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 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 Connection and Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder.
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: In the U.S., the richest society in history, fully half of the citizens have a chronic disorder, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Anxiety amongst young people is growing rapidly. Asthma and autoimmune diseases are on the rise, as are addictions. Depression is rising. Youth suicide is rising. All is not well.
JAMES: I started heroin at 26. That’s what really destroyed me. Just takes the pain away.
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s easy to want to want to escape reality completely instead of coping with it.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: And so, the question is: Can we be human beings in the midst of civilization? Because what we call civilization demands the denial of human needs.
ANNOUNCER: Please welcome Dr. Gabor Maté.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Every human being has a true, genuine, authentic self. And the trauma is the disconnection from it, and the healing is the reconnection with it.
Why do we get disconnected? 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. You look at people, and you see all their trauma and damage.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: That’s what I see.
So, trauma is not the bad things that happen to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.
What do you want tell me? What comes up right now?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Thank you.
ALICIA: My father, he would spank us and take a belt to us.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Who would you speak to about your pain?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yeah, that’s the trauma. In other words, by the time you were 5 years old, you were completely alone.
People are much more lonely and isolated than they used to be. Literally, it causes inflammation in the body and suppresses the immune system.
You’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
TIM McCARTHY: Correct.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: In my view, people that develop cancer have a hard time expressing healthy anger.
RUSSELL BRAND: Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. They were two traumatized people fighting to govern a traumatized world.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: That’s exactly what I’m saying. And these are the people that our society rewards with power.
Our schools are full of kids with learning difficulties, mental health issues, that are trauma-based. But the average teacher never gives a single lecture on trauma.
We need trauma-informed medical care, trauma-informed education. If we had a trauma-informed society, we would have a society that looks much more compassionate.
JOEY CARTER: You did. You made a big difference in my life.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Thank you for being touched.
TESSA ROSE: I don’t feel like I’m a bad person anymore.
Hey! How are you?
DUANE: How are you?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yeah, I just want people to see the truth. Solutions arise out of people when they confront themselves with the truth, when they’re not afraid of the truth.
TIM McCARTHY: I think the biggest thing that this whole healing journey has taught me is how to be human.
AMY GOODMAN: The 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 Culture. Dr. Maté will be appearing tonight in New York City at the 92nd Street Y. On Thursday, Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to Gabor Maté. I began by asking him about the pandemic and the book title, The Myth of Normal.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: So, the pandemic actually revealed to us how toxic our idea of normal has been, because it showed us the desperate need for human connection that we all have. But this is in a culture that has been isolating and atomizing individuals for a long time, where loneliness has been an epidemic for decades. It showed the noxious effect of racism and inequality, because the people who had the greatest risk for being affected by COVID were those of a lower social class and of people of color.
The normal that we came from, in my perspective, was already a toxic normal. 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 you mean by that and how you understand the spectrum along which these things lie?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, the key here is trauma. Trauma is a psychological wound that people sustain. 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. I mean, in the Greek origin, it referred to a physical injury or a physical wound. But in psychiatry, in the work of Freud, in psychoanalysis, in medical literature generally, now trauma is understood as a wound to the mind.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: It’s a wound to the psyche, to our emotional being and to the soul. And trauma is not what happens to us. People, when they think of trauma, they think usually of catastrophic events, like a tsunami or a war or parents dying or sexual or physical, emotional abuse of a child. These events are traumatic, but they’re not the trauma. The trauma is the psychic wound that we sustain. And our psychological traumas have lifelong impacts. And in my medical work, I found that psychological trauma, woundedness, underlies much of what we call disease, whether autoimmune illness or cancer, or the various mental health conditions.
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 if you could take some time and talk about your own journey from trauma and how it shaped you, as an infant in Nazi-occupied Hungary to where you are today, and how that has influenced who you are.
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, you know, the first chapter of the book opens with my arrival home to Vancouver, where I live, from a speaking trip. 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 become dark. I become angry. I become withdrawn. I become sullen. And when I get home, I’m barely even looking at her.
