Confronting Genetics

I think my first encounter with the notion of fate came when I realized that I’d developed the same cowlick as my dad. This was an understandably traumatic experience in that it presumably doomed me to a life of dumb-looking haircuts. This isn’t a unique problem: it seems like most people can identify at least one source of parental fate-based anxiety in their lives. There’s a feeling of unease that comes with being a legacy student studying the same thing as your predecessor or realizing you have the same exact shoulder problem as your mom. It’s the fear that, no matter how consciously you push back, you are in some basic way destined or doomed to become your parent.

I turned 21 recently, and when you turn 21 your relationship to alcohol becomes essentially unrestricted – nothing but your own willpower is conceivably preventing you from ditching an afternoon class to get trashed alone at High Horse. This newfound freedom, not unlike the freedom of arriving for the first time at college, inevitably forces you to revaluate your relationship with alcohol. For me, this means confronting the anxiety of becoming one’s alcoholic parent.

Alcoholism, much like an awkward cowlick, tends to run in families. What’s different, however, is that facing alcoholic destiny requires a lot more than a strong-hold matte hair gel. See, confronting your alcoholic potential is always a two-front war. On one hand, like the guy who studies the same thing his mom did, there is at least some exercise of personal willpower involved. The decision to begin drinking, especially early on, does not have to be an inevitability. On the other hand, there is the battle that you will always lose: like a prematurely receding hairline, the genetic predisposition to addiction is non-negotiable. And this is why the war against alcoholic fate is so difficult. Reflect and rationalize as much as you like, there is always an insidious little collaborator hidden deep in your genome, willing to exchange dopamine for bad behavior.

Even the non-genetic side of things is a difficult battlefront. After all, most adult children of alcoholics are far more comfortable identifying as just that, adult children of alcoholics (ACoA), semantically relegating the problem to the past. And this makes sense: from an early age ACoA have an extremely emotional, often painful relationship with substance use. The problem, however, is that you risk becoming so attached to your victim identity that you fail to see the warning signs – many an ACoA morphs quietly into a full-fledged alcoholic-in-training without realizing it. To acknowledge the risk, however, means to commit yourself to a lifetime of vigilance, of seeing that “one beer too many” as an omen, not just a mistake. It’s a unique conundrum in that, barring total abstinence, you will always be interacting with the potential enemy. Playing with fire becomes the only way to confirm that you aren’t like your mom or dad. It’s your space to prove that you aren’t trapped by the fate of your parent. As someone who now has conceivably unlimited legal access to alcohol, I can’t help but feel like I’ve stepped up to the big leagues of confronting the potential for addiction.

The thought of writing about this made me uncomfortable. I think it’s because, especially at Amherst, to admit the potential for a problem is often as unsettling as the problem itself. In offering you another beer, no one wants to hear you say that you’re concerned about the risk of becoming an alcoholic. Suggest you’re worried about developing an unhealthy relationship with drinking and watch the people around you become increasingly uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because they’re also thinking about it. Alcohol is so relegated to the realm of pleasure and release in high-stress college communities that to suggest the risk in its consumption is, to some, a hostile act. To others, it’s difficult to acknowledge that a friend might have a serious problem, one that will inevitably affect a significant part of their social interaction on campus. To most, however, it’s simply easier to ignore. So many of us are over-achieving go-getters that we worry that any display of basic human fallibility would be an utter humiliation. This isn’t helped by the increasing politicization of drinking on campus too. Speaking out against drinking, even if it’s merely your own drinking, often smacks of misguided administrative policy. As a result, the alcohol conversation, however personal, is often polarized from the get-go.

As with mental health issues or sexual assault survivorship, we need to take steps to remove this stigma both within our community and without, to give people the space to safely confront themselves. How we accomplish that is in many ways still a mystery to me, but if visibility matters, then this is me saying openly that I, like my brothers, and like every ACoA I’ve ever met, will have to spend the rest of my life in constant vigilance, always evaluating and re-evaluating my relationship to addiction.