I have been working at Santé for two and a half years now, and I am unable to count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, ‘Addiction is a disease.’ I have heard, ‘addiction is genetic,’ and ‘we are all products of our environment,’ over and over again as well. Naturally, being a curious person, I’ve always wondered how exactly those two phrases can fit together when they seem so contradictory. The best that it has ever been explained to me is that some people may have the ‘addict gene’ and if something happens to turn that gene on, that person may develop an active addiction. After attending and reading my text book for my developmental psychology class last week, I am starting to be able to connect the dots.
A section that was entitled, ‘The Interaction of Genes and Environment’ turned on a few light bulbs in my head, and explained to me in further detail how genes can in fact be turned from silent to active. Most of us know that Santé is known for treating not just substance abuse and chemical addiction, but all kinds of addictions (sex, gambling, eating disorders, etc.); more specifically those with a dual-diagnosis or who are referred to as complex patients. What I mean by complex patient is someone with a severely traumatic past, co-occurring disorder such as multiple addictions or those who have a history of chronic relapses. After reading this section of the chapter it would be easy for me to believe that most, though not all of the clients that come through our facility have experienced a significant event that may have triggered a gene linked to addiction.
When I discuss my work with people outside of the mental health field I encounter one question frequently: ‘Wouldn’t you think that people who grow up in an abusive environment strive to be the opposite based on their experience?’ This of course applies to children who grow up with addicts as parents and the like. My answer is usually, ‘Well, yes you would think that wouldn’t you, but the human brain is not always completely logical.’ Obviously, this is not to say that this is the case for every single addict in the world, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Someone who grows up with an alcoholic father may have been witness to both excessive alcohol abuse as well as emotional or physical abuse from their father to any member of their family, including themselves. This person would seem to be damned by both nature and nurture; assuming they were passed that specific addict gene.
Wouldn’t we all be interested in learning how to detect these genes? I am also curious about whether or not a gene can be turned off or shut down the same way that it can be turned on. For example, if some kind of addiction gene is triggered in early childhood due to some kind of trauma, could the negative, active effects of that gene be reversed if the trauma is properly resolved? Perhaps even before an addiction becomes active? When we stop and think about it though, trauma resolution is a huge part of what the Santé clinicians do with their clients.
Needless to say, as science progresses so will research involving how genes and our environment interact in order to produce the behaviors and traits that we as humans express. I look forward to learning more about it as new research develops, and as I get further along in my studies.