Judging by the odds, I’m guessing you know someone who has or had a problem with addiction. For many people that “someone” is a family member. It could be your mom, dad, aunt, uncle, sibling, or grandparent. Regardless of who it is, there's no doubt it had an impact on your life.
Many of us see our family member struggling with addiction and make the decision to run away as far as we can from that. Others of us, often unconsciously, go down the same path as our loved one by falling into the cycle of addiction. It’s hard to say why people choose the path they do. However, research has shown us reasons (i.e., genetic and environmental factors) why some may go down one path rather than the other.
Many have described their own reasoning for why they think they chose their path. Some who have avoided the pitfalls of addiction have attributed their sobriety to having a loving grandparent who got them through difficult times. It could have been a teacher, friend, or some other source of support that kept them away from alcohol or other drugs. It could have been a future goal, such as going to college or maintaining a relationship, which was more important than the drug itself.
On the other side are those who make difference choices and end up addicted. Those along this path have attributed their choices to their “addictive personality” or certain friends that impacted their drinking behaviors. I’ve even heard them talk about their own parents’ drinking behavior and what it was like seeing them drinking or doing drugs everyday.
From a research perspective, it would be naïve to deny the association between our family history of alcoholism or drug abuse and our own patterns. Various research groups have studied twins to examine how much of our risk for alcoholism can be attributed to our genes compared to our environment. It’s been estimated that approximately 40 to 60 percent of the risk for developing an Alcohol Use Disorder can be accounted for by genetic factors (Heath et al., 1997; McGue, 1999). It may even be as high as 60 to 80 percent for other substances, such as nicotine or cocaine (Kendler & Prescott, 1998; True et al., 1999).
Contrary to popular belief though, there is no single gene that contributes to our likelihood of becoming an alcoholic. Our likelihood of drinking is influenced by more factors than we can count, including our genes, environment, parents, expectancies of what drinking or using drugs will do, and our individual response to alcohol. Having a family history of substance use is just one way at examining the genetic risk.
Although it may be true that those of us with a family history tend to have higher rates of alcoholism and drink more, it is far from a simple cause-effect chain where family history causes alcoholism. Various environmental factors can impact our behavior, such as, our friends, how we were raised, or our relationship with our parents.
We often want to make it easier on our mind and just find the one source of our problems to blame, but life is too complicated to ever simplify it in such a way. And the truth is that we can blame our genes, family, friends, or our so-called innate qualities for our current circumstances, but at some point we have to point that mirror inward and say, “What do I have control over?” We cannot control our genes, we cannot control what our parents taught us as kids, but we can control how we choose to move forward. There may have been setbacks. We may not have had the same opportunities as others, but we can start from where we are and leverage that to something better for ourselves.
I’ll leave you with a quote by T.D. Jakes who said
“When you hold on to your history, you do it at the expense of your destiny.”
Begin to think about what you’re holding onto from the past. What are the things from the past that you use to justify the present and yet still hold you back from the future you desire? Join the conversation in the comments section and share your experience.
Rubin Khoddam is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Southern California whose research and clinical work focuses on substance use issues. He founded a website, Psych Connection, with the goal of connecting ideas, people, research, and self-help to better connect you to yourself and those around you.