The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently published a summary on the genetics of addiction to aid in the understanding of research on genes and their role in addiction and alcoholism. Researchers are searching for the gene or genes responsible for addiction that we see in families who have addiction across multiple generations. The family studies of twins referred to in the article prove the biological basis for this risk.
I remember a young man who was given moonshine whiskey by his grandfather while they were in the barn where their tobacco was being cured. Having a drink of pure alcohol was a “rite of passage” for young boys in their early teenage years on the farm. This teenager continued to drink and his binging progressed to the point of severe alcohol addiction by the late 1980s. Ultimately his alcohol withdrawal seizures were so severe that he was hospitalized. Every emergency procedure available was needed to save his life in our Vanderbilt Emergency Room.
Unfortunately it was discovered that alcohol addiction was present in four generations of males in his family. I thought how tragic this case was since his grandfather and other relatives were unaware of how they contributed to his near-death experience. We explained this family inheritance pattern to the patient and hoped he would stop his drinking and warn his sons about their drinking, too.
I think often of a letter I wrote nearly thirty years ago, close to the same time I saw this young man in the ER. I wrote to the college-aged grandchildren of a patient of mine, encouraging them to consider the risks of drinking before they took their first sip. My patient asked me to do this. It has meant so much to hear from those grandchildren over the years. They appreciated how straightforward the message was. It got their attention. That letter is in the book so that others can use it. It’s a way to start the conversation about an addiction or a way to “say what needs to be said” without having to talk about it if that is just not possible.
Family inheritance patterns are real. Knowledge is power. Ignorance is not bliss.