In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – Dr Gabor Maté

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is an amazing book and I would urge you to read it with an open mind. I must confess that I had read a piece by Stanton Peele which put me off this book, but thankfully other people urged me to read it. I am really glad I did, and certainly recommend it to people who want to learn about addiction.

The title of the book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction is derived from the Buddhist mandala, the Wheel of Life, which revolves through six realms, one of which is that of hungry ghosts. “This is the domain of addiction,” he writes,  “where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfilment. The aching emptiness is perpetual…” (p. 1)

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts - Dr Gabor Maté

The start of the book talks about the author’s experiences treating “hard-core” addicts in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. I know Vancouver quite well, having done some work there and this was definitely an area to avoid, when I was there! It is a very honest portrayal of the difficulties many face while dealing with addiction, and it is easy to see why so many do not succeed in beating their own demons. Many of the stories are heartbreaking, and really shows how difficult it is to treat people who have been taken over by addiction. He does this in a compassionate way.

He is no a fan of the war on drugs and explains why it has not worked and causes bigger problems in society. He explains why social issues are such a strong force in driving addiction, and that the huge changes in society have led to many of the problems in the breakdown of the family structure.

He talks about how addiction is rooted in childhood trauma, and I must admit I was rather skeptical of this before I read it. After all I had two loving parents but still ended up with addiction problems, but after reading this, I could see that I could have been affected by the stress my mother was under when I was born and through my early life as she was suffering from a serious illness at this time. He talks a lot about the brain and how it develops and the effects of hormones etc on development and I found all this completely fascinating. Much of what he explains in the book could have had a major effect on my development after all. I cross referenced some of the hormones he talks about with my mother’s condition and found they would have been increased to abnormal levels compared to a healthy woman when she was pregnant. I can see reasons for some of the lines of questioning that I was given by a doctor in the past, after reading this.

Maté talks about many of the traits that make an individual prone to addiction. These include poor self-regulation (the ability to maintain emotional balance and stability), a lack of differentiation and self-identity (the capacity to hold onto a healthy sense of self, especially while interacting with others), impaired impulse control (“A salient trait of the addiction-prone personality is a poor hold over sudden feelings, urges and desires”) and a sense of deficient emptiness (the addict believes that he is “not enough”). (pp. 226-228, 335)

All of these traits inherent in the addictive process are developed, or not, in Maté’s view, as a result of early childhood neglect or trauma. Of course, “not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma,” Maté acknowledges, “but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.” (p. 36)

I think he makes a lot of strong points that make sense to me, in this book. I certainly belive that addiction can be a result of problems in the environment when we are growing up and that trauma can have a big effect on us at this time. I like the way that he describes the dreadful problems that some people face in beating addiction and does not dress this up as some kind of moral failing. It really left me thinking that we need to change society as a whole if we are going to stop people falling into a world of addiction and alcoholism, and that will be a difficult thing to do. This is great book if you want to learn why addiction happens, and why recovery may not be easy! It is not quite as simple as blaming the individual or even the support group they use, which some like to do.





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