War On Mom

by lizard

I was up with Chris this morning, and it was delightful to see him nail Mitt Romney. This sanctimonious flip-flopping prick (who I still may vote for) has suddenly realized raising kids is work.

As Chris pointed out this morning, just four months ago, that scheming chameleon of a candidate was singing a different tune:

Back then, in the distant past of last January, Mitt was celebrating how the nanny state he lead compelled women to leave their young children to get their government assistance. You know, for dignity.

But now that his nanny supported wife gets to benefit from the tone-deaf “unforced error” of Hilary Rosen, Mitt is all about acknowledging that stay-at-home moms staying home constitutes “work”.

Instead of dwelling on this political flavor of the week spectacle, I’d like to take a step back and look at the larger consequences of what happens when newborns don’t get what they need in the first years of life outside the womb.

The work of Dr. Gabor Maté, specifically the work he’s done with addiction, which informed the book In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts, puts forth the not-very-surprising assertion that addiction has neurological roots that reach back to early childhood development.

Before we get to an excerpt from the introduction of Dr. Maté’s book, I would like to dwell for a few more moments on this mutation from A WAR ON WOMEN to A WAR ON MOMMY, via Romney.

There are possibly some class dynamics wrapped up in Mitt’s latest flip, so maybe it should be stated that having money does not automatically make you a good Mom, and not having money automatically make you a bad Mom—the kind of Mom who may need to pee in a cup if she wants state assistance.

That said, Dr. Maté:


The mandala, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, revolves through six realms. Each realm is populated by characters representing aspects of human existence—our various ways of being. In the Beast Realm we are driven by basic survival instincts and appetites such as physical hunger and sexuality, what Freud called the Id. The denizens of the Hell Realm are trapped in states of unbearable rage and anxiety. In the God Realm we transcend our troubles and our egos through sensual, aesthetic or religious experience, but only temporarily and in ignorance of spiritual truth. Even this enviable state is tinged with loss and suffering.

The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.

Some people dwell much of their lives in one realm or another. Many of us move back and forth between them, perhaps through all of them in the course of a single day.

My medical work with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has given me a unique opportunity to know human beings who spend almost all their time as hungry ghosts. It’s their attempt, I believe, to escape the Hell Realm of overwhelming fear, rage and despair. The painful longing in their hearts reflects something of the emptiness that may also be experienced by people with apparently happier lives. Those whom we dismiss as “junkies” are not creatures from a different world, only men and women mired at the extreme end of a continuum on which, here or there, all of us might well locate ourselves. I can personally attest to that. “You slink around your life with a hungry look,” someone close once said to me. Facing the harmful compulsions of my patients, I have had to encounter my own.

No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side. I believe there is one addiction process, whether it is manifested in the lethal substance dependencies of my Downtown Eastside patients; the frantic self-soothing of overeaters or shopaholics; the obsessions of gamblers, sexaholics and compulsive Internet users; or the socially acceptable and even admired behaviours of the workaholic. Drug addicts are often dismissed and discounted as unworthy of empathy and respect. In telling their stories my intent is twofold: to help their voices to be heard and to shed light on the origins and nature of their ill-fated struggle to overcome suffering through substance abuse. They have much in common with the society that ostracizes them. If they seem to have chosen a path to nowhere, they still have much to teach the rest of us. In the dark mirror of their lives, we can trace outlines of our own.

  1. JC

    Dr. Gabor Maté’s work is essential for people to understand the roots of addiction, mental illness, and the resulting homelessness that those populations succumb to.

    Of course, conservatives will rail at anybody who says anything other than the same old moral argument against people who are unable to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. So I don’t expect them to hear or respond to Maté’s work.

    For those who haven’t heard, or don’t want to hear, one of Maté’s points is that “capitalism is the problem”. That is to say that the evolution of our economic system away from one that promotes an ideal family environment for the proper growth of children from conception to 3 years old is the primary culprit in the burgeoning problems of addiction, mental illness and homelessness. And that the war on drugs (actually mostly poor drug users) contributes to our society’s problems instead of alleviates them.

    For those who might want to hear a great talk by Dr. Gabor Maté’s about the connection between capitalism and addiction, mental illness and homelessness:

    Capitalism Makes us Crazy

  2. dbudge55

    “Of course, conservatives will rail at anybody who says anything other than the same old moral argument against people who are unable to pick themselves up by the bootstraps.”

    That’s a broad enough brush that I’m compelled to call “bullshit.”

