In this video, Dr. Gabor Maté untangles the complex connections between the stresses of Western society, the prevalence of addiction and the so-called War on Drugs.
Maté, an addiction specialist who was born in Hungary but spent most of his life in Canada, explains that “the heart of addiction is always emotional loss.”
When the doctor worked with people suffering from addictions in Vancouver, he says, all his female patients and many of the men had experienced sexual abuse as children. That accounts for one half of pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s theory on two things that can go wrong in childhood. The first involves the things shouldn’t happen, like abuse and trauma, Maté says.
The other half of the equation, he continues, is even more widespread. “Things that should happen but don’t,” says Maté. “The presence of non-stressed, non-depressed, emotionally attuned, available caregivers.”
When parents aren’t available because they are constantly working (which is compounded by the fact that many adults don’t get adequate maternity leave), kids end up attaching to other children they meet in daycare instead of their parents.
“Those kids have been disconnected from the adults in their lives because the adults are not there for them,” the doctor says. “They can’t be. They’re too stressed.”
In turn, stressed parents are not attuned to the emotional cues of their children; they’re emotionally unavailable even when physically present, focused on succeeding in a workaholic society. “This society rewards workaholism… They reward you for the very things that undermine the health of your family,” says Maté.
As a result, “for the first time in history, we have large numbers of kids, immature creatures, getting their modeling and their cue-giving and their sense of direction and sense of values and how to walk and how to talk from other immature creatures,” he says. “That’s just another way in which this system has undermined the necessary conditions for child development.”
Maté then ties the lack of adult presence in children’s lives into the War on Drugs, invoking a police officer who spent years investigating sex crimes involving children. Images of the exploited and abused children, particularly their dead eyes, haunted the officer long after his retirement.
“Why the dead eyes?” Maté says. “The dead eyes because the child can’t escape, fight back or seek help. The only way that they can possibly endure is to shut down emotional awareness of the pain. In this society we have a massive emotional shutdown.”
Why are we shutting down? Because we hurt so much, because our lives are filled with so much stress and so little true emotional connection, with drugs often filling the void.
If the cop had transferred into narcotics instead of retiring, he would have been arresting the same children he was previously trying to save, who had turned to drugs to numb their pain. “We take people who are abused to start with, and then we make them a social enemy,” Maté says.
“There’s no War on Drugs, because you can’t [wage a] war on inanimate objects,” he continues. “There’s only a war on drug addicts, which means that we’re warring on the most abused and vulnerable segments of the population.”