In an extended interview, acclaimed physician and author Dr. Gabor Maté discusses his new book, just out, called “The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture.” “The very values of a society are traumatizing for a lot of people,” says Maté, who argues in his book that “psychological trauma, woundedness, underlies much of what we call disease.” He says healing requires a reconnection between the mind and the body, which can be achieved through cultivating a sense of community, meaning, belonging and purpose. Maté also discusses how the healthcare system has harmfully promoted the “mechanization of birth,” how the lack of social services for parents has led to “a massive abandonment of infants,” and how capitalism has fueled addiction and the rise of youth suicide rates.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Today we spend the hour with Dr. Gabor Maté, the acclaimed Canadian physician and author. He’s just out with a new book, The Myth of Normal – Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Cultural Culture. Dr. Maté has worked for decades in Vancouver as a family physician, palliative care director, addiction clinician and observer of human health. Dr. Maté’s work has long focused on the centrality of early childhood experiences to the development of the brain, and how those experiences can impact everything from behavioral patterns to physical and mental illness. Over the years, he’s written a number of best-selling books, including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – Close Encounters with Addiction, When the Body Says “No”: Exploring the Stress-Disease LinkAnd Scattered minds: The Origins and Healing Of Attention Deficit Syndrome.
In a moment, we’ll speak to Dr. Gabor Maté, but first I want to turn to a trailer of a documentary about his work titled The Wisdom of Trauma.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:Half of Americans live in the United States, the richest country in history. Young people are experiencing increased anxiety. Asthma, autoimmune diseases, and addictions are on the rise. Depression is on the rise. Youth suicide is on an upward trend. It is not all bad.
JAMES:I began taking heroin at 26. That’s what really destroyed me. It takes away the pain.
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s easy to want to want to escape reality completely instead of coping with it.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:The question is: Are we human beings living in the midst civilization? Because civilization requires that we deny our human needs.
ANNOUNCER: Please welcome Dr. Gabor Maté.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:Every human being is a part of a true, authentic, and authentic self. Trauma is the disconnection from this self, and healing is its reconnection.
Why do we become disconnected from each other? Because it’s too painful to be ourselves.
RUSSELL BRAND:* So, you’re sort of a bit like in The Matrix when Neo sees everything’s made out of numbers. When you look at people, all of their trauma and damage is visible.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: That’s what I see.
Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens within you as a result.
Tell me what you want. What is your current thought?
DR. GABOR MATÉ:We are grateful.
ALICIA:My father would spank us and give us a belt.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:Who would you confide in about your pain?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yeah, that’s the trauma. Also, you were totally alone by the age of five.
People are more isolated and lonely now than they were in the past. It causes inflammation and suppresses immunity.
You’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
TIM McCARTHY: Correct.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:My view is that cancer patients have difficulty expressing healthy anger.
RUSSELL BRAND:Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton They were two traumatized individuals trying to govern a world that was traumatized.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: That’s exactly what I’m saying. These are the people we reward with power.
Schools are filled with students with learning difficulties and mental health issues that are trauma-based. Yet, the average teacher does not give a single lecture on trauma.
We need trauma-informed medical treatment and trauma-informed education. A trauma-informed society would make society more compassionate.
JOEY CARTER:You did. Your efforts made a huge difference in my life.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:We are touched.
TESSA ROSE: I don’t feel like I’m a bad person anymore.
Hey! How are you?
DUANE:How are you doing?
DR. GABOR MATÉ:Yes, I want people to see truth. Solutions arise out of people when they confront themselves with the truth, when they’re not afraid of the truth.
TIM McCARTHY:The most important thing I have learned from this healing journey is how to be human.
AMY GOODMAN:Trailer for the film The Wisdom of Trauma, featuring Dr. Gabor Maté, who is our guest for the hour. He’s just written a new book with his son Daniel titled The Myth of Normal – Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Cultural Culture. Dr. Maté will be appearing tonight in New York City at the 92nd Street Y. Thursday Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to Gabor Maté. I began by asking him questions about the pandemic as well as the book title. The Myth of Normal.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:The pandemic revealed how toxic our notion of normal was, and it also showed us the desperate need to connect with others. This is in an environment that has long been atomizing and isolating individuals, and where loneliness is a growing epidemic for decades. It highlighted the noxious effects of racism, inequality, and the fact that the people most at risk were the most vulnerable to being affected by. COVIDThese were people of lower socioeconomic status and of different races.
