This is a wonderful interview with Gabor Maté, presented by Sounds True. He speaks of his early childhood traumas and how they influenced who he became as an adult. His insights into addiction, emotion, immunity, attachment and much more are discussed. I'm a big fan of his work. Here is an excerpt and a link to the full interview.
Dr. Gabor Maté is an author, speaker, and physician who specializes in addiction, stress, and childhood development. His many books include In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and When the Body Says No. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Dr. Maté about his views on modern mental health evaluation—specifically the widespread diagnoses of ADHD and depression. They discuss the connection between emotional expression and immune response, as well as how the body can be an effective teacher. Finally, Dr. Maté comments on how mental health issues can often be rooted in compensating behaviors from childhood and how healing can be approached from a bio-psycho-social perspective. (68 minutes)
Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Gabor Maté. Dr. Gabor Maté is a renowned speaker and bestselling author, and is highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics including addiction, stress, and childhood development. Gabor Maté has written several best-selling books including the award winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction and When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. He's also the cofounder of Compassion for Addiction, a new nonprofit that focuses on addiction.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Gabor and I spoke about the immune system and how it is connected to healthy, emotional expression, and why it matters so much that we own our healthy anger and express it. We also talked about how our body can function as a teacher, and how he views such diagnoses as ADHD and depression, and how his views differ from the way the medical community views those conditions. We also talked about understanding healing through a bio-psycho-social lens and how a great number of mental health issues can actually be traced to childhood compensation. Finally, we talked about what Gabor is currently focusing on as he enters his 73rd year of life. Here's my conversation with the very direct and brilliant Dr. Gabor Maté:
Gabor, I want to just begin by thanking you for making the time for this conversation. I know how busy you are and I feel appreciative. Thank you so much.
Gabor Maté: Well, I look forward to our talk.
TS: Okay, let's jump right in. I wanted to begin by talking about you, and particularly your early years in Budapest. You were born in 1944, a Jewish infant under German occupation at the time [in] Budapest. And what I'm really curious to know is a little bit about your early life experiences and how you feel they've informed your work?
GM: Yes. So, I was born in January '44, and when I was two months old the Wehrmacht, the German army, occupied Hungary, including Budapest, the capitol city. The extermination of the Jewish populations that had been nearly complete across eastern Europe had not yet touched Hungary, but now with the German occupation, it was our turn. So within five months, Nazis exterminated half a million Hungarian Jews, mostly in Auschwitz, but elsewhere as well. Amongst them my maternal grandparents.
Adolf Eichmann, the SS organizer of the deportations, said that the operation "went like a dream." He killed more people in a shorter period of time than he had been able to anywhere else.
In Budapest, which is in the center of the country, the Jews were not deported because the Germans exterminated, deported the Jewish population of Hungary in a concentric fashion, starting from the outside of the country and moving in towards the center. And just before they got to the center, which is where my mother and I lived, international outcry has been so vociferous, including messages from the Pope and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that the Hungarian government actually put a stop to the deportations. But we lived under Nazi occupation for the remainder of that year and into the beginning of the following year.
The salient story that I tell for most times because it did inform so much of my work, is that the day after the German army occupies Budapest, my mother calls the pediatrician to say that, "All my Jewish babies are crying." No, I'm sorry—I'm running ahead of myself. She calls the pediatrician to say that, "Would you please come see my son? Because he's crying all the time."
And the pediatrician says, "Of course I will come, but I should tell you all my Jewish babies are crying."
And so that anecdote told by my mother speaks to the very essence of childhood experience, which is to say that what happens to the parents happens to the child. And A. H. Almaas, who—and to you, with you, I greatly appreciate it [audio cuts out] says in one of his books—and I'm quoting here now, and I quote this very often; in fact, he may be the person I quote most often. He says, "The child is very open and can feel the pain and suffering going on in its immediate environment. The child is aware of its own body and can also feel the tension, rigidity, and pain in the body of the mother or of anyone else he's with. If the mother is suffering, the baby suffers too. The pain never gets discharged."
So that insight and coupled with that anecdote has informed a lot of my work, whether it comes to physical illness or addictions, or any other affliction that human beings might face.
My father came back from forced labor and my mother hadn't known whether he was dead or alive for almost a year and a half. The Germans were finally expelled from Budapest by the Russian army in January of 1945. But not before—a month before the liberation of Budapest, my mother had handed me to a complete stranger in the streets of Budapest because she could no longer guarantee my survival. Jews were again, being deported and killed by Hungarian Nazis. She didn't know when it would be her turn and so she gave me to a strange woman in the street, and I didn't see her for a month.
Which then ingrained in me a life-long sense of abandonment and loss, which at age 73 still shows up sometimes in my relation with my wife. You want me to go on with my childhood?
TS:Well, I'm curious just to understand something a little more clearly. When you read that quote by A. H. Almaas and the idea that the parents' pain, particularly in this case the mother's pain, is felt and passed down almost like the child is transparent to it and takes it in, and you said this has informed so much of you work, tell me how? How has that idea influenced how you work with patients, how you work with addiction?
