Dr. Margaret Cary, who wrote the foreword to LOVE ADDICT: SEX, ROMANCE AND OTHER DANGEROUS DRUGS, often sends me articles she thinks I’ll find interesting. Research papers on the genetics of addiction, usually, or lactose intolerance. This week, she sent a piece from THE WEEK about advances in epigenetics.
Epigenetics — literally “on top of genetics” — is the recently discovered process by which our DNA blueprint will express, or not express, itself as a genetic command. Our genes are malleable, not immutable; they adjust and alter throughout our lives, This explains why identical twins become less identical over time. Science has lately confirmed what many have long suspected: our environment and our behavior can literally change us to the core. It now appears that everything from childhood hugs to drinking from plastic bottles can turn our genes on and off.
One simple example: Two siblings inherit a genetic predisposition to lung cancer. The one who smokes… gets lung cancer. How many times have we heard about the hardy old sod who smoked until she was 93, healthy as a horse until she got run over by a truck? (Okay, maybe not that specifically….) You need both the gene and the catalyst to activate it to get the outcome.
So, how does that apply to love addiction? When I was researching my book, I encountered two distinct and seemingly mutually exclusive schools of thought on the causes and conditions for sex and love addiction. The neuroscientists say it’s all biology. They point to brain scans and statistical studies that clearly demonstrate addicts are wired differently from non-addicts. We have more white area in our gray matter. We produce different quantities of different neurotransmitters. We have specific, quantifiable genetic variations.
The psychologists, on the other hand, tell me it’s all caused by childhood trauma. You were sexually abused as a child? You grow up to be a sex addict. You were emotionally abandoned as a baby? You grow up to be a love addict. Addiction is the great psychic hole caused by parental abandonment, a hole the addict seeks to fill with food or love or alcohol or cigarette smoke… whatever you got, baby.
Nature or nurture? It’s hardly a new argument, but maybe there is a new solution. The answer is C: All of the above. For example, according to a 2009 study reported by the University of Utah, “Child abuse leaves an epigenetic mark on the brain. In a comparison of suicide victims who were abused or not, only the abused victims had an epigenetic tag on the GR [glucocorticoid receptor] gene. Interestingly, the GR gene receives a similar epigenetic tag in rat pups who receive low quality care from their mothers.”
In other words, hit your kid or forget to feed your furry rat baby, and you leave permanent changes on its double helix. Changes which may lead to self-destructive behavior. Changes which can be inherited by the next generation, by the way.
So go ahead, blame childhood trauma if you want. Or blame neurochemistry. But epigenetics tells us that you need both the gasoline and the match to start the fire. It’s a concept those crusty old alcoholics who started the 12-step programs came up with back in the 1930s: Addiction is an allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind, and a malady of the spirit.