  3. dbudge55

    No, I don’t and I also think that, besides that comment being shallow, you probably are as uninformed on what conservatives intellectuals have to say about poverty as what most conservatives know about intellectual liberals. But it just rubs me that the caricatures of the opposition are little but caricatures amplified by philosophical partisans.

    I mean, really, have you read what Russell Kirk said about the power of culture and it’s implications to societal mores? Have you paid any attention to what conservatives have said about the failure of institutions, rather than the failure of individuals, in populations trapped in poverty. Have you read the arguments of how, any why, our educational system fails, not just the country, but the poor specifically as advanced by “conservatives” like Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam? (both of whom, BTW have a deep affection for the intellectual writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.)

    Excuse my terseness, but comments like that are just so fucking mundane and banal that one cannot take them seriously.

    Now, JC, that said, we’ve have enough banter over the years that I have a great deal of respect for your opinions. But I also think that you, like most, have spent too much time reading things that reinforce your political preferences and you neglect working on understanding your “others” ideas in good faith.

    I’ll take your word that there is something valuable in Maté’s work and do some study.

    • JC

      I accept your criticism of my comment being flippant, but that’s not the point of either this post, or what I’m getting at.

      Maté’s writings are neither political nor philosophical. They are based on a lifetime’s work with disadvantaged peoples, and he works in a huge body of research to tie together his ideas with his own experience, and the experience of his clients.

      I bristle because I know first-hand that those people who are (or have been active) addicts and mentally ill are those who suffer the brunt of society’s moralistic and ideological misunderstandings and abuse–whether it comes from conservative or liberal underpinnings.

      Maté’s work pins down one of the major reasons for the burgeoning homeless populations because their mental illness and addictions can be traced back to events that occurred (or didn’t occur) during critical phases of childhood development, and resulting aberrations in brain development.

      He goes on to speak to this in a social and political sense, as he has become compelled to be an activist for those whom he sees as being oppressed by the same society that has created conditions for mental illness and addiction to explode.

      And then he asserts that because if addiction and mental illness are societal problems, and not just genetic aberrations, we are morally obligated as a society and a country to provide the necessary environment for these people to heal, and to change the basic parameters of our social contracts so that childhood development takes on the highest priority in our families and in our businesses, communities and politics.

      I know that you intuitively know this through your experiences. But for some people, seeing it in black and white goes contrary to the ideological underpinnings of many outspoken conservatives and the likes of right-wing child rearing guru James Dobson.

      So yes, addiction and mental illness are moral problems. But the moral problem is with our society, our economic structure that works against a positive child development environment, and with our politics–liberal or conservative–that perpetuates a system that abuses our children to the point that they become susceptible to addiction and mental illness.

      The fact that Maté takes it one step further and castigates capitalism in no way undermines his basic premise of the role of childhood developmental problems in the rise of disease and resulting homelessness.

  4. dbudge55

    I’m reading him right now. I’ll have a critcal review soon.I agree with much of what he says but I question much as well.

  5. dbudge55

    OK, I’ve done enough of a cursory review to not be completely speaking out of my ass about Maté. Here are some quite general observations:

    I agree with him entirely (as I think you know) on the undeniability that the war-on-drugs is an abject failure. I’d like to note to you, however (insofar as I’m unwilling to let you off the hook for your cliched remarks of conservatism) that the pages of National Review have been calling for an end to the legal drug crusade for nearly three decades now. In fact recently, Reihan Salam (as supported by Cato Institute data) noted that the high proportion of blacks convicted in drug crimes – as compared to whites – creates a permanent underclass of felons who post conviction will be locked out of many jobs for which they otherwise might be qualified. Ergo, the high levels of both black poverty and black male unemployment are, to a great extent, caused by (as I mentioned above) an institutional failure.

    I agree in part with Maté’ on the causal relationship between stress and substance abuse (and perhaps to other diseases) but I have to question some of his base-line assumptions.about cause & effect. I say this this with the fact that I have not read the data for the California studies from which he makes many observations. Thus, one should clearly note that I could be wrong. But from his writings it is apparent that that the inference of causation and correlation approaches what Hayek called “scientism” or “the pretense of knowledge.” It seems to me that the medical community is just beginning to study addiction and mental illness and has much less understanding of it than they’re willing to admit. By Maté’s own admission, the 95% recidivism rate of his patients is testament enough that medicine in general or him in particular have few real understanding of solutions.

