Addiction as an expression of Trauma ….contemplating the work of Gabor Mate.
Addiction as an expression of Trauma ….contemplating the work of Gabor Mate.

I have recently been studying the work of the physician and psychiatrist Gabor Mate and his interpetation of addiction as the adult’s way of dealing with childhood trauma. To redefine addiction as a coping method to deal with childhood trauma in 100% of cases is quite a radical position to take in the world of mental health. Yet Gabor Mate worked for twelve years in the worst neighbourhood of Vancouver as a doctor to homeless drug- addicts. He treated hundreds of patients over the years, perhaps thousands, and he says that every single one of these severe drug addicts had suffered severe neglect, abuse and trauma in their childhood. Gabor Mate talks about addiction in terms of a spectrum, just as autism is a spectrum, and there are light and severe cases of autism. In terms of addiction, there are also lighter, or at least socially acceptable addictions such as shopping or workaholicism. Some forms of human dysfuctional behaviour are rewarded by our society which makes you wonder how mentally healthy society itself can claim to be. The really bad addictions that destroy lives are rooted in severe trauma but lighter addictions still point to a coping mechanism for dealing with emotional pain or a sense of emptiness inside. Less trauma equals lighter addictions. The people living on the street have been emotionally destroyed as children.

If this is true then there is very little to gain from punishing drug addicts or from treating the symptoms of addiction.As long as the emptiness or pain inside is not dealt with, no person can white knuckle it forever. One day the emotional suffering will become too great and you will succumb to the only way you know how to distract yourself from it or numb it with food or gambling or sex or alcohol or legal or illegal drugs.But what if we used therapy to honour that pain inside? What if we  stopped sweeping it under the carpet, stopped denying it and instead welcome it in? It is there inside us anyway, it can’t be worse to acknoweldge its presence and give it a voice.Once we listen to the pain and let us tell us what is needed, once we respect it and validate it and do our best to heal it…then the need to suprress it or escape from it will ebb away. And then you also don’t need to ‘ fight’ the addiction. There is no need for a war on drugs. We just need to end the war against our own vulnerable citizens and our own vulnerable hearts.

Trues courage comes from facing up to our imperfections and our messy needs. True healing comes with giving those feelings a palce at the table and finding ways to nurture them and calm them and integrate them into our whole selves. Fighting symptoms will not achieve this.Gabor Mate said in one of his books that if he could cure even 5% of his drug-addicted patients, he would have been considered incredibly successful, so little headway has treatment made with addicts. Needless to say, he couldn’t cure 5% of his patients of their addictions by treatiing only their symptoms.  And in trying to help them give attention to their emotional pain and vulnerability, he was hamstringed by a society that keeps punishing and re-traumatising his patients over and over again by jailing them and throwing them out of society and criminalising them.

The message I personally take from Gabor Mate’s books is his statement that we do not heal others; healing is an inner process that takes place within the individual. All a therapist or physician can do is guide that inner process and help the patient/client to do the work that is needed to be done themselves. So we try to empower our clients and search with them for their inner resources; because there are always resources inside that can help us to heal our psychic wounds.I will end this post with Gabor Mate’s reflection on the damage done by people with socially acceptable addiction to success and financial reward compared to the damage done by drug addicts.     “ Is the guy selling a hundred grams of cocaine to a friend with an adidction doing more harm than a business mogul cutting down the Amazon rainforest to satisfy his addiction to wealth and success?Which addict is more harmful to the world…and which addict ends up behind bars?”


Phone: 06 45 466 940
Ceintuurbaan 225/2 1074 CW Amsterdam