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‘Why alcoholism is in my DNA’

Since she had her first drink at the age of 13, Tanya has battled with alcoholism. Now teetotal, she describes with searing honesty her love-hate relationship with the bottle over the past 22 years – and why she firmly believes that her addiction is a genetic predisposition

I am sitting in a room in a community centre in North London, on a Sunday afternoon. The carpet is faded, posters for self-help groups are hanging in their frames; half drunk cups of coffee and uneaten biscuits are lying around. Everything feels fusty, dusty and remote.

But I am staring at a beautiful young woman with brown eyes and black hair. She is maybe 28, or 29, and she is sitting in front of a group of women. She looks clean, healthy, functioning. She is talking about how alcohol nearly killed her. And her story is my story.

Every week I go to this meeting. It is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I didn’t want to go – I stood outside, angry and speechless, as I always seem to be whenever I am waiting to walk back into my past.

Why am I telling you this? Some people keep their alcoholism – and their recovery – in a cupboard. When it is over – if it is over – it stays there, locked. Don’t talk about the drinking. Don’t talk about the madness. Don’t talk about the nights in police cells or in casualty. Don’t embarrass yourself. Forget, forget.

The silence is for people who believe that alcoholism is something to be ashamed of – a moral defect. Evil. Weak. Twisted. And I do not believe this. I cannot. Last week, I heard a story about a woman who stopped drinking for 20 years. And then, one day, for some reason, she picked up a drink. Two weeks later she was dead. Weakness, you say? Evil? Depravity? Or is it sickness?

About five per cent of the population of any country in the world is alcoholic. Not everyone who drinks heavily will become an alcoholic – a person for whom alcohol is irresistible, so much so that they will, as we say in AA, ‘pursue it to the gates of hell’. But, to become an alcoholic, you have to drink heavily. And everywhere, in this city and in others, I see the sort of drinking that can lead to alcoholism, like a path into the forest. Alcohol? It isn’t dangerous. Alcoholism? That wouldn’t happen to you, to me. Have a drink – it won’t do you any harm.

I also see the sorts of pressures that make you believe you need a drink. Not pretty enough, say the magazines and the movies and the adverts. Ugly. Have a drink. You’ll feel better. See? Not so ugly now.

What happened to me? The best way to start is to tell you how it ended. I am now 35 years old. By the time I was 26, I was a drunk. I cannot say it any plainer than that. I was, it seemed to me, a dead woman walking.

At university I was drunk every day. At the end of my first week I had my first psychotic episode

That was not supposed to be my story. I was born into a warm, affluent, Jewish home. I grew up in Esher, Surrey, that most gently suburban of suburbs; even the trees in Esher looked cared for, and bored out of their minds. There is no tidy explanation for what happened to me. Although my parents got divorced when I was 12, I always knew they loved me. I was never molested or neglected. There is no history of alcoholism in my family; no mad aunts in the attic; no depression. I hated school, but so what? I was afraid of boys, but so what? So if you want a polite cause-and-effect parable that explains away alcoholism, I can’t write it. It just happened.

I remember my first drink very well. I can close my eyes and watch myself drink it. It was 1987, and I was 13. I was having a cup of tea with a neighbour when she suggested I try a glass of gin. I remember that as soon as I smelt that sharp, slightly antiseptic scent, I had to swallow it all. I drank the whole bottle, as she giggled. She was, I now know, a heroin addict who thought it was normal for 13-year-olds to drink spirits. I vomited on my school uniform and collapsed. When I awoke, I felt filthy and sick, yet somehow at peace, as if something I had been in search of had, at last, found me. All alcoholics say this – even as children, we felt afraid.

And so I became a secret drinker. I would come home and pour myself a mug of vodka, careful to keep it a secret from my parents. It wasn’t difficult. A schoolgirl alcoholic? They didn’t exist. Alcohol gave me confidence. It made me feel warm, and comfortable – less ugly, less lonely. No one else at school lived like I did – I felt fascinating, and sophisticated, and apart. If I had known where it would lead, I would have been terrified. But I didn’t. I began to smoke a lot of marijuana as well – the drugs bled into the alcohol, and back.

Exactly how is a mystery – I smoked marijuana before each of my A-levels – but I was accepted into Oxford University to study history. I was terrified, but I didn’t have the emotional awareness to know it. I spent the week before I started in Amsterdam, alone, taking drugs. A clue, you say, to the disintegration of my personality. Not for me. I was sleepwalking.

The alcoholic in me woke up in my first week at university. It was a response to that unspoken terror, a key turning in a lock. Every day, I was drunk by 6pm – not giggly, sweetly drunk, but venomously, angrily drunk. By the end of that week I was a laughing stock and my system was so soaked in alcohol that I had my first psychotic episode.
I went round to see a man that I was sleeping with. I can’t say that we were any more intimate than that; alcoholics seek out people who will make them suffer. He wouldn’t open his door. I started screaming at the door and beating it. The rest, I forget. It was my first alcoholic blackout, the first of many. I was 19 and, already, I knew that something was very wrong.

At this point, you might say – why didn’t you stop drinking? And the answer is – all this wisdom comes from hindsight. To stop? That never occurred to me. To live without my friend alcohol – my only friend? Before I even knew there was a door to insanity I was through it, and it had shut behind me.

The only way I could block out the humiliation and desperation I felt was to drink more. And this became my life for ten years. Even now, my eyes are aching as I write it all down again. I disintegrated and I made my family watch. I couldn’t work, or stop drinking, or stop crying, or stop lying. I was sent away from Oxford to sober up, came back, drank again. I graduated, sobered up, got a job on a newspaper – and drank again. My life shrank to a pinhead – my friends departed, baffled and heartbroken. I lost my job. My mother had nightmares about burying me. I shut my curtains and slept with the light on. I was sure I was going to die and – this is the cruellest part of alcoholism – I wanted to.