In my view, the normal from which we came was already toxic. We don’t want to go back to it, because my contention in this book is what we consider to be normal in this society is actually neither natural or healthy, and, in fact, it’s a cause of much human pathology, mental and physical. And actually, people’s pathologies, what we call abnormalities, whether it’s mental or physical illness, are actually normal responses to what is an abnormal culture.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Gabor Maté, you say in the book, in fact, that there are no clear lines between normal and abnormal. Could you explain what this means and how you view the spectrum of these things?
DR. GABOR MATÉ:Trauma is the key. Trauma is a psychological wound people suffer. And I’m saying that in this society, most of us, because of the nature of the culture, the way we raise children, the way we have to relate to each other, the very values of a society are traumatizing for a lot of people, so that it’s false to say that some people are normal and others are abnormal. In fact, we’re all on a spectrum of woundedness, which has great impact on how we relate to each other and on our health.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Maté, explain how you understand, as you say in the book, that the term “trauma” has Greek origins, but that it’s —
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — come to mean something quite different. It used to refer to a physical injury or wound. Trauma is now understood in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: It’s a wound to the psyche, to our emotional being and to the soul. Trauma is not what happens to you. When people think about trauma, they usually think of terrible events, such as a tsunami or war or parents dying, or the physical or emotional abuse of a child. These events are traumatic, but they’re not the trauma. Trauma is the psychic wound we sustain. Our psychological traumas can have lasting effects on our lives. My medical work revealed that psychological trauma, also known as wounding, is the root cause of many diseases, including autoimmune illnesses, cancers, and mental health issues.
And in our society, psychological woundedness is very prevalent, and it’s rather an illusion to believe some people are traumatized and others are not. I think there’s a spectrum of trauma that crosses all layers and all segments of society. Naturally, it falls heavier on certain sections — on people of color, people with genders that are not fully accepted by society, people of economic inequality who suffer more from inequality — but the traumatization is pretty general in our culture.
AMY GOODMAN:Gabor, I was wondering whether you would be willing to talk about your own personal journey from trauma, how it shaped and shaped who you are today, as an infant in Nazi Hungary.
DR. GABOR MATÉ:The first chapter of the book opens with me returning home from a speaking trip to Vancouver. And I’m feeling really good about myself because it was a good trip, my talk was well received, and I had a good flight home. And when I arrived back at the airport in Vancouver, I got a text from my wife saying, “I haven’t left home yet. Do you still want me to come?” And all of a sudden my mood switches. I turn dark. I become angry. I withdraw. I become depressed. And when I get home, I’m barely even looking at her.
What actually happened? My artist wife was in the middle of her creative flow in her studio when she lost sight of her husband arriving home at the airport. What was triggered in me, however, was the wound of a 1-year-old infant who was abandoned by his mother in an effort to save my life, actually, but the meaning I made of it is that I wasn’t lovable, that I wasn’t wanted. And even 71 years later, when this woman on whom I’m relying to be there for me doesn’t show up, the woundedness of a 1-year-old infant shows up. And that’s what my friend Peter Levine calls “the tyranny of the past.” And so, these early wounds — in my case, the sense of abandonment — could still show up seven decades later over a relatively trivial incident.
And these early wounds of ours, well, so, that’s one way that it showed up. It’s evident in my relationship with my work. For many decades, I was a workaholic doctor. Why was this so? Because the message I got as an infant under the Nazis was that the world didn’t want me. And if the world doesn’t want you, one way to cope with it is to make yourself very important, become a helper, become a physician, because now they’re going to want you all the time. But that’s very addictive, because you keep trying to prove to yourself something you don’t believe in the first place, which is that you’re wanted. And so that the more people rewarded me with — either financially or with their attention or their gratitude for my medical work, the more I needed it, the more I became dependent on it. It manifests in so many ways. These early wounds manifest in many different ways. It shows up in our relationships and in our marriages. It shows up in politics, as we’ve seen during COVID. As they do in many lives, these early wounds in mine had broad-ranging consequences.
