Why do some people become alcoholics?

What are the risk factors for the development of alcoholism in some people? What can you do to avoid the risks and where can you go for help? We answer these and other questions, here.

minute read

Alcoholism: How did we get here?

If you’re anything like me, you started drinking in high school with your friends. It seemed like the cool thing to do. You partied on weekends, but never drank during the week. You hid it from your parents, even though they were drinkers themselves.

And then you turned 18. Maybe you headed for college, where binge drinking seemed to be the extracurricular pastime of many students there. At least the one’s you were drawn to. You may even have gotten a DUI, but so did lots of kids. What’s the big deal?

This is how it begins for many alcoholics. It may be peer pressure that got you into drinking, or it may have been watching your parents drink, sometimes to an excess, modeling a dysfunctional problem-solving behavior that doesn’t usually work. But you started drinking and liked the way it made you feel. It brought you out of your shell. It took away the fear and insecurities you had, ones that infect most of us at that time in our lives, while setting out to face the overwhelming task of growing up. So when does drinking cross the line and become a drinking problem?

Risk factors for alcoholism

Alcohol is a drug that blocks out emotional pain. Because of this, it has a strong draw for adolescents and young adults. Those who might find the confusion of feelings associated with the looming responsibilities of adulthood a major challenge.

For example, famed author Stephen King was fueled by his fears and wrote them into his novels. According to his biographer, his dysfunctional childhood and abandonment by his father fueled much of his drinking. As with many alcoholics, unresolved childhood trauma pushes us to drink. And the more we drink, the more dependent we become on the substance.

Comedian and Gleecast member, Jane Lynch, a recovering alcoholic, said in her memoir, Happy Accidents, “I was desperate to be part of the group. I also wanted to feel altered. Or maybe I just wanted to feel anything other than what it felt like to be me.” Too many of us grow up with low self-esteem and alcohol helps build a (false) sense of confidence.

Genes are responsible for 1/2 the risk

According to the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcoholism. Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will become an alcoholic. Environmental factors, as well as gene and environment interactions account for the remainder of the risk.”

As for me, three factors influenced my drinking. There were the genes, as I come from a hefty line of alcoholics. Both my parents each drank anywhere from two-six+ drinks on a daily basis. I had childhood trauma, in the form of abandonment for an extended period of time; my mother was hospitalized with TB, and I was shipped off to stay with other families for a span of two and a half years. And finally, I grew up with two alcoholic parents who fought vigorously. It deeply affected my emotional well-being and that of my siblings. We all ended up with issues involving alcohol.

So remember:

  • If you have alcoholism in your lineage, there’s a strong chance you may become dependent on alcohol, too.
  • If one or both parents modeled using alcohol as a way to avoid their problems, you may end up doing the same.
  • If you experienced some kind of unresolved childhood trauma, you may use alcohol to mask the pain.

Where alcoholics can go for help: 5 tips

1. Take a self-assessment test for alcohol problems.

How can you tell if you have an alcohol problem? If you think you have a drinking problem, chances are you probably do. It might be helpful to take this self-test issued by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

2. Seek out support groups.

If the test leans towards a problem, attending a 12-step meeting like A.A., SMART Recovery, or Rational Recovery may be good places to go next. Try a few different meetings before making a decision which one is best for you.

3. Seek one-on-one professional help.

Talking to a psychologist, therapist or counselor will also help. The American Psychological Association operates a “Find a Therapist” directory on their website. It’s a good place to start.

4. Look into treatment centers that treat alcoholism.

Many mental health clinics offer intensive outpatient programs, often referred to as IOPs, for those seeking help for alcohol and substance abuse. While residential rehab may work for some, other people find that a treatment center is the best option for them.

5. Make sure the family is treated.

And lastly, if someone’s else’s drinking troubles you, attending an Al-Anon meeting might be helpful. The CRAFT model for intervention, which requires family participation and training is also helpful.

Reference Sources:  Alcohol Use Disorder, Health Guide, The New York Times, February 18, 2015
Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder, Alcohol and Your Health, NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Rogak, Lisa, Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, Thomas Dunne Books, 2009
About the author
Carol Weis started writing poetry, essays, memoir, and children’s books when she got sober 25 years ago as a way to help herself heal. She's currently working on a memoir about her drinking years and recovery in hopes of helping others, and shares a condo with her daughter, with whom she's co-written a mother/daughter memoir, with advice from both on making it through those tough teen years. You can visit her at her website at carolweis.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.
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