I can’t relate.” The reality is, though, I can relate. Maybe not to the situations or circumstances but to the feelings simmering underneath. When people are real and raw, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. My head nods for real and to my core I hear someone telling my story.

The first time this happened to me I was at a meeting in Santa Monica. It was an early morning meeting at a coffee shop filled with good looking, high bottom types. The woman who spoke shared about being a studio wife and driving around Brentwood picking up her kids while drunk. My single, gay ghetto ass from Echo Park couldn’t be more different but when she talked about always feeling less then, feeling alone in crowds of people and wanting to die but being too afraid, she said everything that had been on my mind for decades. She said never, ever thought she’d be able to stop but now had three years. I felt that way too and at less than 30 days sober, it meant something coming from a total stranger, regardless of our respective zip codes.

When I think about my own bottom today (I’ll allow one more groan and a light titter), it’s pretty clear cut. It was bad. Moreover, it was bad enough. It was bad enough to make me stop and think, “This isn’t working.” Granted, given the number of years I drank and used for I probably had a series of little baby bottoms. But none of them were bad enough. The one in 2009 where I lost everything(internally and externally, by the way) was though. I felt spectacularly shitty enough to consider something, anything else. A impulse to save my own life from somewhere kicked in. An out of character surge of self-preservation and desperation took over. My bottom was horrific and awful enough for me to stop and finally ask for help which in the end is all that really matters.

Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer & recovery mentor in Portland. NOW THAT YOU'VE STOPPED DYING is his new essay collection, is available now from Zephyr Bookshelf.