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Dr. Gabor Maté and his work on addiction

Dr. Gabor Maté dropped by the offices of the Vancouver Observer recently to talk with Linda Solomon about his work on addiction. Dr. Maté is offering a workshop at [Hollyhock Educational Retreat Centre] Sept 13-18 entitled Taming the Hungry Ghost.

VO: The Hungry Ghost: Close Encounters with Addiction is about your work on the Downtown Eastside.

Maté: That’s the portal of the book, but it’s more about addictions in general. We live in a fundamentally addictive society. The people on the Downtown Eastside are on the extreme end of the spectrum, but we’re also on the spectrum. You try to complete yourself from the outside. It’s about the acquisition and possession, which is all about having a void that needs to be filled.

VO: Haven’t people been trying to fill that void since the beginning of time?

Maté: As my son Daniel said, “a void I’ll do anything to avoid.”

It’s a natural tendency of the human mind and there are degrees of it. Addiction is simply a more rigid manifestation of the natural tendency of the mind to get attached to things. The addict has a helpless compulsion. The attachment is so powerful that it takes over, despite your awareness that there are negative consequences.

For me, it’s often buying a book or buying some classical music. It’s not just that I desire it, it’s that there is this urge to have it right now. It is fine to want to buy a book, but it’s a question of how much compulsion or tension is there around it.

VO: From your experience working in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), what could help there?

Maté: The biggest driver of addictive relapse is stress. By impoverishing, excluding, judging and criminalizing drug-addicted people, we’re stressing them. We’re doing everything we can to keep them stressed and it keeps them addicted. This is a social issue across the country.

VO: Do you see possible solutions?

Maté: (Snaps fingers.) It could be solved like that. We’d have to do a complete transformation of our perspective. We talk about the “four pillars” in Canada: Prevention, Harm reduction, Treatment, and Law Enforcement.

We talk about these four pillars, but in fact we don’t have four pillars. We have three toothpicks and one pillar. Only Law Enforcement is a pillar.

VO: Does it help to have a mayor whose goal is to mitigate these problems?

Maté: Vancouver has been fortunate that way. Sam Sullivan before Gregor Robertson was very compassionate when it came to addiction. Larry Campbell as well. Sam gave money to a prostitute once to buy drugs so she wouldn’t have to and he was roundly criticized for it. But he did it because he was humane.

VO: If we’re all addicts, isn’t it just human then to desire, and to be attached? Where’s the big problem?

Maté: To say to yourself: “I’m so empty and devoid of meaning that I have to turn to the outside” is to instantly wound yourself.

Photo by Linda Solomon

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