Addiction runs in my family — How can I stay healthy?

Originally Published: October 18, 2013
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Dear Alice,

My uncle shoots heroin. My father used to do cocaine. My moms' (both of them) used to smoke weed with their friends when I was eight. I smoked weed when I was twelve. I sold weed at fourteen.

I don't want to continue in the vein of my addictive family (no pun intended). How hereditary is addiction? What measures can I take to avoid falling into the same hazy trap of my family members?

Muchas gracias,

Cubano

Dear Cubano,

You’ve taken such an incredible and proactive step by asking this important question. There’s no doubt that others will also benefit from your inquisitiveness. Indeed, research shows that genetics play a role in the development of addiction. However, other variables, such as age, environment, lifestyle, and mental health status may be equally important in determining an individual’s susceptibility to addiction. In fact, many addicts have no family history of or genetic predisposition to addiction. Although there is no way to predict whether a person will become an addict, nor a perfect strategy to prevent substance abuse, there are many ways to foster an addiction-free or sober lifestyle — even if your family members struggle with drug and alcohol dependence.

Drugs and alcohol affect each person’s body differently, but estimates show that children of addicted parents are approximately four times more likely to develop a problematic relationship with substances compared to others. Indeed, heritability estimates of addiction-related genes range from 45 to 79%, and children of addicted parents are also more likely to have behavioral issues that increase the risk of trying drugs or alcohol. However, don’t let this information discourage you — your family history of addiction does not guarantee that you’ll have the same issue. Besides, even if you’ve inherited addiction-related genes from your relatives, there are ways to stop substance abuse in its tracks.

The first step you may want to take is to abstain from taking any illegal drugs, including prescription pills that haven’t been prescribed to you. If you’re taking any potentially addictive prescription medications (such as painkillers and benzodiazepines), talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. Additionally, make an effort to consume alcohol only moderately — that means avoiding binge drinking — or try abstaining from alcohol completely.

Next, you may want to connect with a counselor or psychologist. Just having someone in your corner (outside of your family) who you feel comfortable talking to can help tremendously. She or he may address your emotional, psychosomatic, and behavioral concerns related to substance abuse and addiction. If your counselor or therapist doesn’t refer you to additional resources, reach out. There are many programs and support groups for individuals and families struggling with addiction, and with the help of a counselor, you can decide which one is best for you. Don’t let financial concerns stop you — many states and cities offer free drug and alcohol treatment. Use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s substance abuse treatment facility locator to evaluate your options.

In addition to the primary steps listed above, consider the following:

  • Plan ahead in order to avoid triggers and steer clear of situations or places in which you know you’ll be exposed to drugs or alcohol. This may involve spending time apart from your family, especially when they’re using.
  • Don’t let anxieties about blending in take precedence over your desire to stay clean. Furthermore, remind yourself that you’re not obligated to justify your reasoning for refusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Make time for yourself. Identify a relaxing activity that makes you feel good, such as exercise or meditation, and engage in it regularly. This may involve searching for a new hobby or interest, so feel free to explore.
  • To reduce tension or temptation, try distracting yourself. Call up a trusted friend, go on a walk, watch a movie, or run some errands — staying occupied may help take your mind off drugs and alcohol.
  • Build a support network to help avoid negative peer pressure. Surround yourself with a supportive peer group that shares your desire to engage in a healthy lifestyle and avoid addiction and substance abuse. It’s absolutely possible to have fun without drugs!

Lastly, perhaps one of the most important things you can do now is to identify allies in your community, including health care providers, counselors, support groups, trusted mentors or peers, and psychologists. For confidential and personalized advice about alcohol and other drugs, Columbia students can meet with professionals through Counseling and Psychological Services, Medical Services, or Alice! Health Promotion, all on the Morningside campus. Students at the Medical Center campus can contact Student Health, Mental Health Services, or the Center for Student Wellness for support. Good luck!

Alice