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Genetics Or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

If your family has addiction issues in the past, does talking to your children about it help or lead them down the same path?

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By Valerie Tejeda

02/12/14

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Carrie and Michael are siblings who were raised in Nevada. Carrie, 27, has never touched a drug, drink, or cigarette in her life. And Michael, 32, is now sober, but has struggled on and off with addiction for years. 

Growing up, the siblings were told over and over that addiction runs in their family so it was best that they stay away from booze and drugs. Their parents were not users, but both their grandparents and great-grandparents fell into the addiction trap. 

This information scared Carrie. Touching a drink, or anything addictive, was completely out of the question—she won’t even use certain pain medications for fear of becoming hooked. Michael, on the other hand, had always felt like it was a lost cause. He assumed he didn't have a choice but to abuse substances, and that notion drew him to active addiction. So while genetics do play a part in addiction, is it the awareness of the family history that could be part of the problem? 

We've heard it a thousand times—addiction runs in families. It’s been the subject of many research studies, TV reports, and magazine stories. In the March issue of Cosmopolitan, 24-year-old Ashley Benson, star of Pretty Little Liars, talks about staying away from substances because of her family history. “There are drugs and alcohol in my family on both sides, so I’ve seen lives ruined, going to jail and all that,” she said. “Once you start with any drug, it can be an addiction—that’s why I never want to start and am not even tempted, because that chain is relentless. And if it runs in your family, you see how unglamorous it is. I would never want to be out of control with my body.”

For Ashley, seeing the lives of her family members ruined by drugs and alcohol has allowed to her to resist the temptation to use, similar to Carrie. “Children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop addiction themselves,” says Dr. Susan Landes, a California-based Psychotherapist specializing in substance abuse. 

Addiction is both nature and nurture. Numerous studies have found that addiction is 50% genetic disposition and 50% poor coping skills. Researchers made some incredible discoveries when studying identical twins and fraternal twins. In the case of identical twins, if one twin was addicted to alcohol, the other was more likely to be addicted as well. However, when it came to fraternal twins, if one non-identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin was less likely to be addicted. These results indicate that 50% to 60% of addiction is due to genetic factors. So if you have addiction in your family the odds can definitely be against you. 

But what about those people who are left in the dark about their families' addictive past? Martin, 25, grew up in an addictive family but was completely unaware of it. Though both his grandparents, and parents, struggled with addiction, all of them were mostly sober by the time he was born, and if they did use, it was in secret. For the good of their son, his parents hid their past struggles with drug abuse and Martin had absolutely no idea. 

Martin—like any adult in their twenties—would of course go out with his friends and drink from time to time, but he never even considered getting out-of-control—until he discovered his family's secret. 

Once Martin became aware of his families' addictive struggles he was left feeling nervous and anxious thinking, “What if this happens to me?” Though Martin has never been drawn to addiction, he admitted to feeling different after hearing of his family's past drug use and has since partied a little hard on a few occasions. 

Researchers have watched the mind rid the body of pain, allergies, and other ailments, in studies involving the placebo effect. Doctors suggest this is the tip of the iceberg of what the brain is capable of. The power of positive thinking has been shown to prevent colds and help fight diseases. Negative thinking can have the same effect. This has been proved in studies with the nocebo effect, which found that when a patient reads the side effects of medication, they are more likely to experience them. So once the brain sees the outcome of what can happen, it can mimic the response. 

Then there is the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy—a positive or negative expectation of a given circumstance. For example, if a woman expects her boyfriend to be unfaithful, then she will most likely treat him that way even if there isn’t any infidelity. This can then push the boyfriend to become unfaithful, though he had never considered it in the first place.

Back to Michael in Nevada—unlike his sister Carrie who was “scared away” from alcohol, Michael was convinced that genetics were greater than his self-control. “I always just thought what’s the point in trying anyway because I was told that ‘all is takes is one sip.’’’ he explained. “Since I knew I would want more than one sip, it all just seemed completely pointless to even try and not drink since so many people in my family were alcoholics. I almost thought it was just kind of like my destiny.” 

Martin sang a similar tune after hearing of his family’s drug abuse once he was an adult. “I feel like now that I know I’m prone to it, I have to work harder to stay away from it,” he admitted. “When I go out with my friends to drink now I feel like I’m always wondering if I’m going to take it too far, and the thought just stresses me out, and then of course I want to drink more! It’s kind of frustrating.”

So to tell or not to tell? That is the question. “In terms of prevention, I believe the truth, that young people be told that they have a genetic predisposition, would be helpful,” Dr. Landes offered. “Addiction often skips a generation. When I was working in adolescent residential treatment is was surprising to me how often the kids with drug problems did not grow up with actively using parents. The grandparents were often the active users. The children they raised saw the effects of the addiction and did not drink or use themselves.”

Dr. Landes says even though children of addicts may not abuse substances themselves, they tend to still raise their children with the same dysfunctional family values that they were raised with. “As a result, their children learn maladaptive coping strategies, experimented with weed/alcohol and then emotional relief.”

The way to prevent all this seems to rely on coping skills. Whether you grow up in a home with substance abuse, or grow up in a home that is completely sober, if there is addiction in your family, learning to cope in that environment is the key to preventing becoming addicted yourself.   

“If drug use problems begin, what could help would be early intervention, addiction education, and therapy,” Dr. Landes added. “Other thoughts on factors associated with not falling into the addiction trap include coping skills, refusal skills and self-discipline.” 

Luckily for Martin, after hearing the news of his family’s secret, he has been working hard on self-discipline. “I try to remember why I was never drawn to abusing drugs or alcohol in the first place,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who ends up in rehab or on the street. The information is just making me work a little harder to make sure I never fall into that cycle.” 

And for Michael, hearing of his family’s addiction struggles at a young age has been bittersweet. “Now that I’m older, and sober, I can look at my family’s history with caution instead of feeling self-defeating,” he says. “Sure, I think it would have been better sometimes if I never knew. But I think knowing or not, my personality would have drawn me to it in the first place. So I’m glad that my sister and I were raised knowing the truth, so I was able to catch it and get the help that I needed.” 

Valerie Tejeda is a regular contributor to The Fix. She also writes for XO Jane, The Huffington Post and Salon, among others.

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