A “thought-provoking and powerful” study that reframes everything you’ve been taught about addiction and recovery—from the New York Times–bestselling author of The Myth of Normal (Bruce Perry, author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog).
A world-renowned trauma expert combines real-life stories with cutting-edge research to offer a holistic approach to understanding addiction—its origins, its place in society, and the importance of self-compassion in recovery.
Based on Gabor Maté’s two decades of experience as a medical doctor and his groundbreaking work with people with addiction on Vancouver’s skid row, this #1 international bestseller radically re-envisions a much misunderstood condition by taking a compassionate approach to substance abuse and addiction recovery.
In the same vein as Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts traces the root causes of addiction to childhood trauma and examines the pervasiveness of addiction in society. Dr. Maté presents addiction not as a discrete phenomenon confined to an unfortunate or weak-willed few, but as a continuum that runs throughout—and perhaps underpins—our society. It is not a medical “condition” distinct from the lives it affects but rather the result of a complex interplay among personal history, emotional and neurological development, brain chemistry, and the drugs and behaviors of addiction.
Simplifying a wide array of brain and addiction research findings from around the globe, the book avoids glib self-help remedies, instead promoting a thorough and compassionate self-understanding as the first key to healing and wellness.
Dr. Maté argues persuasively against contemporary health, social, and criminal justice policies toward addiction and how they perpetuate the War on Drugs. The mix of personal stories—including the author’s candid discussion of his own “high-status” addictive tendencies—and science with positive solutions makes the book equally useful for lay readers and professionals.
A Q&A with the Author:
Question: The title of your book has its origins in the Buddhist Wheel of Life. In the Hungry Ghost Realm, people feel empty and seek solace from the outside, from sources that can never nourish. In what ways is our culture trapped in this realm? What can society learn from drug addicts who take the feelings of lack that everyone has, to the extreme?
Gabor Maté: Much of our culture and our economy are based on exploiting people’s sense of emptiness and inadequacy, of not being enough as we are. We have the belief that if we do this or acquire that, if we achieve this or attain that, we’ll be satisfied. This sense of lack and this belief feed many addictive behaviors, from shopping to eating to workaholism. In many respects we behave in a driven fashion that differs only in degree from the desperation of the drug addict.
Question: What makes your book so beautiful is its multi-layered, personal approach. You don’t rely solely on your patients’ stories, but also dig into your personal experience with addiction and the relevance of Buddha’s teachings. What were some challenges you faced when writing so frankly about your own addiction and your family?
Gabor Maté: In a sense my personal issues are not personal at all–just human. Once I understand something, I want to share it. There is no shame in having flaws–just challenges to keep learning. Many people have told me how much they have appreciated my being open like that–it helps them be open with themselves.
Question: Your book ends on a positive note, with the idea that brains do have the ability to change and grow in adult life and even to heal themselves. Does this undermine your previous assertion that you don’t expect most of your severely addicted patients to get clean?
Gabor Maté: No, there is no contradiction here. The human brain is exquisitely capable of development, a capacity known as neuroplasticity. But, as with all development, the conditions have to be right. My pessimism about my clients’ future is based not on any limitation of their innate potential, but on their dire social, economic and legal situation and on the essential indifference of policy makers–and of society–to their plight. In short, the resources that could go into rehabilitating people are now sunk, instead, into persecuting them and keeping them marginalized. It’s a failure of insight and of compassion. We are simply not living up to our possibilities as a society.
Read an Excerpt from In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
I believe there is one addiction process, whether it manifests 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 in the socially acceptable and even admired behaviors of the workaholic. Drug addicts are often dismissed and discounted as unworthy of empathy and respect. In telling their stories my intent is 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 use. Both in their flaws and their virtues they share much in common with the society that ostracizes them. If they 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.
—Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, co-author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
“A riveting account of human cravings, this book needs to get into as many hands as possible. Maté’s resonant, unflinching analysis of addiction today shatters the assumptions underlying our War on Drugs.”
