Inherited behaviors

Unless you’re the most severe reclusive shut-in hermit, or you’re adopted, you will have the most accessible and cheap genetics lab available without being aware of it…your family.

I suspect most people mechanically note genetic similarities in passing but fail to take note just how closely many of their blood relations parrot their behaviors (and vice versa). You know, crap like “he’s a chip off the old block” or “the apple didn’t fall from the tree”…these truisms refer to the given tendency of many to display identical behavioral quirks as their parents or siblings. The knowledge is out there, it is known, but what do we do with it? We laugh at the resemblance little Johnny has with pops in his fits of clumsiness. Or his unusual mannerisms. We absorb the awareness that many behaviors are rooted in a genetic legacy, but we fail to realize just how fantastic it is. It’s a scientific given that you will probably have your mom’s nose or your dad’s forehead. The possibility is etched in stone. We don’t give it a second thought. But when behavioral parallels present themselves from one generation to the next, I wonder if we lazily ignore the awesome implications. Behavior appears genetic. How can this be? Isn’t behavior an intangible manifestation of one’s personality? Can’t we go one step further and proclaim personality is primarily genetic? This is not what we want to think, not in our foolish post-modern appraisal of individual freedoms and self-righteous Free Will. Our personality is our own and it owes nothing to anyone. Damnit.

Good try people…in much the same way behavior is emblematic of certain physical markers, it is also the expression of rigid chemical balances (or imbalances), and it also provides the genetic trail by which a parent will pass on physical traits to his heirs. Genetics are more than skin deep.

Dad Lab

My dad was subject to the trials and tribulations of alcohol abuse. All the attendant cliches came into play in this sordid drama. The late nights, erratic behavior, deathly hangovers and inhuman household demands that spawn the presumed “adult children of alcoholics” syndrome. I outlined the culmination of his drinking career in this post, but rather than turn this into a private and revelatory Betty Ford flashback, the point is I have that stain of alcoholism running in my genes. While deliberately failing to mention other strains of it that run in my familial lineage. But my father’s in the most direct.

One of the favorite scripts and default reasonings is the one that many people intimately involved with alcoholics and alcoholism are fond of: alcoholism is “hereditary.” They retreat to this rote explanation while spewing the same psycho-biological justification that justifies green eyes or red hair (only because the father has the same features). It is an unquestioning profusion of “facts” and is built upon the reasoning that many don’t bother to question or examine. Is alcoholism hereditary in the sense that there is a specific genetic marker that spells out “alcoholic” for the person affected? Of course not, and I don’t think many reasonable people would attempt to claim this.

We find that many behaviors and attitudes are in fact hereditary. It’s this collusion of traits and behaviors and attitudes that come together into one sentient personality that create the persona we burden ourselves and others with for the rest of our lives. As the child of an alcoholic I lived with the presumed curse of being prone (or predisposed) to alcoholism. I bought the myth. I believed it. I never questioned the “fact” that my dad had a “drunk” gene which would invariably lead me to drink. And I did have that “gene.” Despite the antagonistic example he set and the behavior I witnessed in horror, I still succumbed to the spell. The genetic curse. Only after dealing with the curse of alcohol abuse for years was I able to push aside the lies and presumptions that I suspect were counterproductive. To embrace the lazy truth that alcoholism is strictly and specifically genetic is to absolve oneself of harmful behavior. To do this is to treat the “disease” as a 3rd party encumbrance to be dealt with later. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is distasteful to treat one’s own alcohol abuse as a character flaw. It insinuates that we must deal with the problem from within, and not as an external affliction. It is not within our human nature to embrace predicaments in such a manner and exert such laborious work, emotional and physical, in order to surmount such physiological obstacles. I’ve endured enough AA meeting to realize that the organization offers, through its infamous 12 steps, a proxy of self-accountability by which people are expected to assume control of their behavior.

Alcoholism is not a disease.
Not in the typical sense.

Lupus has a definitive medical definition which follows a progression of biologically microscopic irregularities that manifest themselves as a physical affliction of the immune system. There is a scientific cause and effect chain of command that we can narrate. Alcoholism has no such chain of events. Anyone can become alcoholic; anyone can escape alcoholism who might be of high risk. My brother, born of the same genes as my father, does not drink nor is he driven to. He has never gotten drunk. There are people with no familial history of alcoholism who become alcoholic. The cause and effect is erratic and not set in stone or completely predictable. If alcoholism were truly a disease, I don’t believe people could overcome it by behavioral modification alone. It would be akin to claiming someone could defeat a brain tumor simply by altering their lifestyle. That is the difference between a disease and an addiction, which alcoholism is. I find it self-gratuitous for people to call it a disease. It is a ploy by which many attempt to cleanse their hands of responsibility.

What we do inherit: temperament, the countless genetic markers which coalesce into an intrinsic fulcrum which shapes our persona.

I doubt we have mapped many since they are so numerous and oblique.

But they do exist. Temperament is heritable, witness the AKA listing of dog breeds. There, by the description of the dog’s coloring, coat, skeletal structure, eyes, you’ll find a description of the ideal temperament for each specific breed. It’s possible that the temperament marker resides on the genes that concurrently dictate physical characteristics. Have you ever noticed that people of a certain physiognomy seem to share identical personality traits? In this respect, though I am not a blank slatist, I believe it is fair to say the human personality is a blank slate in the respect that we are presented with a chalkboard that dictates certain instructions for our character formation but which still allows infinite variables and flexibilities. Within each genetic map there are variations upon which our personality realizes its fruition through an intricate maze drawn on a chalkboard which we must travel through but which contains so many turns and halls and corridors that there are nearly an infinite number of routes.

