Author interview'The pain comes first, the addiction second'

Addictions guru channels survival of the Holocaust into self-help empire

Dr. Gabor Mate’s theories on coping with early-life mental wounds, and strong stress on empathy, have made him a global sensation as he releases his latest book, ‘Scattered Minds’

Author Gabor Mate, and his book, 'Scattered Minds.' (Ebury Publishing UK)
Author Gabor Mate, and his book, 'Scattered Minds.' (Ebury Publishing UK)

LONDON — In his international best-selling book, “Scattered Minds,” Dr. Gabor Maté writes that Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is not a genetic illness but a developmental delay that starts out as a coping mechanism in response to trauma rooted in childhood.

As an example, the family practitioner and expert on the psychology of addiction cites his own ADD. He includes a black and white photo of his mother holding him as a four-month-old baby with a yellow, Nazi-mandated Star of David prominently visible over her heart.

Maté’s family emigrated to Vancouver in 1956, but he was born in Budapest in January 1944, where the chances of survival for most Hungarian Jews were slim. By April 1945 over half a million Hungarian Jews had been slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many were shot on the banks of the Danube. But between May 15 and July 9, 1944, some 430,00 Jews were sent from Hungarian Jewish ghettos by train to Auschwitz.

Among the latter group were Maté’s maternal grandparents, Dr. Josef Lövi and Hannah Lövi, who came from the town of Kosice in southern Slovakia. Whenever he heard the word God as child, Maté says a deep anger vibrated in his chest, and he would ask himself: “What kind of God would let my grandparents be murdered in Auschwitz?”

“After her parents were taken away, my mother wanted to kill herself,” the 75-year-old globetrotting self-help guru tells The Times of Israel in London.

Maté’s mother kept a diary during this period, which he reproduces at length in “Scattered Minds.” Her husband was away for 14 months performing forced labor at the hands of the Nazis, so most of these tragic diary entries are addressed directly to her “Gabi.”

Gabor Mate as a four-month-old baby, held by his mother, who has a Nazi-mandated Star of David visible on her chest. (Courtesy Mate)

Maté could not bring himself to read it for another half a century.

“Only the sight of you next to me in your crib gave me reason to go on,” Maté’s mother writes in one heartbreaking entry. “I will give up my son when they’re here to throw me into the cattle train, [but] not one second before,” she writes elsewhere.

In June 1944 the Jews of Budapest, unlike their brethren in the countryside, were spared the German death caps in Poland — but not the continual terror. Most were ordered into the starred buildings around the center of the Hungarian capital.

That December, Maté and his mother sought refuge in a so-called protected house, part of an effort by the Swiss embassy to save Jews from the Hungarian fascists and the Nazis. To protect him from the dangers of the Budapest ghetto during this time, Maté’s mother gave him to a stranger, who agreed to push the young infant to the safety of a cousin’s house. The separation between mother and infant lasted three weeks, and left Maté with a visceral sense of abandonment.

Maté says this brief introduction to his own traumatic Holocaust survival story exemplifies the central message that most of his self-help books seek to convey to his readers: the relationship with our primary caregivers — and their emotional states — strongly shapes the development our brains, our minds, and our personalities, for the rest of our lives.

“As a Jewish infant under Nazi occupation, I was raised by a mother who was grief-stricken at the death of her parents at Auschwitz,” says Maté. “My mother was anxiety ridden because she didn’t know if her husband was dead or alive, and we were under threat of deportation or violence ourselves.”

‘Unlike my brother, I avoid the gaze of the camera- perhaps as a toddler may cover his eyes to avoid being seen. Or perhaps I am scanning the far horizons of the future, or of the past,’ writes Dr. Gabor Mate in describing this photo in his book, ‘Scattered Minds.’ (Courtesy Mate)

“When the parent is stressed, the infant is stressed. It’s that simple,” Maté says. “The parent’s emotional state dominates the child’s emotional state, which meant that I was stressed a lot in my first year. My mind was programmed in relation to a terrorized mother, and so I imbibed a lot of her fear, anxiety, and depression.”

Maté notes that the natural reaction for any infant under a long duration of stress is to tune out and dissociate.

