When I was in 6th grade they used to let us read in the library for about 40 minutes, we could read anything we wanted. I picked up a magazine, it was some kind of science research journal. It might have been Scientific American or something like that.
There was an article where they were doing research on alcoholism. Scientists were trying to learn why alcoholism runs in families. Was it simply a learned behavior, or was there a hereditary component? This was in the late 80s, and research on alcoholism was not as far along back then. Not much was known about why some people become alcoholics, others become weekend drinkers, and then there’s those who only drink 1 glass of wine with dinner.
This particular research showed that alcoholism is hereditary. It has something to do with how our brain functions, and which neurotransmitters are stimulated by alcohol, and how they are stimulated. It turns out that people really do have very different reactions to alcohol and other drugs. Some people get their first taste, and they want more all the time. Others don’t feel compelled to repeat this behavior, they simply move on to other activities without giving it much thought.
What I took from this research was that we all have a set of internal switched. Some of us have the “alcoholism switch” and some do not. If you’re one of those people born with the alcoholism switch, there’s not much you can really do, it’s almost like you have a pre-determined destiny to become an alcoholic.
I knew that I had the alcoholism switch, because many members of my family had become alcoholics. Even at the age of 12, I could tell that they had done irreversible damage to their body, brain, and the path of their life. When they were my age there was no research telling them that alcoholism was hereditary. I felt fortunate that I was able to discover this information and make a more informed decision than my forefathers.
My family is Irish. Drinking alcohol is a big part of our culture. It was normal for my grandparents to go through a $4 case of Schaefer beer in a single night. Back then, it was well known that “Schaefer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.”
Reading this research made me think it might be a good idea to avoid drinking completely. It seemed that once I take that first drink, the rest would be out of my hands. As I’ve studied the topic more, I’ve learned that there are many other risk factors, and maybe my initial take was a bit too extreme. However, it always stuck with me. The potential alcoholic can never be sure what risk factors are in play. He can never know how easy it would be to flip the switch. Would it take one drink or 20 drinks? Maybe 100 drinks? What if there are other psychological problems present? It occurred to me that most people who have psychological problems are not aware of the problem and not aware of how it increases one’s risk for alcoholism.
I view myself as a potential alcoholic and I always have. The only 100% certain way to control the risk is to never take that first drink.