Addictions - Part 2

Last time we discussed research showing that the more adversities a child experiences, the greater the chances of having an addiction as an adult.

Gabor Mate, physician and criminologist in Vancouver treating drug addicts, places great importance on attunement between parent/carer and child, where the adult communicates to the child that their feeling is understood, and thereby eases their emotional pain.

Normally, parents/carers tune in to their kids. “When we see a baby crying, what do we do? We make a sad face and we say, 'Oooh,' indicating that 'we are attuned with you, we get it, we are with you'.”

But parents/carers who have their own troubles may find it harder to be attuned to their child’s emotional state.

“Parents who are depressed, parents who are stressed because of marital stress, economic stress, or racial historical stress such as the First Nations people in Canada, or the Aboriginal people of Australia…and these aboriginal peoples, by the way, had wonderfully attuned parenting practices traditionally, but under conditions of oppression and economic stress and deprivation, when the parents are stressed, they can't be attuned with their kids. That means that these populations, the more dislocation there was, the more historical stress there was, you are going to get a much higher rates of addiction, which is precisely what we see.”

Mate sees the stressed parent/carer as one who still wants the best for their children but finds being emotionally available to their them much more difficult. He treats his clients compassionately, reserving tough judgment for those who shame and blame them. 

“The only difference between myself and my [drug-addicted] clients in the Downtown Eastside is they suffered more than I did, hence their desperation for soothing and pain relief was greater than mine. So first of all we have to see them not as others but as ourselves, and to recognise that our judgements of them are simply our refusal to deal with certain parts of ourselves that are too uncomfortable and painful for us to look at.”

In his work with people who have drug addictions, the first question Mate asks himself is not ‘why the addiction?’ but ‘why the pain?’

“It turns out that the same part of the brain that experiences the suffering of physical pain also interprets the suffering of emotional pain. In fact, all the drugs serve a painkilling capacity. Cocaine is a local anaesthetic, it is used that way in medicine. Alcohol is an analgesic. Cannabis is an analgesic, it's used that way in medicine. And so not just the drugs, by the way, but all the behaviours of addiction, whether it's to sex, shopping, food, the internet, gambling, work, whatever it happens to be, they distract you from your emotional pain and discomfort.”

Many adversities are not preventable. But we can all be better attuned to people, of any age. And we can address our past pains and hurts more constructively.

Reference: All in the Mind (ABC Radio National): The Addicted Mind, 23 August 2015

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Martin Graham
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