You Have a Family History of Addiction, Now What?
Addiction is a complicated disease. It has genetic components, but having a gene or a set of genes for addiction does not mean you will become an addict. It isn’t a death sentence or even a life sentence for that matter. But it is scary. Whether you just found out the truth about those skeletons in your family’s closet or you have seen the addiction in your relatives up close, having a family history of addiction can be daunting. What do you do with this information? Do you have to avoid drinking and drugs altogether or can you exercise moderation? It is important that you learn more about addiction and how it works so that you can make informed choices.
Addiction Is Genetic
If you have a family history of addiction, such as a parent, an uncle or maybe a grandparent with a drinking or drug problem, you probably have one or more genes related to the disease. There is no single gene that causes addiction, but researchers have found multiple genes that can make a person more susceptible to it. For instance, a gene has been discovered that is more common in cocaine addicts and alcoholics. Another gene has been shown to make mice drink more alcohol. These are just a couple of examples of the genes that add to the complexity of addiction. There are even genes that protect a person from addiction.
Family History as Risk Factor
Addiction is too complicated to have a single cause, but it does have risk factors. These make a person more likely to become addicted to a substance. They include having a mental illness, experiencing trauma, being neglected or abused as a child and being male. The No. 1 factor, though, is family history. It is the strongest predictor for whether someone will become an addict. This is not only because of the genetic component, but also because of the family environment. If you grew up with close family members struggling with addiction, you are more likely to have a problem, too.
Clearly, it is important for anyone with a family history of addiction to be very careful around drugs and alcohol. Your genes and your family do not guarantee that you will become an addict, but they make it more likely. It’s like having a handicap that other people don’t have. Maybe your friends can get drunk one day and not pick up another drink for a month, but you may need to be more careful. One bender could lead you down a dangerous path.
If you are young, in your teens or early 20s, you should avoid drinking and using drugs, period. Starting substance abuse at a young age is another risk factor for addiction. Most addicts start early, so abstain completely if you are still young. As an adult, you can drink without becoming an addict, but you should always drink moderately. Moderation in drinking means no more than one drink per day for women or two for men. Never binge drink, which is four drinks in one sitting for women and five for men. Talk to your doctor about your concerns regarding addiction for additional information and support.
Of course, the best and only foolproof way to guarantee you won’t become an addict is to never drink and to never abuse drugs. If you worry a lot about addiction or about losing control, abstinence may be a good choice for you. No one needs drugs or alcohol, after all. Stay sober and you will never have to worry about being an addict.