—Norm Stamper, former Seattle Chief of Police and author of Breaking Rank
“In this brilliant and well-documented book, Gabor Maté locates the source of addictions in the trauma of an emotionally empty childhood, making it a relational rather than a medical problem. Such a radical thesis of cause leads to human connection rather than traditional treatment as the cure. This passionate and compassionate book, filled with scientific evidence and personal narratives, should be on the shelf of every person interested in the pervasive challenge of addiction.”
—Harville Hendrix, PhD, author of Getting the Love You Want and cofounder of Imago Relationship Therapy
“Dr. Maté’s latest book is a moving, debate-provoking, and multi-layered look at how addiction arises, the people afflicted with it and why he supports decriminalization of all drugs, including crystal meth.… [In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts] reads not only as a lively textbook analysis of the physiological and psychological causes of drug addiction, but also as an investigation into his heart and mind.”
—The Globe and Mail
“In this comprehensive and courageous book … Maté relates, with compassion and honesty, the poignant stories of severe substance addicts – the hungry ghosts, in Buddhist-realm terminology – whom he treats. And it is the addicts’ stories and the clear logic of the latest science and statistics that Maté shares which convince the reader that society’s attitudes toward, and treatment of, addiction must change. …. This 480-page tome, exhausting in delineating and substantiating its causes, remains a remarkably lyrical, engaging read.”
—In Recovery Magazine
“It’s time to give Maté … the Order of Canada for this erudite and sensitive book about the lives of Downtown Eastside intravenous-drug users, the neurobiology of addiction, and the folly of the war on drugs. It’s compulsively readable and packed with new scientific discoveries about addiction. If you know the parent or sibling of an addict—or the prime minister, for that matter—please give him this book.”
—The Georgia Straight
“Gabor Maté’s connections—between the intensely personal and the global, the spiritual and the medical, the psychological and the political—are bold, wise and deeply moral. He is a healer to be cherished and this exciting book arrives at just the right time.”
—Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine
“With unparalleled sympathy for the human condition, Gabor Maté depicts the suffocation of the spirit by addictive urges, and holds up a dark mirror to our society. This is a powerful narrative of the realm of human nature where confused and conflicted emotions underlie our pretensions to rational thought.”
—Dr. Jaak Panksepp, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychobiology, Bowling Green University, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, Medical College of Ohio, and author of Affective Neuroscience
“With superb descriptive talents, Gabor Maté takes us into the lives of the emotionally destitute and addicted human beings who are his patients. In this highly readable and penetrating book, he gives us the disturbing truths about the nature of addiction and its roots in people’s early years–truths that are usually concealed by time and protected by shame, secrecy, and social taboo.”
—Vincent Felitti, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, and Co-Principal Investigator, Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
“Dr. Gabor Maté distills the suffering of injection-drug users into moving case histories and reveals how clearly he himself, as a music collector and workaholic physician, fits his own definition of addiction. Informed by the new research on brain chemistry, he proposes sensible drug laws to replace the War on Drugs. Inspired by the evolving spirituality that underlies his life and work, he outlines practical ways of overcoming addiction. This is not a fix-it book to hurry through, but a deep analysis to reflect upon.”
—Dr. Bruce Alexander, Professor Emeritus (Psychology), Simon Fraser University, and author of The Globalization of Addiction
“Maté’s subjects are the living, breathing embodiment of Canada’s grimmest statistics for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, homelessness, crime, abuse, neglect, overdose, and death. More than merely poor and disenfranchised, they are truly the lowest of the low, reviled by society and demonized by law enforcement. [In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts] is enormously compelling and Maté is admirably, sometimes inexplicably, empathetic to all who cross his path.”
About the author:
A celebrated speaker and bestselling author, DR. GABOR MATÉ is highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics, such as addiction, stress, and childhood development. Dr. Maté has written several bestselling books, including the award-winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction; When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress; and Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder. He is also the co-author of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. His works have been published internationally in more than thirty languages.