Born this way? Really?

It’s April, and it’s my birth month. Our family tradition is to go out to eat for birthdays, and this year I chose a local waterfront restaurant we know and enjoy. I love their selection from sushi to seafood to deep fried yummies. They even have kids meals for my 8 and 11 year olds. I was careful to arrive after the lunch rush, but before the Happy Hour crew. This place becomes quite the party most evenings. I should know. That was another life for me.

We were led to a table with a water view and my family filed into chairs. The last seat left for me faced the restroom entrance. I flashed back to that old life when I once passed out in a bathroom stall here. My friends left me there, but I don’t blame them. I was a real handfull when drunk. When I came to, I found a blurry line of angry women waiting to use the loo. I was so ashamed. The memory returns to me every time I’m here even though I’m now fully sober, clear-headed and at peace with my alcoholic past.

When I entered out-patient rehab, an intake counselor asked questions like “Do you have a parent or grandparent with a history of drug or alcohol use?” and “Do you have siblings or cousins with addiction or alcoholism?” The answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and my interviewer explained that when someone has a close family member with alcoholism, my chance of being an alcoholic is 1 in 4. When I have two immediate family members who are alcoholics, my chance increases to 1 in 2.

To be honest, I don’t know if the math behind that equation is accurate, I tend now to believe it was more his experience and intuition about me that led to his evaluation, but he was right. This entrance interview was setting the stage to convince me of my own alcoholism which was obvious to everyone around me, but I was in classic denial.

Was I born this way? Was I destined to be a reckless alcoholic? Can it really be determined in my first breaths, or even in utero, that I would eventually drink myself to black out more times than I can count, barf in my own bed, say the most hateful things to loved ones, or pass out on the side of the road while staggering home from the neighborhood bar?

I can’t say with certainty that I was born an alcoholic but I can tell you that I was very interested in alcohol from an early age. The people in my family who were having the most fun were the ones who drank. They laughed harder, acted sillier, and bonded with each other more. (What I didn’t see were the sober ones holding everything together and taking care of the children who were literally in harm’s way.) Women who drank in films were cool and smart, tough and desired. I’m thinking Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark. She drank that burly dude under the table and didn’t even slur her speech, then went on to kick some ass with Indy. I couldn’t wait to drink! And I didn’t – I began drinking around age 13. I marked on my calendar the days I drank like it was some kind of achievement. “I am drinking alcohol. I have arrived.” Days got a special mark if I also smoked pot or took acid. I was fucked up, but at least I was still organized about it. I was so young and immature when I started drinking that I thought grown ups could drink at work on their lunch break. I mean, yes, I’m now aware that some careers allow for a “wet lunch”, but I had no concept in my early teen years that your average 9-5 prohibits drinking on the job. Packing a bottle of beer or two in my brown bag remained a fantasy for years.

Believe it or not, being taught in rehab that I was destined for alcoholism was not depressing, in fact it was very freeing. This meant it wasn’t my fault! And in those very sensitive first weeks of recovery, I needed that message because for decades, I was drinking because I believed it was all my fault! Everything in my life, failed relationships, my appearance, my finances, school and work situations, even ones I wasn’t directly involved in, were all my fault. I thought my very wretched existence was my fault. BORN AN ALCOHOLIC is what I needed to hear to spark my journey upward to full recovery. I didn’t start this problem, I’m not “bad”. I started believing my alcoholism was like a disability. I can’t help the way I am, but with support I will rise above it.

In the years that followed my rehab experience, I spent time in a 12-step fellowship. The message here reinforced that we alcoholics were born this way, that it’s an allergy that effects our minds. While it’s not our fault, it is our responsibility to take care of it, and by following the steps and specifically the amends process, I can right the wrong I inherited. I did this work, “fearless and thorough”, and as promised, felt “happy, joyous and free” as a result.

Several years into sobriety, I heard an interview with renowned recovery researcher Gabor Mate. He explained that science has not found an addiction gene, and he assured the audience that they’ve looked really hard! This gave me pause. There is no alcoholic gene?? A little crack formed in the foundation of my recovery. Does this mean it IS my fault, that I am bad after all? Around this time, I discovered a Buddhist recovery program. It’s based in Buddhist principles, specifically a belief that we are all born as essentially perfect Buddhas, but life layers greed, hatred and delusion upon us and then labels us ‘bad’. By following the Eight Fold Path, we can return to our original Buddha nature. I confess, Buddhism and it’s beliefs had interested me for a long time, but in the cloud of alcoholism, I never thought to actually pursue it. I didn’t think I was smart enough, or even moral enough, to learn and practice Buddhism. And here, one of the very first lessons is that I am indeed ‘good’ at the core. How would believing that all those years ago changed the trajectory of my drinking? We’ll never know.

Aside from continuing my own sobriety, a big concern in my recovery is that I do not pass this on to my children. While I’m told there is no genetic evidence, one can’t deny the correlation that alcoholism runs in families. A broader focus sees addiction spreads in communities too, and unfortunately I can check both those boxes for my kids. I see drug and alcohol addiction in my neighborhood everyday, it’s hard sometimes not to wallow in sadness and anger about it.

In medical texts, Alcoholism is classified as a disease because 1) it is progressive if left untreated, and 2) it’s fatal. But is it’s cause nature or nurture? Is it some kind of inherited allergy or just bad luck? I’m not sure what to believe, born this way or not, however I can choose to live my life in a way that’s loving and considerate to myself and others regardless of the origin.

Maybe it’s not my fault that my parents gave me some kind of alcoholic brain, or maybe I was born perfect and life molded me into a self-centered monster. Either way the result is the same. If I want to continue this existence in peace, I need to accept the truth of my circumstances, and chose a perspective that works for me today. I can focus on the restaurant bathroom where I passed out or instead see my beautiful family around the table with me who love me and have excitedly come together to celebrate my birthday with our favorite foods and waterside views. I can’t change the past but I can affect my present. This is my 10th sober birthday in recovery, what a present it is!