The Beast Within

Nature vs. Nurture

The role of nature and nurture when is comes to alcoholism and addiction.

Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you that I'm a die-hard Yankees and baseball fan which is why, despite the other amazing films that have saturated the marketplace, I took my wife and kids to see the movie "42" (the Jackie Robinson story), a real crowd-pleaser that turned the kaleidoscope on our conversations about race relations and left my kids wanting more while setting me to thinking about another baseball legend: Mickey Mantle. 

Mantle was a baseball legend, no doubt, but he was born beneath an angry star, to say the least. He was entrenched in a bloodline that was beset upon with disease. His father died of a form of cancer known colloquially as Hodgkin's Disease; his son Mickey Jr. would later be taken by liver cancer and his second of four sons would go on to battle prostate cancer. If we step back from the tragedies of the illnesses that ravaged this family, it becomes clear that they all had a genetic predisposition for cancer.

But were they hard-wired for alcoholism?

In 1994, Mickey Mantle checked into The Betty Ford Clinic after being told by doctors that his liver was on its last leg. His wife and sons had already completed treatment for their alcoholism and drug addiction, and they urged him to go. And that fascinates me because here was this man -- this legend -- who'd survived Osteomyelitis in his youth and had gone on to set world records in baseball, yet here he was getting sober with his family. A family which consisted of two alcoholic parents and their four children!

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And this begs the question that, if they all did, indeed, have a propensity for alcoholism and addictive behavior, then what exactly exacerbated it?

Which brings us around to my own not-so-humble beginnings: I grew up in a large family where my mother was an alcoholic (and she, herself, had alcoholism in her family with her own parents). I got the drug addiction card which manifested itself when, at the age of sixteen, I started shooting heroin and could not stop until, thank God, I turned my life around at the age of 32. But if we take a deeper look at my family tree we see other maladies unfolding.

In addition to her alcoholism, my mother had a chemical imbalance, and this expressed itself in the fact that I and several of my siblings also have chemical imbalances and are, to this day, on some form of antidepressant (I, myself, went on Lexapro at 55 to treat my chemical imbalance). Are any of my siblings alcoholics or drug addicts? No. That, my friends, is my cross to bear; mine and mine alone. Now, looking back over my life, it seems as if I was this ticking time bomb just sitting there, waiting for the right configuration of events to set me off, but I've got to tell you, once that sucker detonated, I was off and running and, literally, out of control.

It was, ultimately, the intervention of my family that deterred my race through the gates of insanity toward a very certain death. Which brings us, now, to my own family: My wife and I are both recovering addict/ alcoholics and our family consists of three wonderful children, ages 11, 9 and 6 years old. And there is no active addiction in our household, there's no active alcoholism; we are both very concerned parents, we are both very nurturing and loving (not that I am the best parent in the world, because I don't think there's any kind of perfection when it comes to healthy parenting) but I do believe that we have a pretty healthy environment to raise our kids in because my wife and I both had to learn what didn't work from our own parenting. So, although I believe that alcoholism and addiction are genetic and can be passed down from generation to generation (no matter how good a parent you are) that knowledge might prove to be useless ammunition against that possibility of detonation. I also strongly believe that, with healthy parenting and with healthy boundaries (being able to say "no" to your children and help them learn to tolerate the "no") I believe that it can stem the tide against the given of addiction or alcoholism within the family unit.

Now, it's an interesting possibility that one or all of my children may, regrettably, have to follow in my footsteps, or the footsteps of my wife; I might not be able to prevent that from happening no matter how hard I try. Mickey Mantle's son Billy died from heart problems brought about from years of substance abuse. It's a horrifying notion, but my wife and I also have faith that, no matter what our children will go through, we will Be There For Them in a very healthy way (which -- like it or not, want it or not -- may be why I own a treatment center).

The genetic component is a huge factor in what creates the addict or the alcoholic. But, in the same way that you will see a cancer tear through a family tree and destroy generation after generation (because the cancer gene, like the alcoholic gene, is passed from family member to family member), you will also see families gathering around their wounded and helping them and supporting them and loving them and walking through the nightmare of addiction together.

I am an addiction specialist; this is my truth. But, I also have to live by the advice that I give to other families: I have to set boundaries with my child. If my child exploded in a fit of using drugs, there is no question that I would put my child in a sober environment and isolate him from the peer group that he's been doing drugs with. Because the key here is that he has to be separated from that group if he is to be given the chance to survive.

And, what is so dangerous here (when you have an adolescent or a teenager who is using drugs) is that this is happening during the most important part of their lives where they are learning how to deal with adult feelings in a healthy way.

Because drinking and drugging medicates them so that they don't have to deal with these feelings that they're being bombarded with as teenagers. And, if you don't intervene on that quickly, they will never learn how to deal with these feelings -- or any feelings -- because they will always run to drugs to self-medicate them away. That's why it's vital for the parents to intervene on their children and get them to a safe, sober environment so they can learn how to process their own feelings in a healthy, mature way.

If you come from a family of where alcoholism and addiction are present, and you have your own children, you have to be on guard -- you have to be aware -- and you have to be educated as to the signs of addiction within your children. Because, if you are not educated and aware, you are walking around with blinders on, and that could be the worst thing for your children, who are living in a world where drugs are prevalent in every school and in every walk of life.

You can make a difference, even if they are genetically predisposed. As a parent, you can make a difference by how you love your child and set boundaries with your child and say "no" and not enable your child.

Or, you can sit around and ignore the signs and stick your fingers in your ears and wait for the bomb to go off. Because, if we take one last look at Mickey Mantle, we will see that it was his drinking that destroyed his liver, leaving him a ravaged, helpless man when the cancer finally came for him.

The fallout from these bombs can destroy a family. My only hope is that it never strikes at mine.

Howard C. Samuels, Psy.D., has been clean and sober for over 28 years and is currently the Founder and CEO of The Hills Treatment Center.

Howard C. Samuels, Psy.D., is a licensed therapist with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with years of experience, and is the founder of The Hills Treatment Center.

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