I first learned about Dr. Gabor Maté through his groundbreaking book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which explores his work with addicted individuals living on Vancouver’s skid row, as well as being an exceptionally comprehensive delineation of just what the hell addiction is, its causes, its effects, and so, so, so much more. Aside from that, Dr. Maté is a renowned speaker and bestselling author, highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics, including addiction, stress, and childhood development.
I’d heard that Gabor believes addiction is not the problem but rather a person’s attempt to solve a problem in his or her life. I reached out to him because I wondered, among other things, how he would define addiction and what his perspective was on people using addiction to solve their life problems.
When I posed my questions, he answered them with a question: “You’re very open about your own addictive history. What did you get from it?” While I was thinking about my answer, Gabor gave me his definition of addiction:
“Any behavior—substance-related or not—that a person craves, finds temporary pleasure or relief in, and suffers negative consequences as a result of, but can’t give up despite those negative consequences.”
Check, check, and check. His definition summed up the experiences I (and countless others I’ve met) have had with drugs and alcohol—and I could add food and many other substances in here, too, for good measure.
So, pleasure, craving, relief, negative consequences, inability to let it go . . . What does our addictive relationship to these substances give us? For many—myself very much included—it provides a sense of relief from self-loathing, depression, and dissatisfaction with the world (among other things). It’s a way for us to get release from our emotional pain and just drop the fuck out of our heads for a while. As I looked back on my own life, I saw that addiction was everything to me, a means of making it through the day.
Gabor was just getting started. He echoed my internal dialogue, noting that everyone wants relief from pain. And he was right. Who doesn’t?
“What you were after was a perfectly normal human aspiration. Your problem was the emotional pain, and the addiction came along as an attempt at a solution. Addiction is never the primary problem. It creates problems—that’s why we talk about it so much—but it’s not the primary problem. The primary problem is: Why are we in such emotional pain? What happened?”
Gabor went on to present addiction in a way I’d never quite heard before, taking it out of the context of disease and willpower and putting it into a Buddhist framework—the realm of suffering. Addiction “has to do with how you suffered at a time in your life when you couldn’t avoid the suffering—and that means childhood. It doesn’t matter what form addiction takes—sex, gambling, drugs, alcohol, shopping, or eating—it’s always an attempt (in one way or another) to compensate for or escape from intense suffering in childhood. When I say ‘intense suffering,’ I don’t necessarily mean terrible things, but a child who suffers ends up having more pain than they can handle— hence the escape into addiction. In other words, the addiction is an attempt to solve a problem.”
Once we understand the foundation of our addiction, then we can move forward and decide what works for us. Gabor teaches that “There are many modalities out there, but it’s got to begin with the recognition that ‘I’m traumatized, and that traumatization results in a disconnection from myself and all kinds of emotional pain that I don’t know what to do with. That trauma is not my fault, it’s not my parents’ fault.’ Even if parents did their best, their best was conditioned by what they received in childhood. It’s not about blaming anybody or saying it’s anybody’s fault but if we want to heal, we have to recognize what happened and how that affects us now so we can integrate and heal.” That’s the first step.