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Gabor Maté: Healing Emotional Pain & Social Change (Part 2)

by Susan Krajnc

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Gabor Maté works as a staff physician at the Portland Hotel Society with the drug addicted women and men in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.  He is the author of 4 bestselling books:  In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts:  Close Encounters with Addiction, When the Body Says No:  The Cost of Hidden Stress, Hold On to Your Kids:  Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers (with Gordon Neufeld), and Scattered Minds:  A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorders.


Susan Krajnc:  I would like you to expand on the emotional healing that needs to take place and how difficult it is, how it is a struggle throughout one’s life dealing with childhood traumas.  Most people might not even be able to even look at it -- until, say, a parent dies -- or live their whole lives doing the same things over and over again but not really knowing where that pain is coming from.  And once they do recognize it, some strategies that could be used.

Gabor Maté:  The Swiss psychotherapist Alice Miller wrote a book called The Drama of the Gifted Child but the German title of the book -- the original title -- was Prisoners of Childhood.  That means that basically we are all prisoners of our childhood in the sense that we live our lives out of emotional assumptions and our basic beliefs and patterns that we programmed into us before we had any choice in the matter.  It’s what gets us into trouble because those patterns or those defences that we developed as a child no longer help us as adults but that’s all we know.  We know ourselves through those patterns, we think we are them.  So growing up is actually letting go of childhood and becoming a child again in the sense of not being controlled by the past and being open to the present.  And that’s an ongoing, shedding of layers, an ongoing internal inquiry.  It has to begin with the recognition that something isn’t working and, if it isn't working, rather than keep trying to do the same thing over and over again, we need to look at how we actually generate our decisions and what makes us behave in certain ways.  So it’s a constant self-questioning that may need other people to get involved, talking with you.

SK:  For you, for example, when was that recognition?

GM:  It was when I was a successful doctor and I wasn’t happy at all.  My marriage wasn’t happy, my kids weren’t doing well, and I wasn’t doing well as a parent.  I achieved everything I wanted to achieve and why am I not happy?  Why aren’t things going well?  Because where I was coming from was unconscious to me.

SK:  And how did that lead you to uncover more of the childhood issues, where it stemmed from?

GM:  Oh, Alice Miller for one thing.  Once I read her work, I began to recognize how my own childhood shaped my adulthood.  And I realized I didn’t want to be a prisoner of my childhood anymore.  So it is really a gradual, ongoing, breaking those prison bars.  It's a lifelong process.

SK:  You’re going to Peru next week.  Can you talk about what you’re going to do there?

GM:  More recently, I’ve become interested in the use of shamanic medicine in the treatment of conditions.  Western medicine and science is very poor at treating, healing a lot of things, let alone addiction.  There is a French doctor in Peru that uses a plant called Ayahuasca, this root, a concoction called Ayahuasca, which is a traditional shamanic medicinal plant used by the medicine people in the Amazon jungle.  And I’ve shown some pretty nice results with it – helping addicts and other people who are stressed.  The Nature of Things is doing a documentary on that kind of work now so I’ll be going down as part of the filming for their documentary.

SK:  Are you in the process of writing another book?

GM:  I am writing a book on bullying.

SK:  I am very interested in what you say about Natives in our society, it is extremely important.  What is the demographic in the Downtown Eastside?

GM:  Probably twenty, twenty-five to thirty percent of people are First Nations where as they only make up two – three – four percent of the Canadian population so it is heavily biased against the aboriginal population. 

SK:  How many are women versus men, or is it equal?

GM:  I couldn’t tell you the gender.  With my patients, I’d say it’s pretty much equal but I don’t know if that’s generally true in the Downtown Eastside.  By and large, people don’t come from upper or middle class homes.  They come from lower, working class, struggling, struggling background.  With age, people don’t live very long because they die of their diseases so they are a younger age group than the general population.

SK:  I keep going back to this question, in the context of violence that we face on so many levels in our society, I know you are an activist on many levels as well as a doctor and so many other roles that you play.  Can you expand more on the strategies that we could use for political change?  I know you talked about the media.

GM:  You know, the biggest thing -- you have to ask -- why is the Left so generally ineffective in getting the message across?  Now, part of that is just how it is – you know, it’s just how it is.  I mean there is a certain media bias that heavily distorts the Left’s message, it certainly doesn’t present it.  You can always get an article in The Globe and Mail denying global warming, as their columns regularly do.  It is much harder to present the other case on a regular basis.  You can always get an article in The Globe and Mail representing Israel as a victim but it’s almost impossible to get one in there speaking the actual experience of Palestinians in Gaza.  So there is just a kind of media mindset, let alone the (inaudible) -- they’re hopeless.

What also makes the Left’s message ineffective is the way we deliver it.  There is a kind of stridency that I’m less and less comfortable with as I get older.  It’s not because of the content, it’s because of the style.  The style is very often informed by people who have emotional stuff they haven’t worked out.  So they project their anger, they project their rage at the world which really has to do with their own stuff.  I think this gets in the way.  So I think the biggest strategy for the Left, as far as I'm concerned, is to actually take a good, hard look at themselves, see where they are coming from, who are they trying to speak to, and how is their style of expression going to go across to the people that they’re trying to address.  Because it’s easy enough to keep talking to ourselves.

SK:  But your writing is very powerful and the message is spread around the world.  When you first listened to your voice or intuition -- when you decided to write -- you’re getting to a lot of people through your books, so there are different ways.

GM:  Yeah, I have the gift of writing and I have the authority of being a medical doctor so I get to say things.

SK:  But you’re very grounded as a human being.

GM:  I seem that way.

SK:  I know that.  You obviously had to struggle a lot.

GM:  I’m not very grounded.  I mean I can be, but I’m not always there, believe me.

SK:  I understand.

GM:  Ask my wife.

SK:  I also understand what you’re saying with how we try to get our messages out.  Because you have a very compassionate voice and a grounded voice on many levels, and a lot of experience -- tragic and from other people.  I think that moves a lot of people and you are effective.  So we need more.

GM:  Reflection is something I do and I think it is essential and, I think, a bit of mindfulness could very well be helpful to the work of the progressive movements.

SK:  But everyone, in general, has to deal with traumas from their childhood.  Couldn’t you say that every one of us has faced some sort of trauma in childhood, on different levels?

GM:  There are many different levels, yes.

SK:  And our parents as well, and it’s generational.  Dealing with our own issues, is it like a first step in some way -- loving yourself -- before being able to connect with the world, and being effective in the world, and spreading that message of compassion?

GM:  Yeah, well said.  I have nothing to say, you’re quite right.

SK:  I just wanted to thank you.

GM:  I appreciate it, thanks a lot.

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