Now, what actually happened here? All that happened was that my artist wife, typical of an artist, was the middle of creative flow in her studio, and she forgot that her husband was 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 shows up in my relationship to my work. So, I was a workaholic physician for many decades. Why was I a workaholic? 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. So, it shows up in so many ways. These early wounds show up in so many ways. It shows up in our relationships, in our marriages, in our relationship to our children, in our relationship to our work. It shows up in politics, as we’ve seen during COVID. So, these early wounds in my life had had wide-ranging implications, as they do in the lives of many people.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have intrigued us, because you said, at the time, you thought your mother abandoned you. But you, of course, now understand she was doing it to save you. Can you explain what happened?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Sure. So, I was 11 months of age. My mother was a 24-year-old Jewish woman living under the Nazi occupation, under a viciously antisemitic fascist regime in December of 1944. And she found refuge in a safe home run by the Swiss Embassy, but there were 2,000 people living there in a home meant for 100 people. The sanitary conditions were terrible. Food was very uncertain. And I was very sick, and she didn’t think I would live. So she went out into the street and gave me to a Christian woman, a complete stranger, and asked her to take me to some relatives who were living under relatively, relatively safer conditions. Her intention was simply to save my life. And she did. But as an 11-month-old, I could only interpret that as an abandonment, because I don’t understand the conditions.
Now, who gets abandoned? 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 of all, can trauma arise from a single episode, or is it something that has to, in some form, even if not precisely the same one, be repeated? And to what extent does the fact that you cannot know the trauma when it actually occurs account for the fact that its effects endure and, as you say, show up decades later?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, as your question implies, trauma can be induced in people in a number of ways. It could be a single dramatic event — the death of a parent, a tremendous loss in life, a terrible explosion. You know, it occurs that way sometimes. 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. For example, certain child-rearing practices. 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. But they do show up later on in life in all kinds 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.
And very often there needs to be a wake-up call. 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. The resistance to social transformation in this culture is so deep that the 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. But once we get to the point of waking up, then we come to look to inquiry. OK, what was driving my behaviors? Why was I always driving myself on the job like as if my life depended on it? Why was I a workaholic, stressing myself? Why was I so hard on my children? What is it that makes me feel so hurt when my partner doesn’t pick me up at the airport? You know, so, then we start looking at what happened to our lives, and we find the answers in our history.
And then it’s a matter of letting go of those patterns. And that takes some kind of work, usually therapy or some kind of spiritual work or psychological work, some kind of different way of taking care of ourselves. 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? And why is it not working for me?
AMY GOODMAN: Gabor Maté, your book comes out at an extraordinary time, given your topic, and I know it took you years to write. But now in the pandemic, you have, according to the 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. And the issue of mental health, overall, so critical at this point. You talk a lot also about loneliness. But can you start by talking about this mental health crisis among youth and the escalating suicide?
DR. GABOR MATÉ: Yes. So, The New York Times, about three weeks ago as we speak now, had a front-page article in their Sunday edition about a teenager who was on 10 different psychiatic medications. Can you imagine? Ten different psychiatic medications. And there’s been articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times within the last four or five months about the rising tide of childhood suicides. There is a vast increase in the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, with anxiety, depression, self-cutting, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and so on.
Now, we can make two assumptions. 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.
So, we have to look for those conditions, not in the individual mind or brain or personality of the child or youth; we have to look at them in the social conditions that drive children in those directions. 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: Well, we need to begin right at the beginning. And the beginning is actually in the 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. So, how are we looking 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? How is your work stress? What can we do to support you?” We only look after the body, and we separate the mind from the body. We know that stresses on the woman can already have an impact on the infant.
Then there’s our birth practices. In North America now, the cesarean section rate is approaching 40%. Now, modern obstetrics is miraculous in its capacity to save lives, and it should be applied about 10 to 15% of cases for the benefit of the infant or 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. When we medicalize birth, we interfere with it. We mechanize it. We create fear around it. We’re actually interfering with the mother-child bond, on which the child’s healthy development develops.
Then, in the United States, 25% of women have to go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. Now, nature would have that mom be with the child for at least nine months, usually 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 is born with certain needs, for unconditional loving acceptance, for being held, for the capacity to experience all their emotions with parental support. In this society, those needs are denied over and over and over again. And most of our children spend most of their time away from their parents, so they lose the connection with the parent. Do we wonder, then, that the child’s circuits of anxiety and panic in the brain are activated and extra overactivated? These are 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 Culture. Back in 30 seconds with him.