“Addiction is any repeated behavior, substance related or not, in which a person feels compelled to persist, regardless of its negative impact on his life and the lives of others.”
Substance abuse is rampant in our fast-paced society; 23.5 million Americans use or abuse alcohol and drugs. In today’s analytical and data-driven Western culture, allopathic medicine displays a huge disconnect between body and soul. Over the years, addiction theorists have proposed various different scholarly theories about addiction ranging from behavioral, cognitive, personality, and even moral theories. Much of the scientific research reduces addiction to actions of brain chemicals or nerve circuits or other kinds of neurobiological, psychological, or sociological data. Addiction is a multi-faceted condition and it is impossible to understand addiction from just one perspective.
ATTACHMENT VS. NON-ATTACHMENT
In the book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” written by Dr. Gabor Mate, his major focus is on addiction being a relational and attachment problem rather than a medical problem. He has chosen to focus on the intimate and human struggle of all addicts, concentrating on their dreadful childhoods, the insatiable urge emanating from their destitute souls to fill that deprived sense of self, and the appalling consequences addictions have had on their lives. Dr. Mate’s insights are captivating and heart-wrenching, recounting numerous stories of man’s inhumanity to man to the most vulnerable group of individuals in our society, our children.
Gabor Mate was born in 1944 in the city of Budapest, Hungary. Gabor came from a Jewish family who were survivors of the Holocaust. Gabor’s mother reported that her son cried a lot as an infant. Gabor’s doctor informed her that all Jewish infants cried a lot. Nazis were doing terrible things to the Jews. His mother’s parents perished at Auschwitz when Gabor was five months old, his aunt was missing, and his father was forced to work as a laborer in a Nazi work camp. For the first fifteen months of Gabor’s life, neither parent knew if the other parent was still alive or dead. Gabor’s mother was grieving the loss of her parents and was terrified for her own life and the lives of her family members. Gabor could not have possibly known what was going on intellectually, but, undoubtedly, he sensed and absorbed the fear, stress and sadness of his parents and other relatives and was negatively affected by it.
Gabor’s family lived in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest. By eleven months old, Gabor’s health had deteriorated, and his mother feared for his life. His mother made the decision to smuggle him out to relatives on the outside, not knowing if she would ever see him again. This sudden separation from his mother caused Gabor to shut down emotionally and created a lifelong resistance to receiving love. “People who cannot find or receive love need to find substitutes – and that’s where the addiction comes in.”
In 1956, Gabor’s family emigrated to Canada. Gabor became a physician in 1977 and was in private practice for twenty years. Dr. Mate had a special interest in childhood development and the impact that had on children’s physical and mental health. Eventually, he became the staff physician at the Portland (In Vancouver B.C.) Hotel. The Portland Hotel was a resource center for the people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, notorious as North America’s most concentrated area of drug use. Most of these drug addicts had suffered major trauma and had lived through violence and loss. Besides their addictions, most of them suffered from various other conditions such as auto-immune diseases, cancer, and ADHD, to name a few.
Dr. Mate’s experiences in Vancouver’s downtown district, along with copious amounts of research, established him as a renowned addiction expert. Dr. Mate is the author of several books on trauma, addiction, stress, and childhood development, and is sought after for his expertise on these subjects., According to Dr. Mate, all addictions begin with emotional problems. They can be traced back to childhood trauma and are attempts to soothe the pain. “Addiction is not a choice, “says Dr. Mate. He is a passionate advocate for treating the totality of the human being, mind-body-and soul.
TRAUMA IN ADDICTION
“The question is never, ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’ The research literature is unequivocal: most hard-core substance abusers come from abusive homes. The majority of my skid row patients suffered severe neglect and maltreatment early in life. Almost all of the addicted women inhabiting the Downtown Eastside were sexually assaulted in childhood, as were many of the men. The autobiographical accounts and case files of Portland residents tell stories of pain upon pain: rape, beatings, humiliation, rejection, abandonment, and relentless character assassination. As children they were obliged to witness the violent relationships, self-harming life patterns or suicidal addictions of their parents – and often had to take care of them. Or they had to look after younger siblings and defend them from being abused even as they themselves endured the daily violation of their own bodies and souls.
