Gabor Maté: Go ahead, blame your youth

Gabor Mate has had an unusual life. Long before he became ubiquitous as a medic maverick – and a darling of the podcast circuit — Maté moved to Canada with his Holocaust survivor parents in 1956 and later worked as an addiction specialist in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for more than a decade. In recent years, the 78-year-old Mate‘s seminal work linking trauma and illness has become known worldwide – and has made him a belated literary juggernaut.

In his latest bestseller The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Disease, and Healing in a Toxic Culture— co-written with his playwright son Daniel — Maté sets out to show just how unhealthy the West’s medical system, and even its pop-cultural pursuits, really are. Canadians have spent the past two years trying to return to a pre-pandemic state, a state many believe is not only possible but worth returning to. Mate insists they are wrong. Here he shares his thoughts on our hurt world, Canada’s hurt politics and the true meaning of trauma.

This obsession with “returning to normal” has been a constant since the beginning of the pandemic. What does “normal” actually mean?

In medicine, normal has a specific meaning. There is a normal blood pressure range above which we cannot live…
if it’s too low we die, and if it’s too high we die. In this specific context, normal equals natural and healthy. Part of what I mean by the myth of normal is that we assume that the conditions of the wider society are healthy simply because we are used to them, even if they are not healthy at all. When people get sick, their illnesses can sometimes be normal responses to abnormal conditions.

People seem much more willing to talk about trauma these days, especially on social media. Do you think that has led to a better understanding of what trauma actually is?

As with so many other aspects of Western culture, the understanding is there, but on a very superficial level. We use the word “trauma” quite often, but often inappropriately, such as “I had a fight with my partner and I was traumatized” or “I saw a movie and it was traumatic.” No. It was just sad or painful. On the other hand, we fail to see how ubiquitous and profoundly profound trauma is in the grand scheme of things.

We clarified what trauma is not. So what is it?

The term itself comes from a Greek word for ‘wound’. What is the nature of a wound? First of all, if you touch one, it’s real hurts. Wounds can be physical, but in this context we are talking about psychological. These kinds of injuries eventually lead to a disconnect from yourself.

How has this manifested itself in your own life?

I remember coming home from a speaking trip and my wife wasn’t at the airport to pick me up. That triggered in me a deep embodied memory of my mother giving me to a stranger when I was 11 months old. Suddenly this pain of abandonment reared its ugly head. People who are traumatized tend to be stuck in very childish reactions. So I reacted to my wife like I was an 11 month old baby.

Everywhere you see trauma, as the cause of many social problems.

In the scientific literature it is clear that trauma contribute to physical ailments. A Canadian study found that men who were sexually abused as children are three times more likely to have heart attacks – and not because they smoke or drink. In this country, about half of the women in prison are indigenous, even though indigenous people make up only 5 percent of the population. There is an epidemic of children with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Trauma also shows up in people’s hatred. So yes, from my perspective, it’s everywhere.

You practiced medicine in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for over a decade. What did you see there?

Addictions were my job for 12 years – everyone there was severely traumatized and without shelter. The average healthcare provider has no idea about that.

We seem to be in a particularly divisive political moment – I am thinking in particular of the convoy in Ottawa last January. The old rules of politeness seem to have slipped away. Is that also trauma related?
It’s fashionable to pass off those truckers as yahoos, but they were right. I’m not talking about their tactics. That situation could have been resolved in a more peaceful manner. I mean, did they have a reason to feel sad? Their anger wasn’t just because they were die-hard right-wing lunatics.

What do you think of the public reaction to that incident?

It’s easy for people living comfortably in the middle class to overlook the fears of people living closer to the edge. The fact that we can’t see each other’s humanity is an expression of social trauma to me. It is also a cause of it.

Western countries are proud of their healthcare systems. It seems that Canada is collapsing. What do you think of the current crisis?

There is nothing current about it. The system has been underfunded for decades. COVID was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The health workers themselves are, of course, stressed and often traumatized individuals.

Were you?

When I was a workaholic doctor, that behavior was driven by my trauma. No one in medical school ever taught me that.

Didn’t the rigors of medical school make all that stress worse?

If you even indicate that you are stressed by the harshness of the medical training, you will be considered a wimp. I often think of the past colleague of mine. She was an obstetrician. One night, four babies died on her shift, and she was told to suck it up and go back to work.

Can anything be done to make things a little easier for aspiring doctors? We need as many as we can get.

What if we introduced an understanding of the mind-body unity into medical training? And what if we were also compassionate towards healthcare workers, instead of imposing bureaucratic demands and impossible routine working conditions on them? What if we introduced self-care as part of their training? These things are not conceptually difficult or expensive, but they would change things.

You obviously spent a lot of time with your son, Daniel, when you wrote the book with him. How was that?

Daniel was indispensable. I needed his skill with words to help me articulate some of my ideas. But it was difficult at times. Some personal things were activated. It was a growth experience for both of us.

What did you learn about your own health during the writing process?

At one point I got really anxious and my blood pressure started to rise. I was actually measuring it. It reached a range where if it had stayed there I would have needed drugs.

What was that about?

I identified with the book so much that if the writing didn’t go well, I believed it reflected something about me as a person—that if I didn’t finish the book, there was something wrong with me. If the book fails, l would have been a failure.

Sure, you of all people can talk yourself through that.

I was still quite capable of stressing myself out by over-identifying with that one activity. Once I realized that, my blood pressure dropped. I’ve learned not only to talk about things, but to embody them. For the sake of my own health.

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