I recently wrote an article, “Traumatic Masculinity and Violence: Our Moonshot for Mankind Offers Hope to Humanity.” Among other important things I covered in the article, there was a section titled, “Trauma: The Root Cause of Violence and Other Social Ills.” I also discussed a powerful and important new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture by Gabor Maté, MD. He masterfully describes the roots of his own anger and violence as an adult and relates it to the first years of his life in wartime and post-World War II Budapest. The book is one of the most important I’ve read in the last fifty years and I’ve read and written many valuable books. Gabor’s book is special.
I have learned a lot from Gabor over the years since I was first introduced to his work through his best-selling book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. In that book he offers a much more complete understanding of addictions than was known at the time and he recognized that addiction isn’t just about “them” the alcoholic or addicted junkie, it is also about “us,” the so-called normal ones.
In the first part of the book, he offers his insights into the true nature of addiction and describes the real lives of people he has treated. In the second part of the book titled “Physician, Heal Thyself,” he describes his own addictions, seemingly much different and less destructive than those of the addicts he treated, but not so different at their core.
“I have come to see addiction not as a discrete, solid entity—a case of ‘Either you got it or you don’t got it’—but as a subtle and extensive continuum, says Gabor. “Its central, defining qualities are active in all addicts, from the honored workaholic at the apex of society to the impoverished and criminalized crack fiend who haunts skid row. Somewhere along that continuum I locate myself.”
That was certainly my own experience working with addicts and recognizing my own addictive beliefs and behavior. Gabor develops these ideas more fully in his recent book.
Although I enjoy reading long hefty books (Gabor’s book, The Myth of Normal, written with his son Daniel, tops out at 562 pages), not everyone does. I often take notes and write about books I find particularly valuable, both for my own continuing knowledge and also so I can share what I’ve learned with others. I thought I would create a series of articles about trauma and healing based on Gabor’s and my work over the last fifty-plus years. This article is the first part.
My own healing work began in 1965 after I dropped out of medical school. Consciously, becoming a doctor was what I thought would be a noble and well-paying profession. My Jewish parents favored education and having a profession that helped others. Subconsciously, I imagined I would go through medical school, become a psychiatrist, figure out why people like my father suffer, become irritable, angry, depressed, and have “nervous breakdowns.” Even more hidden in my subconscious was the fear that I would turn out like my father, become “crazy” and be committed to a mental hospital.
Medical school was my talisman of protection. If I studied hard, did all the right things, became a doctor, helped others, somehow I could save my father, myself, my children, and all others who suffered from mental and emotional problems I didn’t understand. But I found that medical school focused almost exclusively on the physical body and had little respect for the mind and emotions.
As part of my medical school training I attended an autopsy conducted by a surgeon at the medical center where I was studying and where he was also on the faculty. He talked while he did the dissections about body parts, organs, and disease. He asked me what medical specialty I planned to pursue. I told him I planned to go into psychiatry after I graduated from medical school. He shook his head sadly. “You know what you see when you lift a dog’s tail,” he asked me? I was confused. What did that have to do with anything? I looked blankly and shrugged my shoulders. “The asshole,” he said sharply. “That’s what psychiatry is, the asshole of medicine.” He went back to cutting up the cadaver. Clearly he didn’t see the person he was cutting up as someone with feelings and he didn’t have much respect for the medical specialty I hoped to pursue.
It took me three weeks of medical school to know that it wasn’t the right place for me. I ended up transferring from U.C. San Francisco Medical School to U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Social Welfare. I immediately began building on my undergraduate degrees in biology and psychology and added a greater understanding of the whole person and how our lives are influenced not only by our biology and psychology, but also by our interpersonal relationships and the influence of the larger social forces that impact individuals and families.
By chance I went to a noon lecture about the nature of addictions. It was taught by a number of men and women from a local addictions treatment program and community called Synanon. As they talked about their own stories, family history, and the things that led them to become drug addicts, I came to recognize, like Gabor, that these “recovering addicts” were not that different from me. My drug of choice wasn’t heroin, cocaine, or alcohol, it was sex and romance.
I eventually wrote about these kinds of addictions, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions. In the Introduction I said:
“When we find that our romantic relationships are a series of disappointments yet we continue to pursue them, we are looking for love in all the wrong places. When we are overwhelmed by our physical attraction to a new person, when the chemistry feels fantastic, and we lose ourselves in the fantasy that this time we have found someone who will make us whole, we are looking for love in all the wrong places.”
I quoted Dr. Stanton Peele, an authority on addictions:
“Many of us are addicts, only we don’t know it. We turn to each other out of the same needs that drive some people to drink and others to heroin. Interpersonal addiction—love addiction—is just about the most common yet least recognized addiction we know.”
When Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places was published in 1988, I detailed my belief that the view that most of our love relationships are healthy and only a small number are dysfunctional, was a myth. Millions of us were looking for love in all the wrong places, suffering from addictions we didn’t even recognize we had.
In The Myth of Normal, Gabor recognized we have to break through the myth that health is the norm. He cites a number of facts to support his thesis:
- In the U.S., the richest country in history and the epicenter of the globalized economic system, 60 percent of adults have a chronic disorder such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
- Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, more than half take two.
- In 2019, more than fifty million Americans, over 20 percent of U.S. adults, suffered an episode of depression.
- The arrival of Covid and the escalating climate crisis have caused all these statistics to increase.
- A recent study concluded, “Distress about climate change is associated with young people perceiving that they have no future, that humanity is doomed.” Clearly we are not living in a healthy world and “normal” is not the same as “healthy.”
“I will make the case that much of what passes for normal in our society is neither healthy or natural, and that to meet modern society’s criteria for normality is, in many ways, to conform to requirements that are profoundly abnormal in regard to our Nature-given needs—which is to say, unhealthy and harmful on the physiological, mental, and even spiritual levels.”
In my next installment, we will explore the nature of our toxic culture, as Gabor and I see it, and the ways in which trauma have wounded us all. If you liked this article and would like to read others, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter. You can learn more about Gabor Maté and his work here.
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