A Culture Of Addicts – An Explanation

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Why is Addiction so Rampant?

The behavior and attitude of an addict is frustrating, baffling, frightening and saddening. The effect of these addictive substances is so strong that many individuals are overwhelmed by it. Without thinking that drug and alcohol use could give harmful effects to their mental, emotional, and physical health. Thus, the mystery of taking these illegal substances might continue for years.

Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician with controversial ideas that could heal us all says that we are a culture of addicts – it may be of drugs, alcohol, and other kinds of addiction.

Shame is the one common thing among addicts of all types and is what makes them hide and lie. It is what prevents people from asking for help. We’ve perfected the art of lying to ourselves, which keeps us from not really even believing that there’s a problem.

Shame is why people drink, or gamble, or shop, or even eat.

Dr. Maté understands this feeling perfectly. He as well understand the dependence of these addicts to such things. Dr. Maté is a renowned author, doctor, and speaker that has seen it in the men and women addicted to heroin that he treats in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. It’s visible in the behavior of cosmetic surgery addicts, the power seekers, the compulsive shoppers, and even workaholics.

Maté has even seen it in the mirror.

He’s authored a revolutionary book titled, In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction where he outlines the fact that the un-winnable “War on Drugs” is mostly fueled by shame. The judgment and marginalization of street junkies and addicts and it’s repressive crime policies are also responsible for the drug menace.

Maté understands and discusses what spiritual leaders have tried teaching: that how we judge others reflects how we ourselves actually are.

Gabor serves as the resident doctor in The Portland Hotel, which is a housing project in Vancouver that treats adults coping with mental illness and various withdrawal symptoms of addiction. He says that he saw himself in the stories of the people who came to him for treatment and who disclosed their pain to him slowly over the years.

For those who are still denying and hiding about substance abuse and drug addiction, Maté says that he still sees them and does what he can to help.


Dr. Maté was born in 1944 in a Budapest Jewish ghetto just a few weeks before the seizure of Hungary by the Nazis. He had an absentee father who had been sent to a forced-labor camp and a loving but overwhelmed mother. His grandparents were killed at Auschwitz just a few months later. His mother handed him over to a gentile stranger when he has just a year old for his own safety.

Maté now understands that his early experiences and specifically his mothers frantic state of mind helped to guide the neural circuitry in his brain, which was still under development then. It’s an impaired circuitry that basically prescribed a future of addiction and attention-deficit disorder.

Upon examining his own past and hearing the stories of his street drug user patients combined with his medical training, Maté concluded that ADD and addiction are rooted in childhood trauma and loss. Therefore, it is more on a chronic state of mental illness.

Maté says that addiction is quite simply attempting to self-medicate emotional pain.

He says that anything can become addiction since it has less to do with external behaviors and more to do with the relationship to it.

Hungry ghosts is the term Maté uses to refer to addicts, which is a reference to one of the 6 realms contained in the Buddhist Circle of Life. The depiction of the hungry ghosts is that of thin necks, small mouths, and large empty bellies craving external satisfaction, desperate for soothing, seeking to be full, yet never satiated.

This is a realm that we are all aware of, even if not all the time. The only difference between us and identified addicts is a matter of degrees.

This view has earned Maté some critics including the Canadian Conservative government, which has made efforts towards shutting down the safe-injection site that Maté helps oversee. The conventional medical fraternity definitely is not too thrilled by his ideas. Addiction is usually examined from 2 perspectives: either as moral failure or as a genetic component.

According to Maté, both perspectives are wrong and he claims that he can prove it using brain science.

Warm, soft hugs

Maté refers to various studies that indicate clearly how neural circuitry develops in early childhood. Human offspring, do much of the maturing outside the womb unlike in most other mammals. This means that the environment plays a greater role in the development of the mental health than in any other species.

If you factor in stressful and/or abusive childhood environment the result is an impaired brain circuitry, which is a brain constantly seeking feel-good endorphins, as well as stimulating dopamine its either poorly able to produce on its own or completely unable to. A brain like this experiences its first heroin symptoms as a warm soft hug of a loving mother, as a 27-year old sex trade worker described to Maté.

Maté states that adversity creates the impaired development and not genetics as the medical community emphasizes.

The way we respond to addicts  with ostracism, marginalization, and criminalization just piles on the adversity and shame which ultimately fuels the addiction.

