On Addiction and Compassion

This morning I had the privilege of attending a lecture with Dr Gabor Maté, a renowned physician and bestselling author who has worked with hardcore drug addicts in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside district. Unlike traditional western approaches to treating addiction, Dr Maté started his presentation with a provocative question, not what’s wrong with addiction, but, “What’s right about addiction?”
Addiction refers to a repetitive pain-relieving activity with long-term negative effects. Any of us can be addicted and the scope goes far beyond drugs and alcohol. We can be addicted to food, shopping, gambling, sex, exercise, work… In fact, anything can be potentially addicting. Rather than looking at the subject of the addiction, it is vital to look at the source of the addiction.
Addicts are addicted because they seek relief or escape from their pain. Addiction goes far beyond poor willpower or genetic predisposition. In fact, the field of epigenetics tells us that our genetic tendencies are turned on and off by our environment (read The Biology of Belief by Dr. Bruce Lipton for more on this). So, in understanding addiction, we need to look at the individual’s environment, specifically his/her earliest relationships and psychosocial environment during infancy (including fetal development) and early childhood. Stress on an infant or young child determines the way his/her brain organizes. Stress and trauma have a direct impact on the child’s nervous system, leading to an organization that is based on self-protection, on fear, on feelings of unworthiness and shame. The ACE study (Adverse childhood experiences) from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates that traumatic experiences in early development lead to increased risk for alcohol and drug addictions, depression, fetal death, heart disease, liver disease, obesity, risk for partner violence and more.
Stress and trauma have a tremendous impact on our nervous system, our emotional development and our overall general health. It is a tremendous issue and one that we have the potential to solve! Neuroscience research continues to prove that it is the presence of compassionate relationships that heals the brain and allows it to re-pattern and re-organize–moving away from fear responses to more love-based, open-hearted connection with the self. Compassion is the healing agent. Love is the healing agent. When we meet our infants and our children with love and allow them to express and release their pain in loving, supportive relationships with us, we eliminate the need to escape it.
According to Dr. Maté, compassion is the key ingredient in stopping the cycle of addiction. Without it, we are only treating symptoms and completely overlooking the root of the issue. I am so blessed to do the work I do, helping children move through and heal from their trauma. This healing then opens the window to their ability to love themselves, respect themselves and make choices from a place of self-acceptance and health.
For more information on Dr. Gabor Maté visit www.drgabormate.com