Hereditary, Environmental, Both? Who Cares?

The tendency towards addiction* is partly hereditary.  Substance abuse problems run in families; we know this to be true.  There can be argument about the relative importance of environment (living with an active addict or addicts, early exposure to the idea of taking drugs, abuse, permission of parents to experiment, etc.) versus heredity, but there is no question about the family connection in many, if not the majority, of cases.

However, we often hear people in early recovery say things like, “I had a normal family,” or “No one in my family used drugs,” or “If I’d have ever come home smelling like booze, my old man would have kicked my butt.”  We also hear that alcoholism and addiction can skip generations.  So what’s the story?

Well, first of all, it is true that we can become addicts all on our own.  If we drink enough, or use other drugs enough, and do it long enough, we will become addicted.  It’s as simple as that.  Given enough drugs (alcohol is a drug) and enough time, our brains will change due to the exposure and will begin to need drugs.

Many of us didn’t need all that exposure.  Some of us (this writer is one) found that we’d “come home” when we had that first drink or drug.  We felt as if this was what we’d always been looking for.  Some of us thought that life simply had too many sharp edges, and found that alcohol and other drugs dulled them a bit.   Some were hurting emotionally, even physically, and found that chemicals were an answer to the pain.  Some believed that using made them more sociable, more creative, more able to deal with the complications of life.  Some of us simply didn’t worry about it.  We knew that we’d found what we’d been looking for, and that was good enough for us, and no one was going to take that away from us, ever again.

For those of us who felt that way, there is a good likelihood that there is an addict or a drinker in the woodpile someplace.  It may have been that uncle that no one talks about, or a grandparent whose behavior convinced his offspring that they would never touch anything.  Many people from alcoholic or addictive families become teetotalers, but still carry the genes (and some of the behavior), bequeathing them to their lucky kids.  There may even be a parent with an unspoken history early in their life.  This, along with the issue of dominant and recessive genes, may explain the “skipped generation” phenomenon.

As interesting as it can be to speculate on these things, they really have little to do with the present day.  If we have problems, it does us no good to blame them on family, or a miserable childhood, or genetics, or the man in the moon.  The facts, today, are that we are addicted, can’t quit, and need help.  Let’s not let other issues distract us from that fact.  Let’s not say, “Well, if you’d been through what I’ve been through…,” or “Everybody in my family drinks the way I do,” or “That’s ridiculous!  No one in my family has ever touched a drop.”  What matters is whether or not addictive chemicals are causing problems in our lives, and whether we have tried to stop and couldn’t, or did stop, but heard the drug calling and couldn’t stay stopped.

If that is what your drinking and/or drugging is about — loss of control, craving, unmanageability — then we can help.  Give us a chance, why don’t you?  And give yourself a chance, while you’re at it.  You can always get your misery refunded.
*Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiological disease, with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. It is characterized by behaviors that include one or more of the following: impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm, and craving.

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