Luckily addiction is preventable and one can have successful recovery but only if you start the treatment early.

In Hungry Ghosts, Maté says that prevention should start right at the crib. He states that how children develop is the most important thing for the future of our culture.

What about the children who grew into addicted adults? Luckily, it is possible essentially to rewire the human brain according to unprecedented brain research. The most powerful way that this can be done is through utilizing plant medicines. In particular, Ibogaine.

In Hungry Ghosts, Maté says that the human brain is a resilient organ. Throughout our lives, some important circuits continually develop and they continue doing so even for hard-core drug addicts whose brains never stood a chance in their early years.

In addition, Maté factors into the potential for treatment, recovery, and transformation unlike most of his counterparts. Maté views “spirit” as something that is in us. It’s present and is a part of an addicts rewiring, treatment, and recovery.

Choice is an illusion

Today, it’s a widely held belief that addicts have the ability to choose and learn to stop even though it might be hard. However, Maté insists that the addicts personal history and physiology limit the ability this condition.

Maté says that the more the unconscious mechanisms due to earlier defensive reaction to trauma drive you, the less choice available to you. Most people actually have less ability to choose in things than is actually recognized.

It is the unconscious impulses that drive us to hold a bag of chocolate after arguing with our spouses. It is the reason why we are on Craigslist planning a sexual encounter while our spouses sleep soundly beside us. It is why respectable professionals constantly find themselves lying to their loved ones.

Maté narrates in Hungry Ghosts how he was asked whether he had been obsessing and buying things by his wife several times over the years. He narrates how he responded by lying to his partner and convincing himself that he doesn’t want to hurt her. The truth is that he fears losing her affection and doesn’t wish to look bad in her eyes. He is afraid of her anger, which creates more shame.

Dr. Maté struggled for years with a shopping addiction, using thousands of dollars to buy classical music CDs in one spree and finding himself unable to resist the temptation to do the same a few weeks after making the promise to his wife that he would stop. He refers to this signs of addiction as wearing dainty white gloves unlike the drug abuse of his patients in Downtown Eastside.

He then says that he now views addiction as an extensive subtle continuum as opposed to a discrete, solid entry.

Dr. Maté says that we will continue living life with an illusion of choice until we become completely aware of the drivers of the addiction.

Addiction consumes, while passion creates.

Is being hooked on a behavior such as sex different from drug addiction? Dr. Maté is adamant that it isn’t but the medical community is still debating the question.

Maté says that all addictions involve the same brain chemicals and circuits and evoke the same emotional dynamics. Behavior addiction trigger substances internally meaning that behavior addicts are essentially substance addicts.

Where does passion really end and addiction begin? What about those that drive themselves and others to work longer, push harder, produce more, and do everything better?

Daniel Maté, Gabor’s son and editor of his books says that many people make positive contributions to the world at their own cost and that we regularly lionize unhealthy things.

Daniel Maté suggests that determining whether we are feeding an addiction or serving a passion boils down to a simple question that requires an honest answer: “Are you or are you not free?”

His father takes it a notch higher by asking “What function does the addiction perform in your life” “What questions does it answer and how can we restore that?”

In Hungry Ghosts Dr. Maté writes that “Passion creates, addiction consumes.”

Compassion for both the addict and ourselves

Addiction rehab and recovery requires us to care for the mind and body as well as the soul according to Dr. Maté. He says that the spiritual element of his practice is important to understand our own struggle as well as that of the hard-core street addict.

Maté says that we don’t have compassion for addicts because we are also addicts in some way and don’t want to accept due to a lack of self-compassion. We therefore end up treating and rehab the addict as an a criminal, a person making poor choices and whom we can feel superior to.

Dr. Maté says that compassion is understanding and understanding is forgiving.

He says that we need to turn our compassion into policy.

Dr. Maté said at Reed College in a 2010 talk that he considers pointing the finger to a street-corner addict who is in the position due to early trauma as being blind at the very least. He stated that if society was to come up with a more compassionate view of addiction and a deeper understanding of addicts and recognized the similarities that exist between ostracized addicts at society’s periphery and the rest of society and did this with a compassion for both as well as for the rest of us, we would have more successful and more efficient drug treatment and recovery programs, holistic health plans, and better society outcome.


**Topics discussed on this website are not medical advice and have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA. This website and its statements, products and services are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.**

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