And harking back to AA, aren’t all 12-step programs essentially game plans by which we seek to circumvent inner limitations and resolve our own shortcomings through an external mechanism seeking to short circuit our inherent behaviors?

Overeating, gambling, sex…these are all addictive behaviors which are are the result of genetic tendencies that land us squarely in the arena where we are prone to exhibit certain behaviors.

Alcoholism is yet another bad habit, and it happens to include many actions that happen to fall into the “illegal” and “harmful” categories and hence, receive more attention than other physiologically steered bad habits. It’s not illegal to overeat and drive. It’s not illegal to sell a pack of playing cards to a minor…etc. Alcoholism treads upon a great societal evil with proven damages and abuses clouded behind walls of harmful key words and phrases. I inherited personality traits which make me susceptible to addiction and to the influence of alcohol; I mentally crave its euphoric effects. My body does not care. It’s an entirely behavioral addiction. Since alcohol’s physical effects are so renowned, they have taken on a physical reputation. If you drink too much over a span of time. your body does become addicted and the sudden withdrawal of alcohol can lead to some rather noxious symptoms. Prolonged abuse of alcohol has detrimental biological affects as well. But to allege a physical basis for alcohol abuse is to put the horse before the carriage. Alcohol abuse is behavioral in that it is the transcription of an unfortunate genetic combination into a compulsive, chemical abuse disorder.

Son Lab

Another old post alluded to a horrible hang-up I have, emetophobia, the fear of vomiting. I’ve always been tormented by this as long as I can remember. It is the most random phobia and I know of no one else who shares it. It actually began later in my childhood for I can remember other kids throwing up in front of me with no apparent effect. I could continue eating my entire lunch after someone next to me ralphed. No big deal. Later, something clicked and it turned into a terrible curse, this emotional and psychic aversion to vomit, and all things vomit. I was able to escape the issue for most of my life and if I ever experienced vomiting in others or myself, I would tremble and become light-headed. Still, I was able to escape phobic situations and it wasn’t the worst thing.

Until I had a child.

If you have an infant or a toddler or even a pre-schooler, you better be prepared to deal with the vomiting because it will happen, and many times, profusely and unannounced. I mentally prepared myself for this and I braced for what I knew was coming. As an infant, my son had the usual bouts of little baby puke, usually curdled milk or rehashed baby food. Tolerable. As he got older, he occasionally experienced spells of older-kid vomiting spells which required trash cans or stringent cleaning which luckily my ex-wife had no problem performing. In spite of this, I hid my aversion and tried not to act like an emotional wreck those times my son was sick. I hid it or escaped to another room. In this manner, I feel like his exposure to my phobia was minimal. That was my aim, to minimize my mental pathologies in his presence.

Look, so I’m high-minded this way. I used these supposed “advanced” tricks in order to defeat the limiting influence of learned behaviors on my offspring. To allow my son to see me act out such phobic nonsense might lead to his eventual downfall. I could not let him witness my nervous breakdowns at the first hint of vomiting. Besides, “teaching” him that there was such aversion to the act of vomiting would not help him cope with his present bout in a healthy manner…puking is never a pleasant experience, even for the normal-minded.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered, many years later, that he was harboring terrible emotophobic tendencies.

This was unearthed a few years ago when we were out of town for the weekend and decided to have dinner at a Red Robin restaurant in Fresno. We sat down to eat and my son was looking awfully fidgety. I recognized much of his behavior because it was…me. I knew something was panicking him. He was taking deep breaths. His eyes darted helplessly about the room. I finally took him outside and we stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes while he calmed down. It turned out he had picked up an ear infection a few days previous and the drive to higher elevations had aggravated some vertigo and left him slightly nauseated. A nausea which in most people would be a mere inconvenience, bothersome, but not worthy of the panic attack he was experiencing. In the following months, it became apparent he too was afflicted with this goddamned emetophobia. I had done all I could, in my 21st Century-educated parental style, to shield him from my cognitive maladies. But…there he was. Experiencing the exact reactions I had experienced as a child in the face of the exact same stimulus. How the hell did this happen?

I’m convinced I controlled for other factors which may have transmitted the emetophobia to my son; I hid my panic. None of his vomiting experiences were unusual or traumatic. They were run-of-the-mill kid-puking kind of stuff. The usual scurrying around, grabbing trash cans. Followed by periods of letting him soak in a warm bath, drinking 7-Up, saltine crackers…nothing irregular at all about his vomiting experiences. Yet he, like his father, was plagued with the nonsensical and paralyzing fear of vomiting.

This is a damned specific instance of a genetic inheritance, entirely behavioral in origin.

No, you see, my son has expressed an identical phobia within the confines of as close to an artificial vacuum as I could create. He has inherited certain alleles, markers, who the fuck knows, which predispose him to a certain type of anxiety. An anxiety or compulsion he has found himself absorbing and fending off.

Our genes form the blackboard maze and some of us repeat the worn and ill-advised path.