Dr. Mate tells the story of one Native man, a 36-year old named Carl, who was exiled from one foster home after another. He was disciplined for using foul language when he was five by having dishwashing liquid poured down his throat. To control his hyperactivity, his caregivers tied Carl to a chair in a dark room. As an adult, he gets angry at himself for using cocaine and punishes himself by digging into his foot with a knife. As he confessed his behavior to Dr. Mate, he looked like a terror-stricken street urchin dreading more childhood punishment.
Another patient of Dr. Mate’s told how his mother would go to the bars at night to drink and pick up men. To keep him safe and out of trouble, she would stick him in the dryer. The air vent prevented suffocation.
Chronic substance abusers use drugs and alcohol as an escape from distress. They are self-medicating conditions like depression, anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Addictions serve as emotional anesthetics. Health professionals who minimize addictions as bad habits or self-destructive behavior ignore the fact that addictions always originate with emotional pain.
When an adult is traumatized by war, sexual assault, genocide, or natural disasters, some of the effects are life-long causing flashbacks, PTSD, and poor concentration. “Imagine the shock, loss of faith, and unfathomable despair of the child who is traumatized, not by hated enemies but by loved ones.” The effects of adverse experiences in childhood directly fashion both the psychology and the neurobiology of addictions in the brain.
BRAIN DEVELOPMENT IN CHILDREN
Three environmental conditions are absolute for the best human brain development to occur: physical security, nutrition, and consistent emotional nurturing. In Western society, emotional nurturing is the one most likely to be disrupted, but it is an absolute requirement for neurobiological brain development. The tiny, helpless infant needs to be in an attachment relationship with at least one responsible adult who is psychologically present, protective, available, and reasonably non-stressed. For an infant or toddler, the attachment relationship is the main environmental factor that molds the development of the brain during a time of the brain’s greatest growth.
Attunement is the channel of love by which an infant or toddler knows unequivocally that he is loved. A child, whose parents are inconsistent and erratic about validating their child’s feelings, has a faulty template with which to base his neurological and psychological self-regulation systems. Dr. Mate states that despite the thousands of research papers on the subject of the role of environment in brain development, most medical professionals do not teach this, nor is screening for trauma incorporated into medical protocols for children or adults.
Dr. Mate’s mother has described to her son her state of emotions when he was an infant. After she lost her parents at Auschwitz, she was so depressed that she got out of bed only to tend to him. He spent many hours alone in his crib. His mother loved him, but, because of circumstances beyond her control, she was unable to give him the attunement to his emotional needs that was necessary for his brain to develop in an optimal fashion. His sense of self was very fragmented and incomplete. Further complicating Dr. Gabor’s plight was the separation from his mother when he was less than a year old causing the physiology of his brain to be altered, resulting in a propensity for addiction.
When a parent, because of inner demons or external stressors, is unable to control the emotional atmosphere of a tiny infant, the child does not feel understood, accepted, or mirrored. The child’s brain has to adapt. They do this by tuning out, emotionally closing down, or by learning to use other ways to self-soothe: rocking, eating, thumb-sucking, sleeping or continually looking to sources other than their parents for comfort. “This is the ever-agitated, ever-yawning emptiness that lies at the heart of addiction.” A child whose mother is depressed feels perpetually deprived. Dr. Mate states that a parent’s happiness is the greatest gift you can give a child.
A child’s brain develops in response to the environment.; hence, brain circuits will develop in response to the environmental input. A child’s future capacity for intimate relationships, for connection, for self-regulation, for stress regulation depend entirely upon the development of crucial brain circuits. And these brain circuits depend upon at least one emotionally, consistently available, non-stressed caregiver.
In the initial phases of life, an infant’s brain has many more neurons and connections than necessary. As the child grows, which connections remain depend largely on the information gleaned from the child’s environment. A baby’s early years designate how well the brain structures will develop and how the neurological webs that control human behavior will develop.
