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How do I break the cycle of addiction?

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 14.

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, 

Addiction is a complicated and often devastating disease that affects not just those who use, but also the people around them. It sounds like you have experienced some of these effects firsthand and are ready to take the courageous steps to protect yourself (and maybe even those you love along the way). Indeed, research does show that genetics plays a role in the development of addiction, but other variables, such as environment and lifestyle, may be equally vital in determining susceptibility to addiction. There’s no way to perfectly predict if a person may become addicted to a substance; however, there are many ways to foster a lower-risk lifestyle. 

The role of genetics in the development of addiction is an ever-evolving field of study. What we do know is that research has identified genetic connections to addiction for individuals who come from families with a history of addiction to various substances. This happens through the process of epigenetic modifications to DNA as a result of certain lifestyle behaviors or being exposed to certain environments. This modification leads to a change in how genes are expressed, with such changes having the possibility of being passed down to the person's children. So, when considering your parents' history with substance use, it's feasible that their cocaine and marijuana use may have altered their DNA by changing the expression of certain genes. These are genes that could have been passed down to you, but this doesn't mean you will be caught in the same trap of addiction. 

Even if someone is genetically predisposed to addiction, it doesn’t mean that they’ll become addicted. In fact, many people who struggle with addiction have no family history or genetic predisposition at all. Risk factors outside of genetics that make it more likely for someone to develop an addiction to a substance can also include: 

  • Family history of substance use: This isn't just a genetic risk, but an environmental risk as well. If you grew up or are currently exposed to the substance use of others ("secondhand" exposure), the risk for use yourself increases. 
  • Age: Adolescents have a higher likelihood of abusing a substance, especially if they began using substances at a young age. Adolescents are also more likely to experience peer pressure around drug use. 
  • Mental health status: Some mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are associated with addiction. 
  • Parent-child relationship: Children who come from homes that lacked parent or guardian supervision and connection to their family are more likely to develop an addiction. 
  • Vaping: Smoking e-cigarettes is one behavioral addiction that has been linked to using other substances. 

On the other hand, there are also known factors that are thought to protect someone from struggling with an addiction themselves. Such factors include attitudes and beliefs about drugs and their consequences, strong religious or spiritual beliefs, school and family connectedness, and support from parents or other adults. Though you may not have control over all of these risk and protective factors, it may be helpful to consider which ones you can control. You can choose to control your environment and who you surround yourself with, or decide to stop smoking, or find mental health support through this experience. 

Of course, there are other measures you may be able to take in order to lower your risk. One of which is avoiding addictive substances altogether. This includes staying clear of addictive prescription medications (such as painkillers and benzodiazepines) and talking with a medical provider if you’re taking or will need to take these types of prescriptions. Avoiding drugs all together is the only way to completely avoid addiction. Whether you’re looking to cut drugs out of your life completely or limit your use or exposure, there are some strategies you may wish to consider to support your new habits: 

  • Plan ahead in order to avoid triggers. Steer clear of situations or places where you know you’ll be exposed to drugs. This may involve spending time apart from your family, especially when they’re using. 
  • Try not to let anxieties about blending in take precedence over your choice to use or not use. It can be helpful to remind yourself that you’re not obligated to justify your reasoning for refusing drugs. 
  • Make time for yourself. Identify a relaxing activity that makes you feel good, such as physical activity or meditation, and engage in it regularly. This may involve exploring new hobbies and interests. 
  • Try distracting yourself to reduce tension or temptation. Call up a trusted friend, get fresh air, watch a movie, or run some errands—staying occupied may help take your mind off drugs. 
  • Identify people in your community, including trusted family, friends, peers or mentors, and support groups who can support you through this process. This may even include reaching out to your family members who are struggling with addiction and identifying what support they need, in an effort to be there for each other. Having a support network that shares your desire to avoid substance use and addiction can help you avoid negative peer pressure and promote a healthier lifestyle. 

There are also many programs and support groups for individuals and families struggling with addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a substance use disorder treatment facility locator. NAR-Anon and Narateen offer support groups for adults and teens of loved ones who suffer with addiction. If you’re a student, you might consider reaching out to your health promotion or student health center to ask about support groups or resources available on campus. You can also check out Fun without drugs in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information on ways to have fun that don't include substances. 

When in doubt, you can also decide to share your concerns with a mental health provider who can help get you connected with or discuss resources, programs, and additional strategies for not falling down the path of addiction. There are a lot of variables at play when it comes to addiction. You have the choice and ability to lead a life free of substances and the opportunity to identify support to help you along the way Go Ask Alice!. 

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Last updated Sep 15, 2023
Originally published Oct 18, 2013

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