Outsmarting the Drunkard Gene
When I was a pre-teen, I decided I would never drink. My mother was an alcoholic, her mother was an alcoholic, and I had an addictive personality. And still do. Back then, I couldn't stop eating Oreos as long as there were any in the house. (Now, I just don't buy Oreos.)
My rationale for abstinence, as expressed to perplexed friends, went this way: "If I start drinking, I'll be an alcoholic. Then I'll have years of misery and ruin the lives of the people around me, finally ending up in the gutter. Then, if I'm lucky (my mother and grandmother weren't) I'll discover AA and stop drinking. So why not just take a short-cut and go straight to the not-drinking part, avoiding the gutter altogether?" And so I have. Look, I was ahead of my time!
Prevention: Stop Before You Start
For the children of alcoholics, the best advice may be the simplest: Don't drink at all
By Kevin Helliker for the Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2006
When Dale Irwin was 10, his father left home and became a denizen of the streets, intent only on feeding his addiction to alcohol. Witnessing such slavery to booze made an impression on young Dale. "I vowed I would never become an alcoholic," he recalls.
But he became one anyway. "The only difference between us was that my father drank rotgut and I drank expensive scotch," says Mr. Irwin, a 58-year-old lawyer in Kansas City, Mo.
For three decades, public-health officials have been warning that alcoholism confers a powerful genetic predisposition. But those warnings have hardly kept the offspring of alcoholics from sinking into the same muck that trapped their parents. Knowledge of the danger, it turns out, isn't sufficient to avoid it.
Now, a growing number of addiction specialists are arguing that the children of alcoholics deserve something stronger than a warning. They say that these high-risk individuals should be advised to at least consider abstinence -- before they even know whether they will fall prey to the same disease that befell their parents.
The rationale is simple: Studies show that the biological offspring of an alcoholic parent run a one-in-three chance of developing the affliction, compared with a one-in-12 risk for the general population. What's more, the culprit appears to be more genetic than environmental. Studies have shown that when the progeny of alcoholics are adopted as newborns and raised in nonalcoholic homes, their risk of becoming alcoholic is three to four times greater than average -- the same as if they'd been reared by their biologically addicted parents.
The primary virtue of abstinence as a prevention strategy is that, like few other medical protocols, it is 100% effective. "You can't get this disease if you choose not to drink or take drugs," says Sis Wenger, president of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, which in 2002 began including an abstinence message on its brochures for youth.
A killer of 85,000 Americans a year, alcoholism is the third most common cause of preventable death in America, behind smoking and obesity. And no other disease is more destructive to families.
Nobody grows up more determined to avoid alcoholism than the offspring of alcoholics. As children, they never know when an ordinary evening will evolve into a horror show, as booze turns a loving parent into a monster.
Indisputably, abstinence represents a sure-fire remedy for the genetic vulnerability. When her son decided as an adolescent never to drink, the legacy of alcoholism that passed from both of her parents to Terry Irwin, a Kansas City woman who has been sober since 1980, didn't extend to the third generation. Today, her son is a 38-year-old physician, husband and father. "His attitude from day one has been, 'Why take a risk?' " says Mrs. Irwin.
To avoid addiction altogether, however, abstinence must extend beyond alcohol. A family history of alcoholism prompted young Carrie Schwartz never to drink. But as a 17-year-old, she began smoking marijuana, and within two years the suburban Pennsylvania woman entered treatment for a heroin addiction. "I viewed alcohol as the bad thing that ruined lives," says Ms. Schwartz, 21, and clean now for three years. "But if addiction is in your family, you need to stay away from it all."
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