by John Mahaffy. Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts published in 2008 is a brilliant and compassionate look at addiction that uncovers the root causes of this all too common of human maladies. Rarely does an author’s choice of a quotation from another writer to preface his book speak so effectively than does Maté’s use of the late psychotherapist Alice Miller’s insight: “What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood” (Breaking Down the Wall of Silence).
The epiphenomenon of addiction is too often studied as if the addiction itself were the singular cause of an individual’s personal suffering but Maté fleshes out the deeper and often hidden dimensions of a “plight,” as mentioned by Miller above, “that must be understood.” Consistent with one of the original addiction recovery texts, Alcoholics Anonymous (called the Big Book by AA members), Maté’s text explores in terms of various addictions what serves as the very fulcrum of the Big Book’s insight to its alcoholic readers midway through the text: “Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions.” In short, The Big Book teaches that alcohol serves to get the alcoholic’s attention for the very thing that needed his/her attention and, within the same spirit, Maté’s book serves to get his readers attention for the very thing that needs their attention (whether we are addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, work, or classical music CDs—yes CDs, Maté’s own personal addiction, even spending $8,000 in one week on them). Caught within our addiction we are blind and haunted: “We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.”
So what according to Maté needs our attention? Ultimately, he points to some notion of an undeveloped, underdeveloped, mis-wired and maladapted personality: “Addiction is primarily about the self, about the unconscious, insecure self that at every moment considers only its own immediate desires—and believes that it must behave that way.” And how did we get this way? Is it in our genes as we are so often told? Not really, says Maté, genes contribute to personality but they do not strictly determine our personalities. How a gene acts science calls gene expression and genes, it is now known, can be turned on and off and current neurobiological research and psychological therapies address this significant fact today.
Or, are we neurologically wired this way or do addicts develop chemical imbalances either from early infancy or through a neurochemical imbalance produced over years of substance abuse? And is childhood trauma or the lack of consistent emotional nurturance by parents/caregivers responsible for retarding neurobiological brain development? These are the areas of interest for Maté in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. They are meticulously researched and sensitively argued making for a very readable book for the lay person who may be unfamiliar with current neurobiological science and cognitive psychology.
The good news of the book is that the addict is not fated to live with his/her illness. Some may have higher walls to climb than others but Maté offers the reader numerous perspectives for hope (i.e., a defense of 12 Step Programs, Dr. David Schwartz’s Four Step program, plus one—Step Five, Maté’s own addition—as well as other current research into how recovery happens).
Speaking of ghosts, recall Scrooge in A Christmas Carol on the night prior to his personality change. Scrooge asks of his old business partner’s apparition: “Perhaps you are the figment of an undigested piece of beef?” The question though is not what did Scrooge eat, but what is eating Scrooge. Likewise for us: it is not simply a question of what or how much we consumed (alcohol, drugs, food, etc.), but what is consuming us? In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts perceptively and effectively addresses this very question.
by John Mahaffy