In an earlier blog, I advised all college students to learn their family history when it comes to substance abuse, and to allow that knowledge to inform their decision making when it comes to consuming or experimenting with substances. I wanted to expand upon this subject because understanding this part of your history is so vital to understanding how best to protect yourself from becoming a part of the 1 in 7 statistic of Americans who will experience addiction. This blog post will explore the relationship between genetics and addiction, as well as provide personal examples that illustrate the specific need for awareness and information-based decision making when it comes to substance use.
Firstly, it is important to understand that addiction is a disease that is a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Addiction is considered to be moderately to highly heritable. This means that genetics tend to have anywhere from a moderate to severe effect on whether or not someone will suffer from addiction. These findings are comprised of family, adoption and twin studies. Twin studies have been particularly helpful because they help to answer questions on the developmental side. These studies are also conducted in populations that share several risk factors. The overall compilation of studies suggests that an individual’s risk for addiction “tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative.” Of course, this is all dependent on the fact that addictions initiate due to availability of the addictive substance and the personal choice of the individual to use the substance.
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Using Family History as a Guide
These next paragraphs explain why I have made personal choices in regard to substances that actively protect my health and my future. I was 10 years old when I vowed that I would never, under any circumstances, allow a cigarette to touch my lips. Earlier that year, a family member was diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer. As his closest relatives, we had him come to live with us as he fought his battle. He was willing to make all kinds of lifestyle changes, even switching to a diet of exclusively fruits, vegetables and whole grains. However, there was one change that he absolutely refused to make: He would not even consider giving up smoking. In fact, he would get a chemotherapy treatment and immediately go outside for a smoke break.
On the way home from doctor’s appointments, he would ask my dad to stop at a store and purchase cigarettes for him. Watching this at a young age certainly left an impression, as I quite literally watched him continue to smoke until he passed away. Unfortunately, in my family, cigarette addictions have a deeply rooted history. It was the combination of witnessing this firsthand, as well as hearing stories of other family members that ended similarly, that led me as a young girl to make the decision for myself. Smoking would never be a part of my life. I have been offered cigarettes in college several times, and my response is always “No thank you.”
I was 16 years old when I realized that another extremely close family member struggled mightily with alcoholism. I hadn’t previously realized what was going on, but when she lived with us during her battle with cancer, it became increasingly clear that there was a reason she disappeared every evening at five o’clock. There was a reason she had taken a bad fall before an event a few years earlier. There was a reason she neglected to live a life outside of her four walls.
Her dependency kept her in a box and damaged her brain. She decided not to take care of herself, and to not invest in treatment of her cancer or her addiction, and she lost her life as a result. This was someone that I had never imagined wouldn’t be there to see my high school graduation, or my college graduation. I had always imagined her being there to help me when I eventually pick out my wedding dress. She would have loved to have been there to watch me win Miss University of Florida. But she wasn’t. Now, I have specific rules for myself when it comes to alcohol. I want to be there for my family as long as possible. I want to be present and enjoy my life and show up for family dinners. I want my story to be different.
Understanding and Avoiding Potential Risks
I accept the hard truth that my genetics mean that I am not invincible. The truth is, even if you have no family history, you aren’t invincible either. We all need to understand that the “wolf” of addiction is always waiting at our door, and it can derail our lives if we let it. For those of us who do have a family history, we need to be even more careful and aware. Knowledge is power, and it is absolutely crucial that each and every one of us use what we know about our genetic make-up to make informed decisions about what we will and will not allow to enter our bodies and our lives.
Take the time to ask questions, listen to family stories and find your reason why. For me, addiction is heavily tied to loss in my family. There are people I love who I will never see again as a result of this disease. There are pieces of my heart that are gone forever because of addiction. Continuing to educate others on this disease, as well as making different choices for myself, is the best way to honor those that I have lost. I don’t tell their stories lightly, but I tell them to inspire you to set up guardrails, or to seek help if you need it. Your life is valuable. You bring something unique to the world. You have something that you are supposed to do. Do not let a substance take that away from you. Know your worth, know your history and know that you can get help and reclaim your life and future.
Hafner, Josh. “Surgeon general: 1 in 7 in USA will face substance addiction.” USA Today, November 17, 2016. Accessed August 5, 2020.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts.” August 2019. Accessed August 5, 2020.
Bevilacqua, L., et al. “Genes and Addictions.” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2009. Accessed August 5, 2020.
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