Does My Genetic Inheritance Guarantee Alcoholism?

By Bill Manville 09/10/14

A former drunk becomes an advice columnist and advises one of his readers on drinking, love, and genetic determinism.

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In my drinking days, I invented The 5 Martini Diet – pass out before dinner. Sober now for over 20 years, there’s nevertheless one good thing I can say about booze. It led me to a job—I write a weekly column, “Addictions & Answers” in my local newspaper. So as a publicly self-confessed drunk, I’m used to people drawing me aside for talks they’d be embarrassed to have with their doctor.

“Bill, my father died of cirrhosis at fifty seven,” 27-year-old Louise recently told me; we’d just met at a neighbor’s barbecue cookout. “My mother brought me up to believe that my life would be ruined if I ever touched a drop.”

Two weeks before - she went on - one of her friends had set her up on a blind date. “I was so nervous, I threw up getting dressed. But when I met Tommy” – she gestured toward a handsome young guy watching us from the other side of the yard – “it was in a bar. ‘Glad to see you,’ he said, and ordered drinks for us both. Bill, I guess I'm okay looking but not the soft, warm kind of woman that men take to. Usually I feel like a spaceship dropped me on the planet Earth and I have to pretend to be one of the natives. From the first drink, for the first time in my life I felt what the rest of you call normal.

“I had fun, it was fun for Tommy to be around me, it was an evening I'll never forget. When I think of my future, this may sound awful, but I see myself drinking the weeks and months and years away with Tommy.

“I once read you saying in your column that if a martini or two leads someone to having a good time...if she hasn't lost a job, broken up a marriage, none of that…you congratulate them and say go on their merry way, they need no advice from you. But maybe something in me doesn't quite believe it can be all that easy.”

“Isn’t life,” she asked me over a plate of cole slaw and ribs, “meant to be enjoyed? And if a drink makes me feel ‘together,’ like I'm part of the human race at last, what's wrong with that?”

Stirring my iced tea, I told her that most people did indeed find pleasure in a drink or two. “Perhaps in one out of 11 it speeds up, and they become addicted. Born with a brain that does not naturally produce adequate levels of dopamine, they’re low in capacity to feel simple everyday pleasures. Give them their first hit of a dopamine-enhancer, it's like falling in love.”

“I hate to hear that,” said Louise. “It sounds too much like me. Does it mean,” she went on, “that if I don’t get a dopamine-boost in wine, gin or vodka, there’s no other way for me to get it?”

She’d been reading on the Internet about alcoholism running in families. “My father's joke to me was, ‘Louise, you were born into the CIA: Catholic Irish-Alcoholic.’ He was telling me why he was a drunk, why his father was too, and also three out of four of my uncles. I'm not an alcoholic yet, Bill, but if I keep seeing Tommy, are you saying I will inevitably become a drunk too?”

But before I could answer, along came Tommy himself, glass of beer in each hand, one for him, one for her, bearing Louise off into a corner for a talk of their own. Ah, well—

Below is the follow-up I later emailed her, a discussion that leans on research by Francis S. Collins and Kathy Hudson (Director and Assistant Director respectively of the National Human Genome Research Institute), working with Dr. Lowell Weiss, an executive at the Morino Institute.

Genetic inheritance cannot be denied, they say, but even that is mutable. Take the wolf, ancestor of the dog. Generations of selective breeding have changed not only lupine physiology, but psychology too, from that of a killer into that of a pet whose greatest desire is to love you and have you love him.

“Our genes play a major, formative role in human development," says the learned trio, "but high-tech molecular studies as well as low-tech (but still eminently useful) studies of identical and fraternal twins make it perfectly evident that our genes are not all-determining factors in the human experience."

As they used to say when I was going through rehab, people don’t get sober listening to lectures on brain chemistry, and so I don't think I need give Fix readers a long, detailed discussion of serotonin, dopamine receptors, the "long" D4DR gene and all the rest.

(If you are interested, let me recommend the superb, "Genome" by Matt Ridley.)

Suffice it to say that some of us are born with what might be called low levels of feel-good brain chemicals. These are the risk takers, thrill seekers and long shot players because these activities boost the brain's level of those chemicals.

It does not take much introspection for me to number myself among them: I love to ski, once turned an army jeep over driving drunk 80 MPH coming back to base AWOL from a late date, and if freelance writing isn't economic high wire acrobatics without a net, what is?

This does not mean people like Louise and me are doomed to become death-defying Evel Knievels, or bottom out as no hope, Lower-Depths drunks. We may inherit a propensity for something - that does not mean we must become that something.

Science has long known that the Y (male) chromosome enormously increases someone's propensity for violence. But we cannot therefore say that all males, ipso facto, inherently possess violently criminal intent.

Inheritability is not inevitability.

"…the case of the Y chromosome," write Collins, Weiss and Hudson, "is an almost absurd extreme. In the vast majority of cases, genetic factors exert a much smaller influence on patterns of behavior."

In "Genome," Matt Ridley puts it like this:

"The brain, the body and the genome are locked, all three, in a dance. The genome is as much controlled by the other two as they are controlled by it. That is partly why genetic determinism is such a myth. The switching on and off of human genes can be influenced by conscious or unconscious external action."

“Louise,” I ended my email, “I believe Dr. Ridley is right – that your father’s CIA jokes were in aid of a myth justifying his alcoholism. Not so incidentally he was giving you permission to become a drunk yourself. But whatever your genetic inheritance, you can choose to stop. A good first step would be to attend a few AA meetings - see what you are up against. If you don’t, here’s a bit of advice I’ve given other couples I’ve known who were all-too-deeply into moonlight-and-martini love:

“Get married soon as possible,” I tell them, “so you’re not too old when you get divorced.”

Bill Manville is a novelist and former contributing editor to Cosmopolitan. He last wrote about being a bar-fly.

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