Are “Born Addicts” Doomed?

“Born addicts” suffer severe negative consequences beginning with their first use of drugs or alcohol but keep using them because the emotional payoff is so rewarding. This might lead to the question: Are born addicts doomed? They’re not. Not if the characteristics of a “born addict” are recognized and prompt treatment.

This could seem like very bad news, but there are two mitigating factors. First, genetic predisposition isn’t destiny. One’s genes don’t operate in a vacuum, neuroscientists say, they are constantly interacting with the environment. Environmental inputs can “turn on” and “turn off” genetic activity to either reinforce or counteract genetic predisposition. For example, supportive parenting has been found to mitigate some of the risk of addiction even in children who are considered at high risk (ie. those who come from families with a history of addiction).  Conversely, childhood trauma, especially repeated traumas, exacerbates the risk of diseases like depression and addiction. It follows, then, that special attention should be paid to the childhood environments of those at increased risk —  making sure they grow up in supportive family environments, get psychological counseling and spirituality training, get good social support outside of their families, etc. —  to mitigate their risk.

Second, if people recognize that they meet the characteristics of  “born addicts,” that they use drugs compulsively from their first introduction to them, there’s an immediate explanation for the way they feel and act. And there’s a clear course of action, treatment. (This isn’t the case for those who become progressively addicted and can’t perceive crossing the line from use to abuse.)

That isn’t to say getting “born addicts” into treatment or 12-Step programs is easy. It isn’t. Though they need treatment right away, they almost never think they do. First, they usually start using alcohol and drugs at a young age, when they think they’re indestructible. Second, like those who become addicted gradually, they see drugs or alcohol as the solution, not the problem, and generally feel this more strongly than those who aren’t “born addicts.” Thus, their denial is robust.

But since they suffer terrible repercussions from the onset of drinking or taking drugs, and because their problems usually escalate dramatically and not gradually, they may become convinced they need treatment more quickly than those who become addicted more incrementally. Their friends and family, seeing the damage right from the start, sometimes raise the issue earlier too.

It’s sometimes easier (though it’s never easy) to get born addicts to focus on the destructive nature of their drug use, past denial, and into treatment, than for those who once used drugs normally and maintain the fantasy they might return to controlling their use. Denial can be easier to hold onto when the slide into addiction is a slower, nearly imperceptible process.

“Born addicts” often come from multi-generational addicted families. Most had addicted parents and many had addicted grand-parents. Thus they may also already have a visceral understanding of the damage addiction causes. Many say they didn’t want to be like their parents because of the pain they felt at having been emotionally neglected or abused. This history can be a powerful motivator is getting them to see they need treatment. Once they, and everyone around them, have suffered enough, that is.

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