    There are several parts of the audio that you pointed us to that I also find quite unconvincing. For example, he represented that the best culture for raising a child was in hunter-gatherer cultures. That may be true as far as it goes. But he avoids – as far as I can tell – the trade-off of morbidity and mortality suffered by non-modern economies to industrialized societies. He also, while he dies poke fun at Communists, ignores the high alcoholism rates in socialized economies even though a great deal of the “economic uncertainty” has been removed on which he blames many of the ills of Western Society.

    Which brings us to the question of “what to do?” I almost get the feeling – and perhaps wrongly – that Maté’ thinks we would be healthier in a per-industrialized state. His conclusion that the consumer culture causes stress – and hence illness – seems to me subject to include a great deal of conjecture. I think it’s also important to see the what economists would call “the fallacy of composition”. By that I mean, that he asserts that addiction and alcoholism are on the rise. I suspect that the data are inconclusive since records going back further than about 70 years are largely anecdotal.That, and the stigma of addiction may have caused a significant under-reporting of abuse in the past (It always makes me wonder if specific diseases are actually on the rise or are we simply tracking them better.) For example, before it was understood that water could be purified for drinking most of western society quenched their hydration needs with beer. Sociologist often talk about the high levels of drunkenness from roughly the 12th century through the 17th. So I pose the question: since the advent of the industrial revolution has the scope and intensity of substance abuse increased or decreased? And if we conclude that it has increase (which I don’t) is that more of a reflection of greater wealth enabling more societal substance abuse leisure or a reaction to “economic stress.” Maté’ has a long way to go to convince me that he knows.

    Now, the biggest problem I have is his almost blanket assertion that addiction is not the “fault” of the addicted. Now, before you go off on me, I do think that sometimes it’s not the fault of the addicted. But sometimes I think it is. My own experience tell me that my addictions are more a result of choice than environmental conditions. I was raised in a middle to upper-middle class family with a stay-at-home mother and significant time spent with both parents. I was neither abused nor neglected or did my parents display any signs of high-stress. So what explains my near 30 years of addiction? Perhaps it can be attributed to Maté’s notion that consumer culture has deadened our sensory needs so much that we need increased levels of stimulus. I’m skeptical of that in my case, however. I have, as far back as I can remember, had an appreciation of what the French call “the little happinesses” and have never been significantly materialistic. I’ve come to the conclusion that my addiction is simply a matter of hedonism. I liked being high. Not to bury any pain but because it was simple enjoyment of feeling the transition from a normal to altered state. Could it be a disease? Maybe? Could it be a simple choice? Maybe.

    My final impression of Maté’ is that he’s both serious and should be taken seriously. And while I question some of his conclusion I think the dialogue is fundamentally important even though his conclusion are a long way from being dispositive. And his conclusion, which seems to have affected the left-leaning community as a valid criticism of capitalism deserve deeper inquiry. That said, I think if we look at the economics at a macro level we’ll see much more evidence that capitalism has had a net positive impact on both well-being and happiness in the world. It’s one thing to be stressed by not being able to pay the rent when there are substantial social safety nets available to the general population than the real stress of starvation facing a few billion people who live on less that $2/day. Thus, I find the headline “Capitalism Makes Us Crazy to be shallow and simple bias confirmation for the egalitarian set.

    Now, back to your perceived opinions about “conservatives” and specifically about the likes of James Dobson and his ilk. First, I think you overestimate their influence. Having spent a great deal of time with conservatives I have know few real social conservatives. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have influence. Sure he does. But has such influence had a great affect on policy. Not so much. Secondly, regardless of how judgmental social conservatism comes off does not some of their message have grounding in truth? Is society better off with an increasing rate of single parenthood. Should people be unconcerned with their ability to provide both emotionally and financially for having children? Some of what Maté’ says actually supports what Dobson, et al have to say about the role of parenting? Do liberals propose that having multiple children without the resources to raise them deserves no criticism and is up to the greater society to support those choices? I hardly think so.

    By no means am I a social conservative and I hold out that they have net negative influence on the body politic. Many, if not most, of their issues they raise belong in the realm of society and not politics and I have little patience for their infecting the national dialogue with them. However. even a broken clock is right twice a day. We’re all better served by actually studying what our intellectual opponents are saying than simply restating what our intellectual companions say they are saying. The only certainty we should have in life (besides death and taxes) is our ability to be wrong.

    Do I know what’s to be done? No. But I’m not convinced that anyone else does either. We just have to keep looking.

    I probably should have blogged about this at my own site. Thanks for the use of your digital real estate.

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