Gabor Mate doesn’t believe in hope. After years working with drug addicts on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Hungarian doctor doesn’t have time or patience for it. “Hope is all about the future; hope is all about getting away from the present,” said Mate from Vancouver early Thursday morning. “It’s not a question of maintaining hope; it’s a question of seeing the real possibility of doing things right now.” And Mate is doing a lot.
He was rushing to a conference he was hosting on addictions this week, and it was hard to keep Mate on the phone. The service was patchy, and he kept cutting out.“I guess, I’ll have to stop walking for a minute to answer your questions,” he said. Mate’s life sounded a tad stressful, which is surprising given his take on stress. “Stressful ways of living can lead to disease,” he said, citing a long list of ailments including cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, asthma, and Crohn’s. An emotional event totally changes a person’s body and that’s happening all the time, he said. “So people who are emotionally stressed are physiologically stressed.”
Linking emotional states with physical problems is unusual for a western doctor, but Mate is adamant.“Science is totally clear that mind and body cannot be separated – it’s not even controversial,” he said. “The centres in the brain that process emotions are part and parcel of a larger system, which includes the immune system, the nervous system and the hormones.”
Mate, who has written books on stress, attention deficit disorder and parenting, most recently tackled addictions.“Nobody goes into addiction work without having their own issues,” he said. But Mate’s addictions are subtle, and culturally sanctioned. “There’s a whole lot of addictions we don’t even think of as addictions,” he said, citing work, shopping, and relationship issues. The workaholic and the alcoholic share many of the same traits, but a workaholic is praised for her work and is rewarded with a higher salary. “But they pay a tremendous cost in terms of personal health, stress, have less time with family, and experience a loss of intimacy in their relationships,” said Mate. “Yet they don’t see it as an addiction. “As much as they love work, they’re also working to escape from themselves – it’s how they deal with emotional issues they’d rather not face.” Mate’s Downtown Eastside patients exhibit similar characteristics. “Everybody down there was abused as children,” he said.
And while the workaholics and shopaholics may not have been physically abused, they still suffered when they were young, he said.“There was some degree of pain in childhood, and experiences where the child’s needs were not being met,” said Mate.This leads to a sense of emptiness. To fill the void they turn to external needs, like shopping, work or alcohol.“It’s all methods of self-soothing,” said Mate.“If you look at the research on addiction, what drives addiction for the most part is stress,” he said. “The more stress, the more need you have to soothe yourself.”
The war on drugs is a case in point.In terms of a drug addict, when you stress them by making them criminals, marginalizing and impoverishing them, you are actually entrenching them in addiction,” said Mate. “The system we have right now could have been consciously designed to keep people addicted. “While the war on drugs stresses people, it does absolutely nothing to stop the drug trade because its been going for 100 years – it doesn’t make a bit of a difference. “And it comes out of prejudice for the activity, rather than compassion, evidence or science.”Using science to examine emotions, addictions and disorders has brought Mate to some interesting conclusions. Attention-deficit disorder is not hereditary, he said. At least, not in the way most people presume.
It all comes back to how the brain develops under stress. Imagine you’re in a room where you can’t run, you can’t hide, and screaming won’t get you anywhere, he said. The only escape is to shut down. And in a stressful situation, that’s what infants do, he said. It’s not necessarily an abusive situation, added Mate. “It can just be stress because parents are stressed and kids pick up on that because that’s what kids do. “Then they shut down, their brain does it automatically, it’s a defence the brain has.” Trouble is, these young brains are in the process of growing. “That’s when brain circuits are developing and taking shape physiologically,” said Mate. “And guess what, all that stress, it gets tuned into your brain.”
The result is ADD. “People think it’s hereditary because maybe your father had it,” said Mate. “But it’s not passed on genetically, it’s passed on through stress.” In his workshops, Mate sees a common thread linking the participants, whether their drug addled addicts or educators.
“They’re people from all walks of life, but what’s universal is that all their lives were characterized in childhood by parents who were too stressed and too emotionally absent to actually give them the attention and nurturing that they needed,” he said. “So as a child develops, they have this emptiness they need to fill, and that actually affects the brain circuits physiologically and biologically. “That’s why the environment is so crucially important those first three years.”
Addiction prevention begins in the crib, said Mate. The current economic crisis has raised stress levels across North America. The result has been an increase in junk food consumption, said Mate. “Plus there has been no decline in alcohol consumption, despite that fact that people have less money,” he said. “And that’s because when people are stressed they turn to substances that immediately soothe their stresses, and junk foods do that.” The starches and sugars in junk food release chemicals in the brain that actually alleviate stress, he said. Mate has shed light on the causes of learning disabilities and addictions, but the solutions are less concrete.
“Given that people are emotional creatures, spatial creatures, psychological creatures and physiological creatures – and given that they’re all connected – you need to approach people with compassion and understanding of their emotional needs,” he said. Basically, all we need is love.“And everyone suffers when they perceive that they’re not (loved),” said Mate. “And if we’re not loved, or perceive that we’re not, as children, we develop self-harming habits and stressful ways of living.”
written by By Genesee Keevil