Reeling In Gabor Maté and Ione Skye to Talk About Addiction

By Amy Dresner 11/02/15

If you've really recovered from your trauma then your addiction should go away, according to Maté.

Reeling In Gabor Maté and Ione Skye to Talk About Addiction
Reel Recovery

“Say Everything—In Conversation with Dr. Gabor Maté and Ione Skye” capped off the final night of the 7th Annual Reel Recovery Film Festival in North Hollywood on Thursday, October 29. Dr. Maté, the renowned but subversive addiction specialist and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts among other books, engaged in a casual back-and-forth chat with actress Ione Sky, most famous for her 1989 film, Say Anything

Maté is a Hungarian Jew with a terrifying intellect and sharp sense of humor. And Skye sweetly offered a number of well-worn recovery slogans throughout the night.

They had an interesting discussion about “ego” which Skye described as, “The impulses that are not connected to virtue and that are driven by fears…the illusions that make me feel upset and take me away from people.”

Maté referenced Eckhart Tolle, saying, “I’m sure you know him. He’s been on Oprah a bunch of times.” The audience chuckled. He went on to explain that Tolle, who had been in a suicidal depression, had a “transformative experience that we’d all pay to have but you can’t.” He added that he’s not sure how Tolle can continue this egolessness with the commercial enterprise that’s growing up around him. I think I let out an audible “ooh” and got elbowed in the ribs by my date.

Maté’s general take on ego was involved. He said, “The ego is a defense mechanism against childhood pain, unbearable pain. It always feels hurt, wants power and approval, capable of using other people to get what we need…in other words, Donald Trump.” He explained that the ego is what we build to replace our connection to ourself (which is lost through trauma). “Whenever we are upset, ego has taken over,” he said. 

“Yes,” Skye added, “Ego is inconvenient for my essence.”

Maté leads retreats with ayahuasca and jokes that when he’s “on the plant” he really feels like he’s learned something, that he’s enlightened. But then the ego immediately jumps in and wants to identify with it and take possession of it à la, “I’ve got this now," Maté explains. He recalled coming back from one of his retreats, feeling all enlightened and then his wife picked him up at the airport. She was sporting this new haircut that he didn’t like and he flipped out. “Relationships are the big teacher,” he concluded. Skye agreed, saying her husband and her kids are hugely instrumental in her evolution.

On the topic of ego, Maté asked Skye “What was it like getting attention from men for being beautiful when it’s not authentic? I mean it’s not really about you. It’s just a random physical configuration, a gift of lottery.”

Skye answered, “I knew I was pretty but I never felt like one of those ‘sexy girls’. I definitely used it for validation and I was very attached to the way I looked but I always wanted to be bright and funny. I didn’t feel enough. I always felt like I had to charm a man.”

Maté is an avid proponent of harm reduction, which he explained is difficult for many 12 steppers to wrap their head around or condone as the 12-step program is all about abstinence, seeing harm reduction as supporting addiction. “But what about people who aren’t ready to get sober? 12 step tends to be quite critical…I don’t believe one size fits all.” Fundamentalist AA under the gun! I love it.

Maté proposes that if we really believe that resuscitating addicts who have overdosed is a bad idea, (because it supposedly supports addiction) then we shouldn’t resuscitate or practice harm reduction medically—at all. “So then don’t give quadruple bypass surgery to the stressed-out, fat, smoker, type-A workaholic. Don’t give people insulin who are diabetic.” Those, he points out, are also lifestyle-induced illnesses and we shouldn’t just be medically prejudiced against addicts. 

Anybody familiar with Maté’s work knows that he does not believe addiction is a disease although he believes it has features of a disease. He believes it is an attempt to solve the problem and that problem is trauma. “If you could truly recover, find joy in life that was blocked by trauma, get to the source of pain—that loss of self—then the addiction would go away.” On the surface, this goes against 12-step ideology but doesn’t the program posit that “the drinking wasn’t the problem, it was the solution”? That “our thinking was the problem.” In AA, we espouse that our thinking is innately diseased but Maté is suggesting that it’s all been warped and distorted by trauma. 

Maté added that he has never met an addict that has not had trauma, nor has he met a female addict who has not been sexually abused. Again, off the bat this idea is completely anathema to 12 steppers who feel that they were “born this way” and that “nothing made me an alcoholic." To this, he offered a “3-minute happy childhood challenge.”—“Anybody who is convinced they had a happy childhood, come up here and I will deconstruct that idea in 3 minutes.” There were no takers.

At one point, Maté asked the audience what they got from their addiction and what was offered up was “relief from pain,” “took me out of myself,” “relief from anxiety,” and “exhilaration.”  

“All normal human aspirations,” he answered.

Maté is not against the 12 steps. He likes that they “recognize the ego’s futility of omnipotence,” as well as their emphasis on spirituality, moral inventory and amends. “Imagine if every politician did the 12 steps?” he said. “I just wish 12 step was more aware of trauma…They just think they have a ‘disease.' When you talk about ‘recovery’ what do you find? You find your true self,” Maté told the audience.

He believes it is our true self that we have disconnected from due to childhood trauma and I gotta say, I don’t know that I disagree. In 12 step, we work on our character defects which are really coping mechanisms that either got out of control or ceased to serve us. It all seems like the same thing: returning to our core, peeling off the dysfunctional armor.  

Maté disagrees that the principle of “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” is universally true for everybody. Saying that, he also urged audience members if they had any suspicion that they would be out of control if they touched a substance, then of course, to stay away. But he added, “If you’re really recovered from your trauma, you don’t need to do heroin.” Good point.

At that point Skye, confided her “moment of clarity”. She had lost her first husband to her drinking, having become in her own words “somebody impossible to be in a relationship with”. “I was leaving a party,” she said. “I’d been drinking but I wasn’t drunk. I hadn’t done any drugs. It was nothing extreme. It was just this random moment when I thought, ‘I have to stop’. It was my first spiritual experience.”

One audience member asked how Maté felt about patients who were kicked out of treatment if they relapsed. Maté explained that if the treatment centers truly believe addiction is a disease, then why would they punish people for a relapse? If it’s a disease, why do they treat it as a behavioral disorder? Maté said, “If you’re a doctor and somebody has a relapse of rheumatoid arthritis, do you throw them out of your office?”

I left the event quite impressed with the good doctor. Honestly, I prefer the idea that I have a treatable condition, some form of trauma-induced maladjustment rather than a life sentence, an illness that I have to wrangle and manage forever like my epilepsy. And not because I want to try to shoot coke like a lady but because I’m trying to drop the story of being fundamentally and eternally damaged. But judging from my still voracious nicotine, caffeine and love addictions, I am not even close to being healed yet. At this time, I will stick to erring on the side of caution. But Maté has given us all a lot to think about. And if he’s having success treating addiction, we should embrace him. We need all the wins we can get.

Amy Dresner is a columnist for The Fix.

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