By the time a toddler is three years old, his brain has reached 90% of adult size. Infants and toddlers are highly vulnerable to adverse circumstances. Brain development in the uterus and during childhood is the single most important biological factor in determining whether or not a person will be predisposed to substance abuse or addictive behavior.
ADDICTION AS SELF-SOOTHING STRATEGY
Dr. Mate speaks freely in his book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” about his own addiction to his work. The core issue of most addicts is a sense of deficient emptiness and a sense of inadequacy from lack of validation as an infant. The ever-present question is, “Am I enough?” Not thinking of oneself as enough drives an individual to affirm himself through whatever avenue gives him validation. In Dr. Mate’s case, his validation came from work. He sought to fix his splintered sense of self by immersing himself in his profession but by doing so, his relationship with his wife and children suffered.
“The addict is not born but made. His addiction is the result of a situation that he had no influence in creating. His life expresses the history of the multigenerational family system of which he is a part, and his family exists as part of a broader culture and society.” Addicts create other addicts.
Addiction is the culmination of a long series of adverse experiences from childhood on and is not limited to skid row or people who “live on the wrong side of the tracks.” A profile of a child or teenager with emptiness in his soul has experienced and unsuccessful search for a feeling of well-being, he is anxious, he may be doing poorly in school or has already become a dropout. He sees no purpose in life, and his ability to connect with others has been compromised. He may have contemplated suicide. His parents are too busy climbing the corporate ladder to notice his isolation or loneliness. If one day he experiences alcohol or meth or pornography or the high of shoplifting, he has found a temporary way to fill that void, to experience a more relaxed way to connect to people, or to experience a relief from the ever present stress of being who he is. He is hooked.
Imagine the cumulative havoc addiction creates when the addict’s drug or behavior of choice becomes more important than taking care of himself, more important than taking care of one’s family, or in some cases, more important than holding down a job!
How can we as individuals possibly hope to effect change in the huge problem of addiction in America? if, as research indicates, addictions rise out of emotional problems, we can effect a change within ourselves and our circle of family and friends. Our own lack of attachment issues began with parents who were too wounded or stressed to give us what we needed. Our grandparents, most likely, were too wounded and stressed to give our parents the emotional attunement needed. So, we must learn to love ourselves and give our own wounded inner child what we didn’t get as children. It is up to us to break the multi-generational pattern.
I believe my own experience with addiction began in my mother’s womb. As described in the “About Me” article on this website, my dad beat two of my older brothers regularly. I, no doubt, experienced the screaming before I was even born. I was a sensitive child, but for the first six years of my live, I had no self-soothing strategy other than to cry often. The day that I started first grade, my dad was sent away to a hospital that was a four hour’s drive away. In the early 1950’s, it might as well have been the other side of the world. From that day on, food became my emotional nurturance, my reward system, my confidence, my security, and my high, The negative impact has been that I am overweight and have caused my children concern for my health.
In 2018 I discovered Dr. Nelson’s Emotion Code and Body Code system. I became certified in both. I have released trapped emotions regarding my abusive childhood and have noticed that I am much less compulsive about certain foods, namely sugary treats and desserts. I am more in tune with my body’s signals regarding feeling full. I can say no to a second helping and consciously take smaller portions or leave a package of chocolates unopened on my nightstand for months.
In the past year, I have been challenged with putting my house on the market, moving cross-country, and building a home in another state. Throughout all the upheaval, changes in my life and stress of the transition, I have not gained weight. I am changing my relationship with food and my need to self-soothe has decreased significantly. I have not lost weight yet, but I feel confident that will come as I continue to release the trauma that was my childhood. Other benefits I have gained from Body Code work are a greater sense of serenity, a greater feeling of confidence, and I can respond more consistently now instead of reacting.
If you know or suspect that you have an addiction, I urge you to consider Body Code work. Regardless of your self-soothing strategy of choice, and regardless of what other medical, psychological, or social interventions you may need, removing the energetic charge off of the emotions connected to your childhood trauma can only add to your body’s greater energetic balance and sense of inner peace. God’s Blessings To You!”