Home / Blog / Do Substance Use Disorders Run in the Family? A Personal Perspective on Biology and Environment

Do Substance Use Disorders Run in the Family? A Personal Perspective on Biology and Environment

Written by Alex Kurjiaka
Published on May 13, 2020

It was my first time in detox. It seemed that the final culmination of my life’s work landed me in a plastic folding chair holding a printed description of my perceived failures; what my therapist referred to as “psychoeducation.” We began to discuss addiction and the idea that our genetics, in addition to my poor choices, played a role in why I started to use substances. At the time, it filled me with relief to know that I could blame something else for my substance use. I read the research on the possible isolation of an “alcoholic gene” and traced my addiction back through family members and generations. By researching whether substance abuse disorders run in families, I did my best to try and find a scapegoat for my pain.

What I ultimately learned over the years was that I was solely responsible for my recovery. While it did not serve me to blame my family or my childhood for my addiction, it was essential to my healing to understand how my biology and early environment both had a powerful role in my story.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, Mental Health, and Addiction

There are two foundational research areas surrounding substance use disorders and their roots in our families of origin. The ACES study, as well as genetics studies, gives us a vital glimpse into the biology and environment of the personal development of a substance use disorder.

The ACES study was an investigative study into adverse childhood experiences (ACES).
Several factors were identified in this research that outlined different forms of abuse and household dysfunction during childhood, and a questionnaire was developed. It was mailed to 13,494 adults who had completed a standardized medical evaluation at a large insurance HMO, and the answers to these exposures were then cross-checked with medical evaluations to determine correlations.

The findings of the ACES study determined that “persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had a four to twelve-fold increase in health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts” (Felitti et al., 1998, p. 245).

The ACES study was revolutionary and has been duplicated in many states. This study and its questionnaire help to identify early trauma and the possible need for treatment to increase the likelihood of a healthier body and mind later in life. It is easy to see how these early environmental traumas can contribute to addiction.

Another strong contributor to the belief that addiction “runs in the family,” from a biological perspective, is research studies done on twins. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that “studies of identical twins indicate that as much as half of an individual’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genes.”

How Being Aware of Environmental and Genetic Factors Can Help

The above research placed my recovery on a different path. It gave me permission to consider how my family played a role in my addiction while relieving them of the blame. It allowed me to externalize the identity I held as an “addict” so I could lovingly begin the healing process.

It is my hope that this perspective may make a little more room for the space you hold for someone living with a substance use disorder.


Causes of Addiction – Resources

You can read more about ACES and review the original study here 

Click here for a look at ACES in action – The Compassion Prison Project 

Review one of the many research studies on twins and substance use disorders here 


If you or a loved one needs help with a substance use disorder, O’Connor Professional Group is here to help. Call (617) 221-8764 or view our Addiction and Substance Use Services to see how you can help.


Meet the Author

Alex Kurjiaka, LPCA, is a Clinical Case Manager and Head of Talent Acquisition at O’Connor Professional Group (OPG). In this role, she not only provides coaching to clients in their communities but also sources qualified coaching professionals nationally for OPG. Alex has a diverse background in crisis intervention and treatment, working in multiple capacities in the mental health field including treatment admissions and business development. She has vast experience with behavioral health issues, specializing in substance use disorders, mood disorders, and personality disorders. She holds a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Western Connecticut State University and received her undergraduate in Behavioral Science from Concordia University in New York. Alex is also a trained ARISE interventionist. With a background in childcare, Alex has worked with individuals at all stages of development, including children and adolescents. She takes a special interest in family systems and cognitive and emotional developmental norms for adolescents and adults. Alex believes our journeys are unique and that each client must be directed to the best fit for their personal recovery. Alex enjoys photography, writing, and is a self-proclaimed science nerd who loves to laugh.



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