Ever wondered why life with your alcoholic can be so challenging, even if they’ve stopped drinking? That’s because of the “isms”. Isms are the behaviors and attitudes that are typical of alcoholism and that usually continue, even when the alcoholic finds sobriety. These can include control-ism, egoism, paranoia, manipulation, impatience, withholding of information, quick temper, quick to defensiveness, etc.
We have isms of our own: we jump to take blame, defend people, over-compensate for the weakness of others, micro-manage, move too quickly into catastrophic thinking, and more.
These isms are hard to live with, on both sides. And when the drinking or other addiction stops, the isms continue unless we work to reprogram ourselves. By reading this blog, you are taking steps to help overcome your own isms. How do you live with those of your alcoholic? Here are some suggestions:
- First and foremost, remove yourself (and your children) immediately from any dangerous situation;
- Improve your radar – learn to realize when an “ism” is happening and consciously decide how to act, instead of reacting with your own counter-ism;
- Have some compassion: if he or she doesn’t have a program, the alcoholic probably doesn’t know how to recognize the isms in themselves, let alone change them;
- At the same time, set and maintain boundaries for how you wish to be treated. When they’ve been crossed, follow through with the consequences (if you’re going to yell at me I’m going to have to leave the room until you calm down);
When I learned about the isms, I realized that I had been modifying my behavior around my alcoholic to avoid triggering his isms. My sponsor explained that this was actually controlling and enabling behavior, and that I was also not honoring myself. We shouldn’t have to tip toe around those we love, or who are supposed to love us. But with compassion, neither do we purposefully act in ways to put the alcoholic in harm, such as goading them into a fight. My sponsor encouraged me to recognize and ask for what I needed in each situation. While this might or might not change the behaviors of my alcoholic toward me, the point was to advance my own growth by understanding and then putting my needs on the table. In this way, I was breaking through the habits of my own isms.
In time and in a healthy, recovering relationship, the alcoholic and the supporter should be able to have conversations about the isms and even help each other to recognize when an ism is occurring, so that behavior can be modified by personal will to do so. We can’t change others, we can only change ourselves. But it’s been my experience that quite often when I make a shift, those around me tend to make them as well.