If you've recovered through a 12-step fellowship, you'll be familiar with the philosophy that alcohol is a symptom of the disease of alcohol use disorder (formerly referred to as alcoholism); once you get sober and remove the alcohol, you're left with the "isms." Namely, the reasons why we drank or used drugs. Some people believe that if you don't deal with the crux of your disease - or the "ism" - then you will return to use.
ISMs Bring Shame
As an acronym, "ism" stands for: "I, self, me," or "I sponsor myself," or "Internal Spiritual Malady." The implication being that the recovering person is self-centered, self-absorbed, and maladjusted. Within this philosophy, this catch-all phrase describes the experiences everyone encounters in this life: anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness, feeling inadequate in some way - but without the anesthesia of drugs and alcohol to quell the pain. It also describes certain childish behavior like:
- Blaming others
- An inability to deal with conflict
- Having poor boundaries
- A tendency to treat other substances, or people, the same way as drugs and alcohol.
For example, some people believe that developing a problem with gambling, or getting involved in dysfunctional relationships, is an "ism."
Recovery Brings Healing
To some extent, I agree that we need to get to the heart of why we were harming ourselves in way that led to substance use disorder. There was nothing healthy about drowning myself in four bottles of wine a day. The core of why I used alcohol and drugs in that way was that I had:
- (Undiagnosed) Complex PTSD
- Anxiety, and
- Few coping skills for life.
However, I don't believe these are "isms," a spiritual malady, or even flaws of my character. Many of us in recovery have been deeply traumatized by something preceding our addiction or during it. Many of us lacked nurture and emotional support in our childhood. Almost all of us have an inability to cope with stress, and while we were using we didn't fully develop emotionally. So, it's only natural that when we recover, we discover more about ourselves that we need to nurture.
Recovery has been about recovering my capacity to self-regulate and manage stress. I've also learned a host of other lessons around having healthy relationships, setting and maintaining boundaries, learning how to live a healthy life, and how to parent myself. If I focused on the problems that led to these lessons:
- Having unhealthy relationships
- Forming insecure attachments
- Seeking to escape through romantic relationships
- Being depressed
...then I'd have a mindset that I'm broken and defective. I simply don't see it that way.
Recovery Teaches Life Skills
The way I see recovery is that I needed to stop my harmful behavior, and I needed to grow up. I had to learn how to cope with life as a sober person. I needed to develop enough skills and purpose in life to make sure that my life was bigger than the desire to use drugs and alcohol.
When we are acting out with people, or even with food, our body and minds are telling us something is missing. I dealt with incredible loneliness by developing strong social supports and deepening a spiritual practice. My hunger was a message for irregularities in my body that I needed to see a doctor for, and also to feed my mind and spirit.
It's taken me over six and a half years to get to a place where I see recovery as a process of rebuilding and relearning. No longer do I punish myself for being defective. Instead, I learned to sit with myself quietly and ask what I really need. That isn't uncovering "isms." It's simply self-compassion and growth.