“I was diagnosed with ADD as if it were a disease, but it wasn’t a disease — it began as a coping mechanism that became dysfunctional later on,” he says.

Maté’s visit to London saw him addressing a number of sold-out public speaking events. One included a talk on trauma, resilience, and self-care; another on the hidden connection between stress and disease. The latter topic was explored in Maté’s book “When the Body Says No.”

When the parent is stressed, the infant is stressed

There are some surface parallels between Maté and self-help guru and popular psychologist Jordan Peterson. Both are Canadian, and have attracted a wide global fan base in public talks that have taken on an almost cultish following. They both use YouTube as a medium to communicate to an audience looking to escape feelings of despair, anxiety, and spiritual emptiness. Both authors also offer their audiences routes for self-transformation by seeking out spiritual awakening.

But there they part ways. Maté is highly critical of Peterson’s self-reliant Nietzschean-like “power of the will” approach to overcoming personal psychological trauma. He believes that Peterson’s work focuses on a narrow demographic of white males, and that it tends to lead to a culture of blame where shame, guilt, sexism, and racial discrimination all rear their ugly heads. Indeed, Peterson is beloved by many on the alt-right.

Conversely, Maté’s work pushes an agenda of collective social responsibility and universal compassion. Both are central themes in another one of Maté’s books regarded as a self-help cult classic in Canada and the United States, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.”

First published a decade ago, a new updated version of the book was released in the UK late last year. It takes the reader on a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual journey where the fundamental roots of addiction are explored with detailed analysis from philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, mythology and theology. Maté also regularly quotes from a number of case studies he encountered while working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with patients who have found themselves addicted to heroin, crack cocaine, and many other harmful drugs.

Maté stresses that more than the addiction itself, the root problem for the individual is the distress and emotional pain which the addiction is attempting to momentarily stave off.

Dr. Gabor Mate speaks on trauma, healing, and the brain at an event in Vancouver, Canada, in 2015. (YouTube screenshot)

“People who are addicted to anything always say, ‘It helps me escape from an unpleasant painful reality, and gives me pleasure that is lacking in my life, or a sense of belonging that I otherwise don’t have,’” Maté explains. “So the pain comes first, the addiction second.”

Maté’s clever narrative technique has also helped his work reach a global audience — he links his own personal story to a number of themes across the broad spectrum of human psychology. It’s a mix of the confessional and unguarded honesty, and helps readers internalize his message as the empathize with him.

Which brain circuits get developed properly depends on the child’s early experiences

Maté is also adept at breaking down dense scientific concepts into language a layperson can easily understand. This is particularly noticeable when he deconstructs how environment shapes human brain development — a topic central to understanding the science of addiction. Maté compares the human brain to a kernel of wheat, noting that no matter how genetically sound a seed may be, positive environmental factors are necessary for it to flourish.

“Which brain circuits get developed properly depends on the child’s early experiences,” Maté tells The Times of Israel. “The more emotional pain and trauma a child experiences, the more distorted their brain development is, and therefore the more susceptible they are to addictive substances.”

“So whether we are looking at addiction as a source of coping with pain or addiction as a chronic brain disorder, we are looking at the impact of early childhood experiences,” he says.

Maté points to collective anxiety as an example. As insecurities rise in a nation due to war, economic, or political instability, the probability of mental health problems rises too. The evolution of these mental health problems begin in the womb, Maté says, noting that mothers in Israel who were pregnant in the build up to the Six Day War had a higher probability of their children becoming schizophrenic later on in life.

Taking note of the crucial link between nature and nurture, Maté says that there are three brains systems whose development in early life can largely determine whether a person is prone to addiction.

In people who fall prey to addiction, all three systems — the opioid attachment reward system, the dopamine-based incentive motivation apparatus, and the self-regulation areas of the prefrontal cortex — are almost always off kilter, says Maté.

“The opiate system plays an essential role in the attachment relationship between infants and parents, while dopamine is the chemical that helps mediate incentive and motivation” he says. “Gambling and sex, for example, elevate dopamine levels. That is why people find it so hard to give up [these addictions].”

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