The more my family members tried to convince me that there’s only one outcome for me, the harder my relationship with alcohol became.
I am 9 and heading on a family trip. I love airports and the glamour they represent with their trapped air, restaurants, and overpriced Chex Mix. While I don’t know much, I know this is the only space that makes sense. It emanates an inference of opportunity, the chance to start anew –– an attractive thought to me 10 years before I come to the delayed conclusion that, everywhere I go, my greatest adversary will always be in tow: myself.
At the bar, I notice a sexagenarian journaling in a safari hat with a martini and bottle of chardonnay by her side. She is alone and seems so wonderful at it. I am determined to become her, martini and 6 a.m. chardonnay included.
I can’t stop wondering about her: What is she writing? What is she feeling? How much is she drinking? When did she start?
As much as I coveted the life of the jet set, I coveted the life of the interloping lush more. As far back as I can remember, my favorite characters on television were always of the Lucille Bluth persuasion: all pills and pearls and midday martinis.
Back then, I wanted my blood alcohol content to be higher than my IQ. It was aspirational alcoholism before I knew the illness was already embedded in my nucleic code. I was too young to realize that, just as much as alcohol was associated with power and prowess, it was also a symbol of destruction.
I study the woman. I take in her measurements and her essence and conclude that I don’t want to make it to 60 unless I am her. I wish for exactly this: to be alone and drunk, to join the leagues of the beautiful and bothered, testing the limits and sliding through life with reduced consciousness.
My uncle jokes that he was sober for 12 years: ages 0 to 12.
I sometimes steal this joke, inserting myself as the main character or trading my uncle for my dad. For all the fun and fascinating traits that traipse down my family tree, predisposition to alcoholism (now called alcohol use disorder) sits at the head of the table. It stares us down, at once a warning to not drink and an excuse to drink.
But is it really a genetic trait?
It’s tough to answer the question directly. While there’s certainly a
For me, it doesn’t really matter what’s braided into my DNA. Growing up, absorbing oral family folklore about addiction and watching it unfurl in real time was enough. It stared me down — in every airport, at every bonfire, in every bar, and at every family dinner.
If there was any room for suspicion of whether I was born a boozer, that was squashed Thanksgiving 2011 when a 15-year-old me downed a third glass of wine in one gulp, head thrown back, elbow tilted toward the sky — to the complete disgust of my already drunk dad.
“Why would you do that when you know this family’s history,” he yelled in between sips of chard. The curse was undeniably coursing through my veins, and they loved to let me know, especially when they were under the influence.
Because of this, in my late teen years, guilt surrounded every aspect of partying. I was far away from coveting the life of the airport alcoholic and convinced that a healthy relationship with alcohol was probably impossible.
Every time I took a drink, I felt I might as well be digging my grave. I was certain that the narrative of who I become and how it all ends was outlined for me — all I had to do was fill in the details with my own brand of debauchery.
Whenever I met a sober person, I couldn’t suppress my fascination, my unraveling want. I’d note a mark of calm on their face that looked like a vacation destination, somewhere I would like to be and perhaps never come back.
However, I soon realized the larger problem was how I fixated on the family history. I never allowed myself to explore my relationship with alcohol outside the context of complete disaster. Today, I still drink, sometimes too much, but often a moderate amount.
History does have a tendency to repeat itself, but with some self-awareness and harm reduction tactics, you may be able to fit alcohol into your life — even if you have a rough family history with the substance.
No matter what the narrative might be, it doesn’t need to be a projection of you. The more my family members tried to convince me that there’s only one outcome for me, the harder my relationship with alcohol became.
Every sip, I would flash forward 5 years to an unwanted vision of myself coming down from a bender, sh*tting on a 2003 Volvo.
I couldn’t shake the fear that it was in my genes to lose control and burden everyone around me.
Once I made a point of reminding myself that I am my own person and the rules for my relationship with alcohol don’t have to be determined by family folklore, I became more forgiving of myself and lowered the stakes.
Remember that a family history of addiction doesn’t have to mean automatic sobriety for you. Sure, it’s worth keeping family history in mind. But, just because someone close to you can’t fit alcohol in their life, it doesn’t mean you’re fated to the same outcome.
Not everyone needs to cut back, but it’s never a bad idea to be mindful of your drinking habits.
Once I bought into the reality that I can write my own rules for drinking, I employed some tactics to reduce harm. Though I still sometimes let it get out of control if that’s what the evening calls for, I try to hold myself to certain standards, so I don’t spend the next day in a self-loathing pit.
Cutting back can look different for everyone, but I give great credit to the “no shot rule.” This is exactly what it sounds like: no shots.
For you, mindful drinking could look like only drinking on the weekends, lowering your overall units per week, or sticking to only one kind of liquor during a night out.
Your drinking goal should be informed by what’s realistic for you, your lifestyle, and your long-term health. And, in some cases, that might mean not drinking at all.
This might be obvious, but it doesn’t make it any less important. If you’re starting to question your relationship with alcohol, evaluate your motives for drinking.
Are you drinking to cope? Are you drinking to be more social? Is the urge to drink coming from a place of enjoyment or a place of spite or sadness?
Keep a drinking diary for a week and record how much you drank, what compelled you to drink, where you were, and who you were with. If you’re noticing problematic patterns with drinking and your moods, you should also make a note of negative emotions or actions that arose while drinking.
For example: “After my third martini, I attempted to blackmail my ex.” This will give you a better idea of the circumstances where your drinking becomes excessive.
If drinking stops being fun, maybe it’s time for a (temporary or permanent) break or a shift in the people you surround yourself with and how you spend your time.
These changes are often easier said than done, but working with a qualified therapist can help you navigate the process.
Alcohol use disorder can be — but isn’t always — an inherited condition to a certain degree.
Though it’s wise to bear in mind your family history when monitoring your relationship with alcohol, you are still, above all else, your own person. If drinking starts to fill you with guilt, shame, or anger, take a step back and try setting some limits for yourself.
If you find it hard to stick to those limits, don’t despair. Plenty of people need some extra help. Here are a few of the many resources that can offer support:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrations helpline, which you can reach 24/7 at 800-662-HELP (4357).
- Shatterproof, which offers resources to help you evaluate your drinking and find the right kind of treatment if needed.
- Tempest, a digital recovery program. In addition to paid membership options, the program also offers a wealth of free resources for those considering an alcohol-free life.
Kiki Dy is a copywriter, essayist, and yoga instructor. When she is not working, she is probably shortening her life span in some fun-filled manner. You can contact her via Twitter, which she intends to use professionally despite her username.