Eventually – why or how I don’t know – I limped into rehab. It was a big, old Hammer Horror house in Wiltshire. I stayed there for six weeks, learning to live without alcohol, one day at a time. It never occurred to me that I could have a life without drinking, but other people told me I could and I trusted them.

And this brings me back to today, eight years on, sitting in my AA meeting in North London, still learning to live without a drink, one day at a time. I look around and see the other women. Our stories are all the same. The details may be different, but the plot – the search for annihilation and then, maybe, if we are lucky, renewal – is always identical. There is Dorothea, who lived with her parents in Newcastle. She used to vomit into a carrier bag in the kitchen, so her parents couldn’t hear her throwing up in the bathroom. By the end, she was exposing herself on her computer camera to any man who asked. Not for money or lust, but to harm herself. There is Sylvia, the cleverest, angriest, most bookish girl I know, who sold her body for cocaine and to decimate herself.

Why did we do it? I needed to know the answer too – I needed to know that I was not a monster. And so, in recovery, I have pored over the scientific reports and spoken to the people who know. It turns out that scientists and the medical profession have believed that alcoholism is a disease for more than 50 years. If the people who judge alcoholics and the people who drink themselves into oblivion every weekend don’t know this, it is because they do not want to know.

George Woody is a professor in the psychiatry department at Pennsylvania University, and one of the world experts in the diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism. And he has explained to me why I am not a Weak Bad Person. Alcoholics, Woody explains, have different brain chemistry to nonalcoholics, even before they start drinking. Studies on addict brains show that alcoholics respond differently to alcohol than nonalcoholics do. I have always known this.

At university, six drinks would turn me into a crazed, wailing banshee, while other people merely threw up and went to bed. It’s true that the research in this field is just beginning, but all the evidence collected so far suggests that alcoholics literally have different brains.And, of course, heavy drinking has a further devastating impact on the brain. Dr Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has said that ‘a metaphorical switch in the brain seems to be thrown as a result of prolonged drug [including alcohol] use. Initially, drug use is a voluntary behaviour, but when that switch is thrown, the individual moves into the state of addiction, characterised by compulsive drug seeking and use.’

But why is this? The answer lies in the genes. Alcoholics are born with a strong predilection for the disease. All the studies suggest that a predisposition is inherited. If you have an alcoholic parent you are 25 to 33 per cent more likely to become alcoholic. But, some argue, isn’t this due to growing up in an ‘alcoholic’ environment? If you have an alcoholic parent aren’t you far more likely to look upon heavy drinking as normal? No, this statistic is true even for children who are adopted away from the alcoholic parent. The statistics are even more incredible when you look at twins. If you have an identical twin who is an alcoholic, you are up to 60 per cent more likely to become an alcoholic yourself, even if you are separated at birth.

Alcoholism, Woody explains, ‘has a fairly predictable course of symptoms’. Alcoholics start drinking, and then they find they can’t stop. They need more and more. Then they lose everything. Some stop, some die, but if an alcoholic drinks they will always drink uncontrollably. And it is the same the world over.

This chimes with everything I hear from the alcoholics I know. In rehabilitation centres and AA meetings and self-help groups, we all sound the same. ‘I never drank the way my friends did.’ ‘I always needed more.’ ‘From that first drink, I couldn’t stop.’ So, if it acts like a disease and sounds like a disease, isn’t it a disease?

Some people believe that alcoholics bring it on themselves, partly because some alcoholics do ‘recover’ by stopping drinking – although they can never drink ‘normally’ again (remember the woman who drank again after 20 years of sobriety, and killed herself?) I think this is ridiculous – if someone recovers from breast cancer, does it mean that breast cancer doesn’t exist?

Yes, some people, like myself, do manage to stop drinking. But we don’t yet know why only some people can stop. I talk to drinking alcoholics all the time. ‘Why can’t I stop?’ they ask me, and I have nothing to say to them. I wish I knew. Watching a drinking alcoholic walk out of an AA meeting is like watching a dear friend go to play russian roulette – you don’t know if they will ever come back.

To me, it seems a combination of luck and timing. You are in a dark room. You want to leave. Will someone offer you a hand out? My mother did; she came to me and said, ‘I’ll help you.’ Woody thinks of it as ‘diminished capability. Yes,’ he says, ‘some people do get out of it on their own. But it is harder for them to get out of it on their own without help of some kind.’ And that means rehabilitation, not criminalisation; medical help, not judgment and abandonment.

There is, he adds, another reason that alcoholism is not viewed as a disease. To develop alcoholism you have to take the first drink. That is ‘voluntary’. But once Dr Leshner’s ‘switch in the brain’ is thrown, the budding alcoholics are helpless. I certainly believe that. I believe alcoholics have a chronic disease – one that they can ‘end’ no more than you could ‘end’ diabetes, schizophrenia or epilepsy.

So I don’t really know how I got here, or how I stayed. But I do know that talking and listening to other alcoholics helps me. I will always be vulnerable and oversensitive; that is in my DNA. But I don’t have to drink. Instead, I sit here in AA, and eat a biscuit, and look at mirror images of myself.

A wider understanding that alcohol abuse is not a moral defect but a medical problem could help other problem drinkers to realise that this is not something they should be ashamed of and hide; rather they should speak out and ask for help.

source: Daily Mail

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