AMY GOODMAN:We are now intrigued by your statement that you believed your mother had abandoned you at the time. Now you understand that she did it to save you. Can you explain what happened
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Sure. So, I was 11 years old. My mother was a 24-year old Jewish woman who lived under Nazi occupation. She was subject to a fascist regime that was viciously antisemitic. She was able to find refuge in a safe shelter run by the Swiss Embassy. However, there were 2,000 people living in the home that was meant for 100 people. The sanitary conditions were terrible. Food was extremely uncertain. And I was very sick, and she didn’t think I would live. She took me out on the street to a Christian woman, who was a complete stranger, and asked for my permission to take me to relatives who lived in relative, relatively safer conditions. Her intention was to save my life. She did. But as an 11-month-old, I could only interpret that as an abandonment, because I don’t understand the conditions.
Who is left behind? Somebody who’s not wanted. So I developed this fixed belief: “OK, I’m not lovable. I’m not wanted.” Now, you don’t need conditions of war and privation and such drama to give children the sense that they’re not wanted. In this society, a lot of parents are advised not to pick up their kids when they’re crying. That’s enough to give the child the sense that they’re not wanted and not accepted. And so, I was traumatized under very — and the trauma is not that my mother gave me to a stranger. The trauma is what I made it mean, the wound inside, that I’m not lovable and not wanted.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Maté, let’s go back precisely to how you understand, and how we should understand, the event of trauma. First, can trauma be caused by a single event or is it something that must, in some way, even if not exactly the same, occur again and again? How does the fact you can’t know what trauma is like when it happens account for the fact that its effects last and continue to affect you decades later?
DR. GABOR MATÉ:As your question suggests, trauma can be inflicted on people in many ways. It could be a single dramatic event — the death of a parent, a tremendous loss in life, a terrible explosion. It happens sometimes that way. And those are relatively easy to identify, and then, actually, they’re easier to deal with.
But for a lot of people, it’s much more insidious and much more chronic than that. Some child-rearing methods are an example. For decades, Dr. Spock, who was kind of the guru of parenting, advised parents not to give in to the infant’s tyranny, the infant’s resistance to sleep. Now, what he calls the infant’s tyranny is the infant’s desperate need to be picked up and held by the parent. That’s just a trait that we share with all other mammals. You tell a mother baboon not to pick up their baby, or a mother cat not to respond to their child’s distress. But here in North America, we’ve been telling parents for decades to ignore their children’s cries, or, for example, when a child is angry, a 2-year-old is angry, to give them a timeout, which is to say, to threaten them with the loss of the attachment relationship that they desperately need. Those events are just as traumatic over the long term, but they’re harder to identify because they seem so normal and they don’t seem dramatic. They do appear later in life in all sorts of dysfunctional patterns.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Maté, you speak in the book about unresolved traumas. So, in the examples that you’re giving now, or indeed in the case of trauma more generally, if one can speak generally about trauma, what kinds of practices can lead, if at all, to the resolution of a trauma?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, whether we’re speaking about on a social level, which we have to speak, or whether on the individual level, which is what it strikes most of us, the first thing that has to happen is a recognition that how we’re living or some aspect of our lives is not working for us, and that there’s a cause for it, which we can actually uncover by some compassionate inquiry.
There needs to be a wakeup call every so often. Now, COVID could have been a wake-up call for this culture, but I don’t think it will have worked that way. It should have, but it didn’t, because of the nature of this society to transformation. This culture is so resistant towards social transformation that COVID lessons, I don’t think, have been learned, nor will be applied. On the individual level, very often it’s an illness, whether of a depression, an anxiety, a psychiatic diagnosis, a relationship breakup or a physical illness, like an autoimmune disease or malignancy, that works as the wake-up call. So there’s got to be some kind of event that happens that says to us, “Mmm, this is not working.” We need to understand why not and need to move past it.
And once we get that wake-up call, in whatever form — and one of my intentions in this book is to help people not get to that dire, dramatic point where some significant illness has to wake them up. Once we wake up, we can start to inquire. Okay, so what was driving my behavior? Why was I so obsessed with my job that I drove myself to work every day, as if it were my life? Why was I a workaholic? Why did I stress myself so much? Why was I so hard to my children? What is it that makes me feel so hurt when my partner doesn’t pick me up at the airport? We all know that we have to look back at our lives and find the answers in our past.
