“If you want to deal with the issue of addiction in our communities, you have to deal with the issue of abuse in our communities.” – Dr. Gabor Mate
Renowned physician and author Dr. Gabor Mate spoke on the link between childhood trauma impacting psychological and emotional development and addiction at Kwah Hall on Nov. 27.
The daytime talk followed an evening presentation on adult-child relationships and how children today are using their own peers as role models instead of their parents, creating unhealthy behaviours.
Mate’s experience and research into addictions was partly honed in the notorious Downtown Eastside Vancouver neighbourhood, where he worked with addicts.
Many of his insights into addiction were not new ideas to caregivers attending the talk, however, the concept could make some feel a bit helpless, given his belief an addict will not be cured of addiction issues until they deal with the underlying trauma causing the behaviour.
Giving many examples, Mate spoke of his own “implicit memories” which cause emotional reactions without conscious memories, because the trauma took place at such a young age. While recall memory allows a person to recall specific memories, implicit memories are memories without conscious awareness of the previous experiences.
Mate’s mother tried to give him to a total stranger when he was just an infant, because they were Jewish and she wanted to protect him from Nazis who were rounding up Jews for the concentration and work camps.
His father had already been taken.
While he does not recall this trauma consciously because he was so young, it comes back as emotional reaction to certain triggers.
Mate also discussed his belief in the futility and negativity of putting drug addicts in prison for their behaviour.
Mate sees drugs addicts as survivors of abuse who need help addressing their trauma, and when society fails to rescue children from abuse we then punish those people for turning to drugs to deal with the trauma.
In order to emotionally develop, children need to be open, but when they are abused, they instead “shut down” which stops their emotional development.
In society, Mate said “we’re not patient enough, we’re not compassionate enough.”
While a damaged person has in effect, lost sight of their true self, he said this true self is “lost but not destroyed.”
“Healing, recovery, is all about finding that self,” he said. “People need a sense of possibility.”
“The victory for the addict is to see their own humanity.”
He also has a broad definition of addiction, including any behaviour a person creates which produces negative consequences which the person persists in despite those negative consequences. For example, a smoker who quits smoking but does not deal with the root of their addictive behaviour might turn to overeating as an alternative addictive behaviour.
Clarifying confusion around genetic inheritance of addiction, he stressed while genes can predispose a person to addiction, it does not predetermine the person will have an addiction. The environment during their development will determine whether the genes will be activated, often by stress or trauma.
Mate also said he thinks the twelve-step programs of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous do a lot of good work, but he said the lack of attention to childhood trauma means the root of the problem persists and some type of addictive behaviour will therefore also likely persist.
“I just think they’re missing something,” he said.
Mate believes in practices like meditation to help people deal with addictive tendencies, because he said it helps people focus on the present.
He also believes traditional spiritual practices can help and harm reduction is a no-brainer.
“For some reason this is controversial,” he said.
He argued harm reduction practices like clean needles and safe injection sites do not support addiction, people are already addicted, instead it prevents people from getting sick.
He said if all the money which now goes into punishing people was put into rehabilitating them, we would have a very different world.
“We have to have some faith that in the long term, love is stronger than stupidity,” he said.