It’s an inevitable lament at birthday parties, girls’ nights and cook-outs: “None for me, thank you. If I eat just one (insert something delicious here), I won’t stop.”
People will laugh and nod with understanding at the admission of a so-called addictive personality, even offering up their own Herculean struggle with mocktails, chips or ice cream. But these conversations are often couched in language about willpower, weakness and a lack of self-discipline. And for those who truly have a genetic predisposition toward substance abuse or addiction, the compulsion is no laughing matter.
Research shows that about half of a person’s vulnerability to addiction stems from biological factors. Their environment and the circumstances surrounding their development also contribute to whether or not that predisposition manifests itself in the form of full-blown addiction.
It’s a phenomenon noted roughly 2,000 years ago by Greek philosopher Plutarch and echoed in the work of 17th-century scholar Robert Burton, best-known for “The Anatomy of Melancholy:” Ebrii gignunt ebrios, one drunkard begets another.
Conventional wisdom posits that if a person’s parents or grandparents struggled with substance abuse or addiction, they too will be fated to some form of chemical dependency. But many children of addicts live against the grain of that upbringing, swearing off any substances that could be abused.
That a propensity toward dependency appears to exist within families is beyond dispute. What, exactly, explains the link is another matter. Pushback against the 19th (and to some extent, 20th) century narrative of addiction as a moral failing in part spurred the hunt for scientific evidence of a connection.
But scientists believe there is no singular addiction gene. There is no test that can label someone a future addict. So where does that leave those with a family history of chemical dependency? Awareness and education can go a long way in this case.
Here are five things that people with a family history of addiction can do to break the cycle:
1. Build a knowledge base.
There is more attention focused on addiction and addiction science now than ever, and increasingly few excuses for not paying attention. This epidemic touches everyone. Even those without a family history of addiction likely know one or a dozen people who are struggling – possibly in silence.
For those fortunate enough to be aware of their own connection to addiction, there is even more incentive to locate resources in their own community. From recovery groups to counseling to the glut of information available online about causes and treatment, the time to become educated is right now.
2. Scrutinize behaviors.
Now, too, is the time for analyzing the underlying problems that may manifest themselves in harmful behavior. You might polish off a pint of Cherry Garcia the night before a project is due, or just because you are bored. You pause in the pantry to down that last glass of wine out of sight, lest someone think you have a drinking problem.
Overdoing it on sweets or having one beer too many may not seem like a big deal – and it’s not, if it never escalates. But it could also be an attempt at self-medication for anxiety or depression for someone prone to impulsive or compulsive behavior. These folks might not be in active addiction, but they are struggling with the same issues that can lead others into a downward spiral.
3. Understand risk factors.
Risk factors for dependency or addiction don’t stop with the genetic hand one is dealt. A social circle that revolves around drinking or drugs, a personal history of trauma, low self-esteem, family dysfunction and a lack of social support can all leave someone vulnerable to drug abuse.
4. Prevention is key.
The best way to avoid addiction is simply never to begin experimenting. This may sound obvious, but it’s borne out by fact. Although experimentation at any age can open the door to the chronic compulsion to seek and use illicit substances, someone who tries drugs is more likely to wind up in full-blown addiction if they start young, before the parts of their brain that govern impulse control mature.
And they start young, according to annual estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About one in 10 people aged 12 or older had used an illicit substance within 30 days of taking the most recently published survey. That’s 27 million people, with nearly 8,000 people aged 12 or older using an illicit drug for the first time within the preceding 12 months. About 10 to 20 percent of people who try those drugs become dependent on them. Why take the risk?
5. Lead by example.
Anyone with a genetic predisposition toward addiction ultimately has a responsibility to pass lessons learned on to the next generation. When children enter the picture, the stakes are high. They have a right to understand what they are up against. That means openness, honesty and courage on the part of a parent who might rather not discuss such a sensitive subject. Moreover, it means having the courage to seek help if help is needed. It takes courage to acknowledge a problem, but even more courage to resolve it.