Honoring the Potential Addict in Me

By Lisa Marie Basile 09/01/17

It’s like there’s a ticking time bomb within me that I must acknowledge and work to avoid.

thoughtful girl sitting on windowsill looking out
Those with genetic predispositions for addiction should be extra vigilant.

Here’s something I wouldn’t admit even a few years ago, for fear of saying something so frightening out loud: I have addiction in my DNA.

There is plenty of research backing the idea that addiction can “run in the blood.” Yes, a large part of substance abuse issues is environmental, but actual genes play a part as well. With a set of grandparents and two parents who struggled with addiction, it doesn’t take rocket science to know I’m susceptible to those patterns. But I’ve also taken a DNA test that allowed me to take a glimpse at my own genes and health or risk factors. Sure enough, the predisposition for addiction was there, in my DNA (actually, you can read all about it, it’s right here).

So what does that mean for me? For one, I need to be careful. Luckily, I’ve developed a strong reaction against drugs and alcohol precisely because of my parents—but had I had another personality type, maybe that could have gone far off in another direction. I would have cured my pain and trauma through drinking, or I would have used drugs to escape. And I’m lucky that I did not, that my personality was more resilient (or more traumatized?), seeing that my environment and my biology are stacked against me.

But our biology doesn’t let us off the hook, either. I can’t just say, “Well, it’s a part of me—I can’t blame myself!” According to an article in the New York Times, That Wild Streak? Maybe It Runs In The Family, “Some bioethicists warn that the embrace of genetics as an explanation for troubling behavior threatens to let society off the hook, too. Taxing cigarettes, banning smoking in bars and not glamorizing it in movies is far more likely to lower smoking rates than drugs tailored to certain genotypes, these critics say.”

In short, nature and nurture have to work together to make you who you are—and me who I am.

And just because I don’t have an active by-the-books addiction issue doesn’t mean I don’t walk the line. For years, especially out of college and grad school (after the time when people do drink heavily), I turned to alcohol for plenty of reasons. There were years where I’d drink every day after work—even just a glass of wine—to take the edge off. I skipped plenty of days of work because of it, and I made tons of bad choices when drunk. I wasn’t anything like some of the people I knew from AA meetings (in that I hadn’t lost my home or family), but that doesn’t mean the risk wasn’t fully there.

And it doesn’t mean it’s not there now. I have addictive tendencies—for me, they play out with work or other behaviors. It’s like there’s a ticking time bomb within me that I must acknowledge and work to avoid.

For one, I’m surrounded by an industry of drinkers. As a writer, surrounded by other writers, drinking is a sort of currency. In the blur of drunkenness we make promises to publish one another, to buy each other’s books, to get in touch more often. We celebrate by drinking. We take comfort in drinking. While this is by and large a stereotype of the writer, there is some truth to it, particularly as I’ve experienced. No, we're not all Fitzgerald here, but we don’t need to die from alcoholism to know there’s an issue with society’s reflexive use of alcohol. And I can’t pretend I’m any better than it.

Being aware of and honoring this fact is key for me.

Another thing: I can spot a “drinking problem” from a mile away; it’s not always my place to say something, and not all people will agree with my rather stringent definition of alcoholism or substance abuse addiction, but having this knowledge has made social situations difficult. When one person wants to let go—really let go—I find it hard to find it funny or charming. I usually end up worrying about them. The addict in me wants to help, wants to save them, and wants to speak out. Knowing my boundaries and where to draw a line has been really helpful for me and my energy. Otherwise, I might constantly try and interfere where I’m not wanted, perpetually projecting my family trauma and personal fears onto people.

It’s important for people with a tendency toward addictive behaviors to be extra aware of their behaviors and feelings and desires to drink. I am not in a position to tell people to avoid alcohol, but I am in a position to say that there’s a delicate dance at play here.

Knowing what is good for you—and doing the right thing—can be hard sometimes. But with these tendencies kicking up our risk factor, my best advice is to stay vigilant and be self-compassionate.

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Lisa Marie Basile is a writer, editor, storyteller and community creator based in NYC. You can find her work in The New York Times, Narratively, The Establishment, Refinery 29, Bustle, Bust, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Healthline, Greatist and more. She is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times, as well as a few books of poetry. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.