Understanding the “isms” of alcoholism

Keyword entries into my blog identify that a large portion of my readers these days want to learn more about the isms of alcoholism. It’s a reference that shows up quickly in any recovery program, so I believe these enquiries are a good sign. They mean you are seeking help – either through the Internet or a program. Well done!

This also means that you are trying to obtain a clue into what makes the alcoholic in your life tick. However isms aren’t motivators so much as characteristics of an addict or alcoholic. But let’s deal with their definition first and then we’ll touch on motivators.

Isms are the behaviors and attitudes that are typical of in an alcoholic. These can include control-ism, egoism, paranoia, manipulation, impatience, withholding of information, quick temper, moving quickly to defensiveness, and various other fear-based activities. Sometimes these behaviors are modified or lessoned when the alcoholic has a drink, and sometimes they intensify. It’s my belief that isms are not caused by alcoholism, but they can certainly be a good indicator of alcoholism. Some people believe that alcohol completely changed their loved one, and that the isms are new. I don’t believe that. I think that those personality traits were always there, but that repeated exposure to alcoholism and continual decline of the body and mind intensify the isms.

I believe these behaviors are deep within the alcoholic’s personality. In fact, they are so deeply ingrained that even when an alcoholic finds sobriety, the isms can continue. So in the early years of recovery, the addict battles not only to stay sober, but if they wish to maintain their relationships they must also struggle to keep these negative personality traits in check. For many this can become overwhelming, which is why many SOAs say that the first year of their alcoholic’s sobriety was actually harder than the full out drinking years. But at least in the first year of sobriety, you know that life is headed toward a safer, healthier place, and that gives us all hope for the future.

If alcohol doesn’t cause isms (although it does bring them much closer to the surface), then where do isms come from? Some experts say that alcoholism is caused by a mental health issue, or at least becomes a mental health issue. Many treatment programs focus on delving into the conditions under which the drinking first started, or the conditions under which it subsequently thrived. It is generally believed that a treatment program must encompass some degree of counseling, to help the addict understand their condition from a psychological perspective as part of the healing process.

If it works, then I’m all for it. But I believe the problem is much deeper and much simpler than that. I believe that alcoholics have a hole inside of them that represents a lack of purpose, meaning and (dare I say it) spirituality. Because of this, they feel a lack of connectedness with the rest of the world and that’s a painful place to be. So they medicate to feel artificially better, or to numb out from the pain.

I believe that in order to get better – by which I mean not simply stop drinking, but overcome the fear and anxiety that causes them to act out through the isms – they need to heal from the inside out.

In the meantime, the SOA needs some strategies to deal with an alcoholic’s isms:

• First and foremost, remove yourself (and your children) immediately from any dangerous situation;
• Improve your radar – learn to realize when an “ism” is happening. It’s probably fear based, and you already know how not to react. Try a different approach;
• 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 that was simultaneously 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.

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