My Family Members Struggle With Addiction — Why Don’t I?

By Jessica Wakeman


Every family has its hardships. In my family, it’s addiction.

I won’t go into specific details about anyone’s experience but my own, but suffice it to say that the chaos of substance abuse has been a constant in my life. The literature often refers to it being a “family disease,” in that the whole family is affected by a loved one’s addiction, and that’s certainly been my experience. In the past decade, I’ve done hard work in therapy to parse how growing up with addicts has shaped my friendships, my career, my love life.

And yet I myself am not an addict.

It doesn’t make sense to me. Illegal drugs, especially prescription meds, have always been one friend, one family member, or one roommate away. Alcohol has been present in every house, dorm, and apartment where I’ve lived. I’ve had the access. I’ve had the disposable income. I’ve had the pain smarting to be soothed. So why has this disease skipped me entirely?

Journalist Maia Szalavitz, a former heroin and cocaine addict and the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, has pointed to various studies about the genetic components of addiction — alcoholism in particular. A review of studies published in the July 2008 issue of Addiction (by Aparna Agrawal, PhD, and Michael T. Lynskey, PhD) looked at addiction in identical twins (who are genetically identical) and fraternal twins (who are not); the higher rates of alcohol dependence among identical twins compared to fraternal twins suggests that genetics does play a part. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also notes the likelihood of a genetic component for alcohol dependency among family members who aren’t twins:

“Family studies, which evaluate the members of a family (both alcoholic and nonalcoholic members) for the presence of the disease . . . have provided convincing evidence that the risk for alcohol dependence is determined partly by genetic influences.”

Being the one going off-script in a family rife with addiction problems can be confusing at times. It’s possible that I simply don’t have a genetic predisposition for addiction, in the same way I don’t have red hair or green eyes. I’ve wondered if genetics may also explain why I don’t like the way alcohol tastes — wine, beer, liquor, all of it. If I have a cocktail, it has to be loaded with so much fruit juice or syrup that I can’t taste the alcohol. I do drink, very occasionally, but for me a pleasant buzz so often becomes the precursor to anxiety, crying, or even panic attacks. It still pains me to remember one embarrassing night during my sophomore year of college, when I got too drunk and started crying while asking a friend if this is what my family members felt like and how they could like it so much.

There’s a common saying in both addiction and mental health circles: “Genes load the gun, life pulls the trigger.” I strongly believe the reverse may be true as well — that in my case, the “trigger” has instead been a strong aversion to mind-altering substances. Self-protection is what feels most true to me as an explanation: Drugs and alcohol are too loaded with negative associations for me to enjoy them without baggage. Szalavitz agreed that this theory could hold water. “If you saw [someone] behaving badly when out of control [from substances], you may have felt an aversion to the smell, to all that is associated with it,” she said. “That can be protective. I do think it’s quite possible if your childhood was traumatic [from substances], then avoidance would seem like a very healthy strategy.”

Sarah Hepola, author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, had a similar thought about addiction within families that suggested a personal benefit to avoidance: namely, the family running more smoothly. “Of course it’s all specific to the shape of your family, but . . . a family unit works in harmony,” Hepola told me in an email. “If all family members were addicts, who would do the work of caretaking? We tend to grow up in reaction to our surroundings.”

It’s true that I reluctantly took on a caretaker role, even in situations where I, as a minor child, should have been the one receiving care. I’d never considered this reasoning until Hepola mentioned it, but the pieces fit: As both a younger sibling and a daughter, there were many times when I felt pressured to make adult decisions, though I was just a kid myself. I can remember washing blood off of an injury and wondering whether to go to the hospital, or telling lies to people outside the family in order to cover up embarrassing incidents. Taking care of the addicts I love would have been even more difficult had I developed an addiction as well, and that survival instinct might have been an even stronger deterrent than genetics.

Feelings of anger, shame, and disappointment circumscribe so many of my memories. There were many incidents that made me feel unsafe, like riding in a car with a drunk driver or coming home to find someone passed out in my bedroom. To this day I have difficulty relaxing (even around people I want to trust) if it means giving up too much control. Even when things are okay — especially when things are okay — I experience the sinking feeling that if I’m not on alert, something bad is going to happen.

While I intellectually understand the genetic components of addiction, emotionally it’s difficult to cope with these experiences and this history on a daily basis. In particular, I wish that fear — of addiction, of destruction, of death — hadn’t wired me to always worry and seldom let loose. Over the past several years, my relationship with my husband has helped me lower my guard quite a bit, but I know that it will take longer than three years of marriage to change my conditioning.

On the one hand, knowing that I am undoing damage every single day, that I’m not letting myself be victimized by history or circumstances, feels empowering. On the other hand, the very fact that so much damage needs to be undone has led to a feeling of resentment that I suspect I’ll deal with over a lifetime.

I do wish I could enjoy drinking or getting stoned without any hesitation or doubt, because at times I feel like I’m missing out. I don’t seem to be able to enjoy these things now, but remain ever hopeful that people and circumstances can change. Until then, I try to feel lucky that addiction — for whatever reason — has skipped over me.

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