GM: Sure. So, a number of things happen. First of all, the child—the Buddha said at some point—in fact the very first quote in the Dhammapada, the collection of his sayings, is something like, "With our thoughts, we create the world." I'm paraphrasing, but that's what he says, basically that our thoughts create the world that we live in. But what it didn't say, which is really the insight of modern psychology, is that before with our thoughts and our minds we create the world, the world creates our minds.
So then the question is—there's a man right now, for example, who says that "The world is a horrible place," I'm quoting directly. Well if we live in a world which is a horrible place, you're going to have a certain attitude towards the world and a sort of way of conducting yourself. This man has just been elected president of the United States, and he lives in a world that's horrible.
Now, how does a child get a sense of what the world is like? We get it from our earliest experiences. So, what kind of a world did I get? I got a world in which, first of all, there is unexplainable suffering for which I have to compensate somehow, and one way of compensating for suffering, or enduring it or dealing with it, is to dissociate, to tune out. If you look at the burgeoning diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder in our society and the number of kids being diagnosed, what's really happening is that parenting circumstances have become so stressful, and because the parents are stressed, the children are stressed; these children are tuning out to protect themselves at a time when their brain is developing. And now they're being diagnosed left, right, and center with a so-called medical disease, an inheritable medical disease, which is neither a disease nor is it inheritable. It's actually a normal response to an abnormal circumstance of parental stress. So what I'm saying is that a lot of the adult dysfunction mental illness and physical illness that I see is actually the outcome of childhood coping mechanisms.
Now, the other thing that happens is that children are narcissistic. And I don't mean that in any negative sense, I mean in a purely clinical sense, that they think it's all about them. So when bad things are happening, the child will believe that it's about him, or her. And then we have to compensate for that. Furthermore, when my mother—and how do you compensate for it? Well, you compensate by developing all kinds of coping mechanisms. Almaas talks about the "Theory of Holes" in where our essence isn't developed or recognized, we develop a hole which then we try to fill in with the false personality. So really, what we call our personalities and patterns are really finding their origin in coping patterns, to cope with the early pain and stress.
And, for example, one way to cope, if your parents are not able to appreciate and accept you the way you need to be—I'm not talking about whether they're doing their best or they love you or not, but one way to compensate for that loss is to be extra nice to everybody and to look after everybody else emotionally. These are the people that develop autoimmune disease, for reasons that we can discuss. But in everybody with those kinds of diseases, I find the same kind of childhood patterns and the same kind of childhood experience.
Can I just say one more thing? Because Tami, when you start talking me on this subject, I can keep going for two days, but I'll mention one more thing.
My mother then gives me to a stranger at one year of age. Now, how do I interpret that? I cannot know that she's doing this to save my life, all I'm experiencing is the abandonment. Which means, a) I'm being abandoned, b), I'm not wanted. Now, that sense of abandonment then will show up in my marriage relationship decades later at the slightest instance, number one. Number two, if I'm not wanted and need to compensate for it, one way to compensate is to become a really successful medical doctor where people are going to want me all the time. Now that being wanted, in the deepest sense, is never satisfied by anything externally. Which is why it's addictive—you just keep going for it and going for it. So therefore, now I'm a workaholic doctor and when the beeper goes, when the cellphone goes, and people want me to look after their illness or deliver their child, or take care of the dying person in the family, every time I want it. Therefore, I become a workaholic.
What then, is the impact on my family of a father who is away a lot because he's needing to have his existence validated because his sense of worth was undermined when he was a year old? Nobody's fault in the family—it's just the way it went. So, what I'm saying is that addictions, physical illnesses, mental illnesses, all originate—well all, I say, most of them originate—in coping patterns that people adapt early in life but which then become sources of dysfunction later on.
TS: Now, one more clarifying question that I want to ask. You mentioned about your abandonment and sense of being left, and how that still comes up in your marriage, even now when you're in your 70s, and here you know so much about transformation and healing. You've been exposed to so many techniques and teachers. What does that tell us about the process of growth and transformation? It still comes up? I think sometimes people have unrealistic ideas about what the human journey is going to be like and the level of healing that they're going to have in their life.
GM: Well I think it's Eckhart Tolle, who you also know very well, who said that—I'm paraphrasing here, but that, "Transformation, or enlightenment, for some people is an event, but for most people it's a process." So for him it was an event; he was in the depth of despair and then he woke up a different man the next morning. That's not the say that his work ended there, but he did have a transformation that was almost instantaneous.
(Eckhart Tolle hand in hand with the Dalai Lama...)
Now for me, and for most people I know, it's not an event, it's a process that happens over time. It's [a process] of clarifying and going deeper and deeper and closer and closer to your essence. And that takes time. In fact, I have my epitaph already composed.
TS: Oh, please tell.
GM: Yeah, it's gonna say, "It was a lot more work than I had anticipated." [Tami laughs.] Because you know that process of transformation, for most of us, is work, and it also tells us that it is not an intellectual process. So it doesn't matter how many times I read Adyashanti or read Eckhart or read Almaas or listen to Reginald Ray or any number of great teachers—or the Buddha himself, or Jesus. And it doesn't matter how well I understand intellectually; it has to happen on a deeper level. So, insight and knowledge is helpful and—but as I said in one of my talks, if intellectual knowledge could lead to enlightenment, I would have been enlightened a long time before.
For the complete interview, click here