The addict’s reliance on the drug to reawaken her dulled feelings is no adolescent caprice. The dullness is itself a consequence of an emotional malfunction not of her making: the internal shutdown of vulnerability.
From the latin word vulnerare, ‘to wound’, vulnerability is our susceptibility to be wounded. This fragility is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so vast or unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function. The automatic repression of painful emotions is a helpless child’s prime defence mechanism and can enable the child to endure trauma that would otherwise be catastrophic. The unfortunate consequence is a wholesale dulling of emotional awareness. ‘Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression,’ wrote the American novelist Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March; ‘if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.’
Intuitively we all know that it’s better to feel than not to feel. Beyond their energizing subjective change, emotions have crucial survival value. They orient us, interpret the world for us and offer us vital information. They tell us what is dangerous and what is benign, what threatens our existence and what will nurture our growth. Imagine how disabled we would be if we could not see or hear or taste or sense heat or cold or physical pain. Emotional shutdown is similar. Our emotions are an indispensable part of our sensory apparatus and an essential part of who we are. They make life worthwhile, exciting, challenging, beautiful and meaningful.
Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden – but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.
We see that substance addictions are only one specific form of blind attachment to harmful ways of being, yet we condemn the addict’s stubborn refusal to give up something deleterious to his life or to the life of others. Why do we despise, ostracize and punish the drug addict, when as a social collective, we share the same blindness and engage in the same rationalizations?
The war mentality represents an unfortunate confluence of ignorance, fear, prejudice, and profit…. The ignorance exists in its own right and is further perpetuated by government propaganda. The fear is that of ordinary people scared by misinformation but also that of leaders who may know better but are intimidated by the political costs of speaking out on such a heavily moralized and charged issue. The prejudice is evident in the contradiction that some harmful substances (alcohol, tobacco) are legal while others, less harmful in some ways, are contraband. This has less to do with the innate danger of the drugs than with which populations are publicly identified with using the drugs. The white and wealthier the population, the more acceptable is the substance. And profit. If you have fear, prejudice, and ignorance, there will be profit.
Gabor Maté (b. Hungary, Jan. 06. 1944 – )
Gabor Maté is a Hungarian-born Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction and is also widely recognized for his unique perspective on Attention Deficit Disorder and his firmly held belief in the connection between mind and body health.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1944, he is a survivor of the Nazi genocide. His maternal grandparents were killed in Auschwitz when he was five months old, his aunt disappeared during the war, and his father endured forced labour at the hands of the Nazis.
“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)