Sunday, September 11, 2011

Through the Lens of (My Own) Addiction

We see that substance addictions are only one specific form of blind attachment to harmful ways of being. Yet we condemn the addict’s stubborn refusal to give up something deleterious to his life or to the lives of others. Why do we despise, ostracize, and punish the drug addict when as a social collective we share the same blindness and engage in the same rationalizations?...We despise, ostracize, and punish the addict because we don’t wish to see how much we resemble him. In his dark mirror our own features are unmistakable. We shudder at the recognition. This mirror is not for us, we say to the addict. You are different, and you don’t belong with us.
Gabor Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008)

Misplaced attachment to what cannot satiate the soul is not an error exclusive to addicts but is the common condition of mankind...Our designated 'addicts' march at the head of a long procession from which few of us ever step away.
Gabor Mate

*This post originally appeared on EasyYolk in July 2010.

Although his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts gets its name from the Buddhist concept of real-life hell, Gabor Mate, a Canadian Jew born in post holocaust Budapest, quotes Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount to guide us in our confrontation with the complex world of addiction:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

Mate, a doctor who has worked with drug addicts in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for the past 30 years, believes that his patients tell us much about our culture...and ourselves. With humble transparency that is shockingly rare for someone of his stature, Mate both analyzes the world that creates addicts and his own struggle with compulsive behavior:

My anxiety clothes itself in concerns about body image or financial security, doubts regarding lovability or the ability to love, self-disparagement and existential pessimism about life’s meaning and purpose—-or, on the other hand, it manifests itself as grandiosity, the need to be admired, to be seen as special. At bottom it is nameless and formless. I feel sure it was forged in my chest cavity somewhere between my lungs and heart long before I knew the names of things.

This is a professional doctor and accomplished author who has obviously spent a lot of time practicing self-reflection. He knows that to be human is to be addicted. However, he does not authentically reveal his own shit in order to justify or rationalize destructive and dehumanizing behavior, but instead to bring us all together in solidarity--to acknowledge our universal struggle with enslaving rituals and routines that hold us back from spiritual transformation. He defines addiction as “any relapsing behavior that satisfies a short-term craving and that persists despite its long-term negative consequences.” Thus, we are all implicated:

Addiction cuts large swaths across our culture. Many of us are burdened with compulsive behaviors that harm us and others, behaviors whose toxicity we fail to acknowledge or feel powerless to stop. Many people are addicted to accumulating wealth; for others the compulsive pull is power. Men and women become addicted to consumerism, status, shopping, or fetishized relationships, not to mention the obvious and widespread addictions such as gambling, sex, junk food, and the cult of the ‘young’ body image.

This is Mate's starting point in dealing with the ominous drug problem that plagues North America. We have collectively condemned and scapegoated the drug addict who lives on the streets. Thus, as long as we can see how bad these people have it, we (rest assured) know that we haven't hit rock bottom. And, indeed, Mate points out that the patients he works with are basically stuck in their predicament, mostly due to horrific early childhood years. Neglect, rape & abuse (in various emotional, physical and sexual forms) contribute to serious brain deficiencies that lead to overwhelming fear, anxiety and self-hatred that almost inevitably lead to compulsive behavior:

How much actual freedom to choose does any one human being possess? There’s only one answer: We cannot know. We may have our particular beliefs, spiritual or otherwise, about this aspect of human nature—-about how it is or how it should be. These beliefs may strengthen our commitment to helping others find freedom, or they may become harmful dogma. Either way, in the end we all have to humble ourselves and admit to a degree of uncertainty.

Addicts are made, not born, and every human being has vastly different experiences that make our judgment of them an inhumane route. Mate advocates for what he calls compassionate curiosity, a quest to understand our fellow brothers and sisters, no matter what form of addiction they succomb to. And this quest must be pursued in how we view our own addictions:

Instead of hurling an accusatory brick at your own head (e.g., “I’m so stupid; when will I ever learn?” etc.), the question ‘Why did I do this again, knowing full well the negative consequences?’ can become the subject of a fruitful inquiry, a gentle investigation. Taking off the starched uniform of the interrogator, who is determined to try, convict, and punish, we adopt toward ourselves the attitude of the empathic friend, who simply wants to know what’s going on with us. The acronym COAL has been proposed for this attitude of compassionate curiosity: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. ‘Hmmm. I wonder what drove me to do this again.’

He greatest genius is how he describes each pathetic drug addict and then turns the mirror on to the rest of society. He asks, "What do we see, then, when we look at the drug ghetto of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and similar enclaves in other urban centers?" and then answers:

We see the dirty underside of our economic and social culture, the reverse of the image we would like to cherish of a humane, prosperous, and egalitarian society.

We see our failure to honor family and community life or to protect children.

We see our refusal to grant justice to Native peoples.

We see our vindictiveness toward those who have already suffered more than most of us can imagine.

And this large-scale analysis leads Mate into a war on the War on Drugs, which started in the 80s with Nancy Reagan's "Just say no," by creating scapegoats for a society that was losing the Commies and still at least a decade away from al Qaeda. But the War has not only not worked, but has even exacerbated the issue:

The War on Drugs fails—-and is doomed to perpetual failure—-because it is directed not against the root causes of drug addiction or of the international black market in drugs, but only against some drug producers, traffickers, and users. More fundamentally, the war is doomed because neither the methods of war nor the war metaphor itself is appropriate to a complex social problem that calls for compassion, self-searching insight, and factually researched scientific understanding.

I could conclude this post here with a little transition to Proposition 19, the November 2010 California ballot initiative that advocated the legalization marijuana, but instead I'll go Mate-style and bring it back to me. In the past 18 months, my wife and I have had the great honor to participate in a 12-step style couples recovery group on Sunday nights in Orange County. Two of our couples began the painful journey of wrestling with powerful addictions in Fall 2009 and their "disclosure" has led to the establishment of our little transparent, self-reflective community. They are recovering sex addicts and too many conversations with men about Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner in the past couple years has revealed to me what society thinks of these "dirtbags." But these guys have committed to honestly confronting their past and attend group "meetings" and therapy sessions and share things with friends and family that our American and Evangelical Christian culture has taught us men to matter what. These guys have modeled what it means to truly be a man by embracing honesty and confronting their own demons.

However, I deal with my chronic anxiety in ways that are not labeled "pathological" in the DSV-IV manual, but as Mate reminds us, they, too, are freedom-robbing and dignity-stripping. I'm addicted to approval. I'm a relational prostitute (or commitment concubine), or as psychologist Edwin Friedman would say, a "peace-monger." I'll say "yes" to anything, as long as you admire me in the end! This leads to an exhausting and eventually resentful series of over-commitments. I'm also addicted to lean, muscle-toned, youthful body image (it's the SoCal way) and ambitious, resume-building achievement. I am consistently plagued by financial anxiety and OCD-like routines (Did I lock the car door?) And I sure do love my comforts--like Facebook, good theological reading, dark beer and coffee--to soothe my suburban stress away. Only by the grace of God (and surely nothing more) was I born into a "stable," nurturing home that gave me socio-economic opportunity to experience some freedom in this life. And I have hope that a lifestyle of Jesus' "easy yolk" will redeem me ("bought out of slavery" in the original language) from these old addictions and attachments that have become so much a part of me.


  1. Much of this sounds very similar to a friend of mine, and that is a good and comforting thing. I introduced to him to a book by Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, which addresses how we deal with those on the outskirts of culture and society (i.e. those we put there consciously or not) through social theory, ethnography, and a Christ-centered theology. Excellent read, if you haven't read it already, that is!


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