And then it’s a matter of letting go of those patterns. It takes some effort, usually therapy or some sort of spiritual or psychological work to find a new way of taking care. Usually it takes some inquiry, what I call a compassionate inquiry, of looking at ourselves with real curiosity: What is causing me to live the way I’m living? Why is it not working?
AMY GOODMAN: Gabor Maté, your book comes out at an extraordinary time, given your topic, and I know it took you years to write. However, now that you are in the pandemic, it seems that you have. CDC, hospitals reported a 24% increase in mental health emergencies for children between the ages —
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — of, what, 5 to 11. The issue of mental health is so important at this point. You talk a lot about loneliness. You can start by talking about the mental health crisis among youths and the increasing suicide rate.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yes. So, The New York TimesA Sunday edition of the newspaper published a front page article about a teenager who was taking 10 different psychiatic drugs. It was published three weeks ago. Can you see it? Ten different psychiatric medications. And there’s been articles in The New YorkerAnd The New York TimesIn the last four to five years, there has been a rise in the number of children who commit suicide. There has been a dramatic increase in the number children diagnosed with. ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, with anxiety, depression, self-cutting, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and so on.
Two assumptions can be made. Either there’s some accidental, totally unexplainable rise in childhood pathology that has no specific reason whatsoever for its instigation, or we can recognize that we live in a toxic culture that, by its very nature, affects children development in such unhealthy ways that children are increasingly mentally unbalanced and desperate to the extent that they’re cutting themselves and even trying to kill themselves.
Therefore, we must not look for these conditions in the individual brains or personalities of children or youths, but rather in the social conditions that are driving them in that direction. And unfortunately, in the public conversation around it, it’s all about the pathology and how to treat it, and it’s not about the social or cultural causes that are driving children in those desperate directions.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about how you view this, and how this — not just this country, the world can heal, especially focusing on youth?
DR. GABOR MATÉ:We must start at the beginning. The beginning is actually in your womb. Now, we already know, from multiple, multiple studies — not even controversial — that the more stress there is on pregnant women, the greater the impact, even decades later, on the well-being of the infant. How can we look after pregnant women? The average physician — I mean, I was trained as a medical doctor — to this day, the average physician, when they’re trained in prenatal care, they’re not trained to ask about the woman’s emotional states. They’re not trained to ask about: “How are you doing? How is your relationship? What is your work stress level? What can we do to support you?” We only look after the body, and we separate the mind from the body. We know that stress on the mother can have an effect on the infant.
Then there’s our birth practices. The North American cesarean section rate has risen to 40%. Modern obstetrics has the ability to save lives and should be used in 10 to 15% of all cases to the benefit of the infant and the mother. But the 40% C-section rate and the mechanization of birth — natural birth, as evolved by nature, was designed to produce a bonding experience for mother and infant, including the release of bonding chemicals that will bring them together for a lifelong relationship. Medicalization of birth is a way to interfere with it. We make it more efficient. It creates fear. We’re actually interfering with the mother-child bond, on which the child’s healthy development develops.
In the United States, 25% must return to work within two weeks after giving birth. Nature would require that the mother be present for at least nine months with her child, and sometimes longer if you look at it historically. Twenty-five percent of women having to go back to work for economic reasons, for lack of social support, amounts to a massive abandonment of infants, because that’s how the infants experience it. That’s the only way they can interpret it, just the way I interpreted my mother’s giving me to a stranger as an abandonment.
Then there’s the child-rearing practices that I’ve already mentioned, of not picking up children when they’re crying, of parents being so stressed, that their stress is absorbed by the infant, that the parents’ economic, racial, social anxieties, relational anxieties, their own unresolved trauma are absorbed by the infants.
Then there’s parenting practices that focus on trying to control the child’s behavior without in any way trying to meet the child’s needs. The human child was born with certain needs. They need unconditional love, support, and to be held. These needs are often denied in our society. Our children spend most of their time without their parents, which causes them to lose their connection with their parents. Do we wonder, then, that the child’s circuits of anxiety and panic in the brain are activated and extra overactivated? These are the natural consequences of an unnatural culture.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Gabor Maté, the acclaimed Canadian physician and co-author, with his son Daniel, of the new book, The Myth of Normal – Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Cultural Culture. In 30 seconds, you will be back with him.