What I Inherited

By Amy Dresner 11/04/12

Want to know if genetics plays a role in both addiction and mental illness? Just take a glance at my family tree.

Dresner with her dad Courtesy of the author

When I was young and full of hope and promise, I didn’t think twice about all the mental illness and addiction throughout my family. I was an only child and I thought, “I will be the exception to the rule.” And I really believed it. But as I got older and the therapists, medications and rehabs started to pile up while the answers dwindled, I began to be more interested in the genetic basis for my problems. I was keenly aware of people who had much worse upbringings than mine but were considerably less fucked up. What gives? Was I weaker or just more sensitive or simply wired wrong? I had to know.

Over the years, I’ve been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, bipolar 2 and, of course, addiction. Before I ever picked up hard drugs at 24, I struggled with depression and anorexia/bulimia. Eating disorders were my first addiction—my first attempt to control the chaos within by doing something without. But when I found methamphetamine in my mid-twenties, I thought I’d stumbled upon the answer to all my problems. Suddenly I felt energized, confident, happy, prolific. It was only after I was completely strung out on tweak—grey and emaciated at 25—that I found out that my mother had been addicted to prescription amphetamines and valium from the ages of 15-37, that her brother was addicted to speed his entire life and that my mother’s Uncle Rudy had died of a prescription drug overdose. So that’s why amphetamines felt so “right”: I was genetically set up to be addicted to them. 

The widely reported statistic is that if one of your parents is an alcoholic, you are 34% more likely to become one yourself but if both are, you are 400% more prone. Both parents and one grandparent? The possibility jumps to 900% . 

My father is also an alcoholic, although he’s a writer so it kind of goes with the territory. Since he got a DUI in 1981, he’s limited himself to wine and never more than two glasses when he’s driving. So maybe he’s just a heavy drinker? Hard to say. But at 4:30 pm sharp every day, out comes the chardonnay. And when he’s had too much, which happens fairly often, he’ll have a sharper tongue than usual. Best to stay out of the fucking way. My great grandfather, by the way? A terrible gambling addict.

Before I tried speed, I had been obsessed with purity and would not touch drugs. But the truth is that I was never able to drink normally. I had my first drink at 19 and my first blackout at 20. Once I picked up, it was on and it was ugly. My mother had been a terrible alcoholic, finally getting sober when she was 39. I remember hearing stories about her getting drunk, crying, blacking out; my favorite was this one about her and Dennis Hopper, shitfaced, throwing the hotel pool furniture into the pool on the set of Cool Hand Luke (my father, Hal Dresner, was the final screenwriter on it). Dennis was a real method actor and he was playing a prisoner so he only showered once a week. My mother, too drunk to notice, was the only one who would spend any time with him. The day after the pool incident, though, my mother was stuck on a plane back to LA from Stockton.

I’ve also always struggled with depression. It first hit when I was an adolescent and would take to my bed for the whole weekend, then blossomed into a full-blown nervous breakdown when I was 19. I began seeing a therapist twice a week and when I was 20, the rounds of medications began. It’s 22 years later and I’m still on drugs. Whenever I try to get off of them, I dip just below the therapeutic level and end up falling through the floor at such a great rate that suicide becomes a welcome option. Of course, as it turns out, mental illness also runs rampant in my family. 

My father is a self-diagnosed depressive. But he’s turned that into a surly wit and it’s worked for him. He’s never been on meds or in any serious therapy. He drinks and gets married and writes. A lot. My paternal great grandmother was relentlessly crabby and hospitalized at least once for depression, which they called a nervous breakdown back then. My paternal grandfather was depressed enough to get the first bottle of Miltown ever issued and later to receive electro-shock-therapy. He was also put onto Prozac again in his early 90’s. Then there’s my paternal aunt, who is also extremely depressed and has a cabinet full of mood medications. She lived with her parents until their death and has been institutionalized ever since. On my mother’s side, my uncle, grandmother and great aunt were all diagnosed as schizophrenic while my grandmother was hospitalized in her later years while her son, my uncle, spent most of his life institutionalized. My great Aunt Rose also spent her life in a mental hospital. She underwent electro-convulsive therapy and was eventually lobotomized.

Addiction is thought to be due to half due to genetic predisposition and the rest to a succession of other factors, including, to a large degree, poor coping skills. Since I have both, I guess that makes me a shoo-in? The widely reported statistic is that if one of your parents is an alcoholic, you are 34% more likely to become one yourself but if both are, you are 400% more prone. Both parents and one grandparent? The possibility jumps to 900% . So if you begin with a genetic proclivity towards addiction and then abuse alcohol and drugs in an attempt to manage your mood disorder or just because of poor life coping skills, you can and will rewire your brain into addiction. 

As far as I understand it, mental illness, as with any disease, is not in itself inherited but the vulnerability to the disease is. Add a few dysfunctional relationships and traumas and you have the perfect formula. Of course, there’s genetic clinical depression and then there’s situational depression. When your spouse or parent or pet dies and you get depressed. Normal. When everything in your life is going swimmingly but you’re bed-bound and Googling “how to make a hangman’s noose,” not so normal.

My four stays in the psych ward and five stints in rehab don’t look so bad now. Fuck, maybe they were even rites of passage, considering my lineage. But I don’t see any of this genetic inheritance as an excuse or a reason to be addicted or mentally ill, even if it does explain some of my inborn proclivities. No matter what makes me how I am, in the end I have to fix it. It’s my responsibility. The realization (or rationalization) that I inherited these traits isn’t going to keep me clean and happy; it’s just a valid excuse for why I’m a crazy drunk. For years that was enough. But not anymore. Because I’ve now decided that no matter what I won in the genetic lottery, I’d like to be the one in control of my destiny.

Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She's also written about sex and dating and managing chronic pain in sobriety, among many other topics, for The Fix. 

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