Understanding Addiction | Insight from Gabor Maté

Gabor Maté is a medical doctor who has become a compelling figure in the area of addiction treatment and mental health. In this video, Gabor defines addiction in a radically different way.

He maintains that addiction is:

Not a choice
Not a moral failure
Not an ethical lapse
Not a weakness of character
Not a failure of will
Not an inherited brain disease

Addiction is a response to human suffering.

While working in North America’s greatest concentration of addicted individuals in Vancouver he discovered that everyone he treated suffered from significant abuse, neglect, or abandonment. In order to cope with that inner pain these people turned to drugs and alcohol. They are motivated by temporary pleasure or relief from pain.

Gabor suggests the question we should be asking is not “Why are you addicted” but “What do you like about it? What did it do for you?.” If we ask that we will find that we did for a sense of control, relief from pain, to escape, to soothe feelings of loneliness, among other things.

Addiction is an attempt to solve a problem. The goal of addiction treatment should be to discover what happened that caused that persistent pain in people’s lives. By healing the pain the addiction is trying to soothe, we take the fuel out of the addiction.

Addiction can take many forms. It might be working too much, to endlessly scrolling through social media, videos games, pornography, sex, gambling, drugs and alcohol. Anything we can do to bring relief to persistent emotional or physical pain.

Most of us use things to cope in the moment to get through stressful situations. It only becomes an addiction when the pain is persistent and requires a constantly source of relief.

The big downside to addiction is that it just adds to the pain. Relationships are sacrificed, material possessions disappear, careers and jobs suffer. All of the shame accumulates and just adds fuel to the addiction. It is a self-reinforcing cycle. That escape from pain separates us from our main source of strength and healing, which is connection and love. Addiction does not bring people together.

Gabor says that we can’t punish the pain out of people. As a society we do it when we put addicts in jail. Sometimes we try to punish ourselves when we are stuck in the cycle of addiction. We feel like if we are hard enough on ourselves we will be able to motivate ourselves to stop the addictive behavior. Which might help for a little while, but ultimately adding more pain to someone just trying to cope with pain will only deepen the addiction.

Recovery from any addiction, whether it is chemical like drugs or alcohol, or behavioral like gambling or sex, will not be durable unless underlying sources of pain and shame are healed. Self-compassion is one key. When we treat ourselves in the way we want to be treated and treat others, we can help heal the pain and become more in tune with the consequences of our actions. The more compassion we have for ourselves, the more we can have for others, which in turns helps us grow life giving bonds with others which also help alleviate our discomfort and heal our trauma.

Therapy can help people find that compassion inside them and start the healing process.

Gabor’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is an excellent primer on the reality of addiction for people, the science of addiction and it’s impact and a challenge on our we treat the addicted.

To hear more from Gabor on addiction watch this