What’s your attitude towards drug addicts? Or towards people who suffer with one or more of the many other addictions prevalent in our culture (e.g. sex, food, $$, etc…)?

I recently finished reading Gabor Maté’s book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. What I thought was to be an informative book on the many facets of drug addiction from one of the leading experts (and it was!), ended up also being a challenging commentary on all humans and our shared propensity to find solace from many of life’s pains and sorrows. It is in the search for such solace that addiction is found - a search we are all on in one way or another. Using his experience as a doctor working with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Maté traces the complexity of addictions, examining the dynamic social, personal, spiritual, and biological factors that lead to various forms of addiction.

A major implication of Maté’s work is that addiction is not just about about “them” (“them” being drug addicts or those marginalized in places like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside). Society too often dehumanizes drug addicts, marginalizing them without recognizing the common humanity we all share, but which drug addicts so visibly express. Maté describes “a culture that projects its darkest features onto the addict and makes addicted people into scapegoats for its shortcomings.” The result is a culture of exclusion, to which Maté offers a pointed challenge: “The fundamental question is whether or not we recognize those people as human beings who are legitimately part of the social fabric deserving compassion and respect.”

Oftentimes a response to drug addiction focuses only on the behavior of the addicts themselves. How do you overcome addiction? Stop doing drugs! Such a simplistic approach ignores the need for social support so crucial to overcoming harmful addictions. As Maté summarizes, “we keep trying to change people’s behaviours without a full understanding of how and why those behaviors arise.” Any attempt at such understanding requires an engaged relationship, actually knowing “them” not as problems, but friends. Addressing addiction means addressing ourselves.

"If we want to help people seek the possibility of transformation within themselves, we first have to transform our own view of our relationship to them."


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