For twelve years Dr. Maté was the staff physician at a clinic for drug-addicted people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where he worked with patients challenged by hard-core drug addiction, mental illness and HIV, including at Vancouver Supervised Injection Site. In his most recent bestselling book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he shows that their addictions do not represent a discrete set of medical disorders; rather, they merely reflect the extreme end of a continuum of addiction, mostly hidden, that runs throughout our society. In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts draws on cutting-edge science to illuminate where and how addictions originate and what they have in common.
Contrary to what is often claimed, the source of addictions is not to be found in genes, but in the early childhood environment where the neurobiology of the brain’s reward pathways develops and where the emotional patterns that lead to addiction are wired into the unconscious. Stress, both then and later in life, creates the predisposition for addictions, whether to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, or to behavioural addictions such as shopping or sex.
Helping the addicted individual requires that we appreciate the function of the addiction in his or her life. More than a disease, the addiction is a response to a distressing life history and life situation. Once we recognize the roots of addiction and the lack it strives (in vain) to fill, we can develop a compassionate approach toward the addict, one that stands the best chance of restoring him or her to wholeness and health.