For eight years I lived on the West Coast of Canada in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Vancouver. This exquisitely lush and green British Columbian city is the epitome of first world wealth, vibrancy, growth and opportunity. A mecca for the outdoorsy types where you can mountain bike, sail, windsurf, and hike in the one day! Cherry blossomed lined streets teaming with independent coffee shops, yoga studios, juice bars, and every other type of wellness-fix you could every imagine. Sounds like heaven on earth-right? For some it certainly is but sadly there’s another side to Vancouver; the Downtown Eastside also known as the DTES. The Downtown Eastside is a neighborhood or area of of about a five blocks located in Vancouver’s downtown central business district. It’s a neighborhood which can only be described as apocalyptic at best.
In fact, Dr. Gabor Maté, a well known addiction specialist, physician and author has described the DTES as one of the world’s ground zeros for addiction, where there are literally thousands of people lying around injecting, inhaling and ingesting drugs of all types and paying for it dearly. Contrary to what many of us believe, in one of his many Vlogs about addiction, (see below), Maté describes addiction as something which is not a choice that anyone makes, nor a moral failure. He believes that it is not an ethical lapse, a weakness of character or a failure of will.
Maté who himself is a physician, rejects the idea that addiction is an inherited brain disease and describes it as a response to human suffering. Suffering as a result of severe trauma, mostly stemming from childhood – trauma of any type including; sexual, physical and emotional. Maté points out that this isn’t just something that he has come to realize from his years working in the DTES as the staff physician at Portland Hotel (a residence and resource center located in downtown Vancouver) but that more and more scientific literature and research shows that rather than being classified as a disease or a choice, addiction is an attempt to escape suffering.
Perhaps the approach used to deal with addiction in many cases has been wrong, due to misconception and misunderstandings around addiction. Rather than trying to deal with symptom control, perhaps there should be a much greater emphasis on helping people to understand and heal from their trauma. As things stand today, we see addicts as desperate. People who are desperate for drugs or whatever other substance they are addicted to whether it be food, alcohol, exercise, social media, pornography, shopping, gambling or whatever else…. But we never look at what is behind that desperation and what is driving it. In western society, addiction is something that is looked at and approached as something. that can be “cured”.
Generally in society we see the medical professionals as the experts, the “all knowing” ones who have the answers and that they will “cure” the ones with the disease (i.e. addiction issues). This is the approach that has been and is sadly still being used according to Maté. He believes that if we continue to approach addiction like this and use this western medical model approach, then there will likely never be a “cure” for addiction. However if we can possibly help people to heal from their trauma and lessen their need to escape into addiction, then “curing” people is possible. Tragically though, the conditions within which this would have to happen, the conditions where addicts can begin to heal from their trauma are socially, legally and from a medical perspective not likely to happen in the vast majority of places in the world. This is because addiction recovery is, in Maté’s opinion, being approached from the wrong direction and the wrong perspective.