Proof That Addiction Runs in Families?

Image, Lester Stoefen sweaterI received an email yesterday from a gentleman with the same last name. “I read your book,” Gary Stoefen told me. He also shared with me that he too had a daughter who’d suffered from addiction. Sadly, the outcome for their family was different than it was for ours. After three years of sustained recovery from substance use, young Lisa Stoefen relapsed on alcohol one night and crashed her car head-on into a retaining wall just two blocks from home. She was only 21.

Addiction is such a tragic waste. No parent should ever have to suffer a loss like Gary’s. Yet thousands do every year.

Over the course of several email exchanges, Gary and I explored the branches of our respective family trees. We discovered common roots, and established that we are indeed related. That is, he and my husband, Pete, are related. I shared with Gary our family boasting rights to a blood connection with the 1930’s Wimbledon Doubles champion, Lester Stoefen. Apparently Lester and Pete’s dad, Art, were cousins. Both were towering Nordic blondes, and both accomplished athletes. Pete and our son, Jeff, look just like them.

We actually have one of Lester Stoefen’s wool tennis sweaters, stored as a family heirloom alongside Art Stoefen’s treasured Stanford letterman’s sweater. We’re proud of the Stoefen sports legacy, and I asked Gary if he knew anything about Lester.

“Les Stoefen was my dad,” he said.

Huh. How about that.

Lester Stoefen at Wimbledon

Lester Stoefen wins at Wimbledon

“My dad was kind-hearted with a great sense of humor,” he said. “He had an outstanding tennis career and was a great coach to many up and rising tennis players of the day.” Gary also told me his dad had a particular fondness for rum and coke.

Seems Gary knows much more about the Stoefen’s than our side of the family does, including the fact that addiction runs deep. Lester died in his fifties from cirrhosis of the liver, and Gary is in long-term recovery from alcoholism. Lisa, of course, also carried the family’s genetic burden for addiction.

My father-in-law, Art, loved his Old Fashioned cocktails, but never over-indulged. My husband, on the other hand, was at one time an Old Fashioned aficionado. And our daughter Annie, about whom A Very Fine House was written, fell in love with Jack and coke long before she picked up meth.

It’s well known that addiction runs in families, yet I find it fascinating nonetheless to see this thread run through the Stoefen gene pool… among blood relatives we’ve never even met. I can point to addiction on my own side of the family as well, but will save the Cofer’s for another day.

Gary Stoefen wants to raise awareness about the cunning, baffling disease of addiction as much as I do. He maintains a website in honor of his precious daughter, Lisa, and you can check it out here. And who knows, next time you see a book on addiction by an author named Stoefen, it may not be mine.

Lisa Stoefen

Lisa Stoefen 1982 – 2003



Note: Addiction in the family is one of the top risk factors for addiction, but in no way preordains someone for the disease. For example, one can’t become alcoholic if they never consume alcohol. Others risk factors that play a key role in this disease are:

  • Environment
  • History of mental illness including depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and others
  • Early onset of use. Due to the vulnerability of the teenage brain, we know the earlier in life someone starts using substances, the more at risk they become.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) / trauma.
  • Use of highly addictive substances.

For more information on this, please see the National Institute of Health website. Click here.

Author: Barbara Stoefen

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  1. Barbara,
    When I heard Dr. Drew speak in FEB, he declared that addiction is 60% genetic. Always interesting to find more proof/evidence of this reality. Someone in recovery asked me on their podcast, now that I am a dad and I know that addiction can is genetic, how do I break this cycle or deal with this truth? Hoping this awareness fosters a different level of response to the addiction issue in our society.

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    • That’s a tough one, isn’t it Dave. Educating our children about the risk is of course important, but education alone won’t do it. We need to teach coping skills, and healthy ways to manage life. We also need to properly treat mental health issues.

      With advancements in brain science, it’s my hope that the medical field will some day be able to offer preventive medicine for addiction. “Just Say No” is not a solution for someone seeking normalization in their brain.

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  2. Please don’t consider predisposition to addiction as a certainty of suffering the malady. Epigenetics (the study of cellular and physiological trait variations that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence), has shown the importance of environment (physical and emotional) to make a great difference. It’s why it’s so important for addicts to not just stop using, but to learn healthy living solutions that can be passed on to future generations.

    There is hope. Thank God.

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    • Thank you for clarifying that, Pamela! Addiction in the family absolutely does not preordain someone for the disease. And environment is indeed one of the top risk factors. But in the absence of a crystal ball, or any testing that exists today, scientists tell us the greatest indicator of one’s potential for addiction is family history. This is where choice becomes important: One will never become an alcoholic if they don’t drink, and addiction to nicotine can’t happen if you don’t smoke!

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