Choices, Genetics or Circumstances?

“Is alcoholism genetic?” he mumbles. 

“I’m not sure, I can’t say I know for certain,” I answer. Or at all, I think to myself, I am, after all, not a mental health expert. 

I met Stephen through a mutual friend. Stephen is 33 years old. He began drinking at a young age, around 13 years old. His parents were divorced and so he thinks they did not really pay much attention at the time. In addition, they were mostly drunk.

He has this quiet and calm demeanour about him when sober, almost shy. He begins by telling me drinking alcohol is something that is done regularly in his family house. All his relatives drink. He recalls one time though, when his mother took him to a native doctor to see how his drinking could be curbed. She had given up drinking and wanted the same for him. He was given animal blood to drink and for a while, even the smell of alcohol made him throw up but after some time, he continued. He has a steady job which he is actually very good at. The only concern his bosses have is that he doesn’t seem to be taking care of himself in terms of hygiene. He scoffs as he says this. He does look somewhat disheveled and its past 2pm. He also looks thin and not in the way fashion tabloids depict. I ask him if he eats regularly and he shakes his head. He would rather drink. His hair is light brown - almost like one who has spent too much time riding on an okada during the harmattan. 

Stephen says he was in the hospital a few weeks back. “Something to do with my liver,” he says. I’m not sure what to ask, so I just let him tell his story. Drinking alcohol for him was a rite of passage. Like most people in his family, he thought that it was something he could control. Even as he went to classes drunk, forgot to eat, drank more alcohol than water, he did not realise the grip that alcohol already had on him. Without it, he recalls, he was withdrawn and bitter. After a few, he was the life of the party. Soon, people figured that was the real him. Little did they know that the real sober him was a calm, considerate and loving brother and son. As time went on and he got in university, he drank more, missed classes and barely passed his final year exams. But it was not only him, he says. It is the same with his siblings. Only a few do not drink. At least not as much as him. He says that sometimes he goes for a drink with his uncles and brothers and one drink turns to two then five then 8 until they lose count.  

He keeps fidgeting and twirling his fingers. I ask him if he is drunk right now. He laughs and says no. He has been trying to stop but it has not been easy. Yes, he had a few drinks two days ago and he is itching for more. He has not been to work in a while as he is too weak. He says even just one bottle will make him feel alive. Even talking to me seems to be weakening him more. 

As I get up to leave, I offer him some food. He smiles and takes it. He looks so forlorn that I am scared to leave him. He jokes about getting a wife, perhaps that would straighten him out. His question lingers on my mind though, is alcoholism genetic? Does that mean Stephen stood no chance at all? Are some people more prone to addiction than others? Like I told Stephen, I do not know, but I intend to find out more. 

Written by Zunzika, with Stephen's permission