The Power of Addiction and the Addiction to Power | Gabor Maté, MD


From TEDx Talks: “As a medical doctor, I work in Vancouver, Canada, and I have worked with some very, very addicted people. People who use heroin, they inject cocaine, they drink alcohol, crystal meth and every drug known to man. And these people suffer . . . [and] lose everything. And yet, nothing shakes them from their addiction. Nothing can force them to give up their addiction. The addictions are powerful and the question is: why?

. . . if you want to understand addiction, you can’t look at what’s wrong with the addiction; you have to look at what’s right about it. In other words, what’s the person getting from the addiction? . . . What addicts get is relief from pain, what they get is a sense of peace, a sense of control, a sense of calmness, very, very temporarily.

And the question is why are these qualities missing from their lives, what happened to them? If you look at drugs like heroin, like morphine, like codeine, if you look at cocaine, if you look at alcohol, these are all painkillers. In one way or another, they all soothe pain. And that’s why the real question in addiction is not, ‘Why the addiction?,’ but, ‘Why the pain?’

. . . My definition of addiction is any behavior that gives you temporary relief, temporary pleasure, but in the long term causes harm, has some negative consequences and you can’t give it up, despite those negative consequences. And from that perspective, you can understand that there are many, many addictions. Yes, there is the addiction to drugs, but there is also the addiction to consumerism, there is the addiction to sex, to the internet, to shopping, to food.

The Buddhists have this idea of the hungry ghosts. The hungry ghosts are creatures with large empty bellies and small, scrawny necks and tiny little mouths, so they can never get enough, they can never fill this emptiness on the inside. And we are all hungry ghosts in this society, we all have this emptiness, and so many of us are trying to fill that emptiness from the outside, and the addiction is all about trying to fill that emptiness from the outside.

Now, if you want to ask the question of why people are in pain, you can’t look at their genetics. You have to look at their lives. And in the case of my patients, my highly addicted patients, it’s very clear why they are in pain: because they have been abused all of their lives, they began life as abused children. All of the women I have worked with over a 12-year period, hundreds of them, they had all been sexually abused as children. And the men had been traumatized as well. The men had been sexually abused, neglected, physically abused, abandoned and emotionally hurt over and over again. And that’s why the pain.

And there is something else here too: the human brain. The human brain itself . . . develops in interaction with the environment. It’s not just genetically programmed. So the kind of environment that a child has will actually shape the development of the brain.

. . . it’s a myth that drugs are addictive. Drugs are not by themselves addictive, because most people who try most drugs never become addicted. So the question is, why are some people vulnerable to being addicted? Just like food is not addictive, but to some people it is; shopping is not addictive, but to some people it is; television is not addictive, but to some people it is. So the question is, why this susceptibility?

What happens to people that they need these chemicals [dopamine, endorphins] from the outside? Well, what happens to them is, when they are abused as children, those circuits don’t develop. When you don’t have love and connection in your life, when you are very, very young, then those important brain circuits just don’t develop properly; and under conditions of abuse, things just don’t develop properly. And their brains then are susceptible when they do the drugs: now they feel normal, now they feel pain relief, now they feel love. And as one patient said to me: ‘When I first did heroin,’ she said, ‘it felt like a warm soft hug, just like a mother hugging her baby’ . . . we pass it on, we pass on the trauma, and we pass on the suffering, unconsciously, from one generation to the next.

So obviously, there are many, many ways to fill this emptiness, and for each person, there is a different way of filling the emptiness, but the emptiness always goes back to what we didn’t get when we were very small.

And then we look at the drug addict and we say to the drug addict, ‘How can you possibly do this to yourself? How can you possibly inject this terrible substance into your body that may kill you?’ But look at what we are doing to the Earth. We are injecting all kinds of things into the atmosphere and the oceans and the environment that is killing us, that’s killing the Earth. Now which addiction is greater? The addiction to oil, to consumerism? Which causes the greater harm?

. . . [in] the New York Times, on June 9th, there was an article . . . about a man called Nísio Gomes, a leader of the Guarani people in the Amazon, who was killed last November . . . because he was protecting his people from the big farmers and the companies that are taking over the rainforest and and destroying the rainforest, and that are destroying the habitat of the native Indian people here in Brazil.

And I can tell you that coming from Canada, the same thing has happened over there. And many of my patients are actually First Nations Indian people, native Indian people in Canada, and they are heavily addicted. They make up a small percentage of the population, but they make up a large percentage of the people in jail, the people who are addicted, the people who are mentally ill, the people who commit suicide. Why? Because their lands were taken away from them, and because they were killed and abused for generations and generations.

But the question I ask is, if you can understand the suffering of these native people and how that suffering makes them seek relief from pain in their addictions, what about the people who are perpetrating it? What are they addicted to? Well, they are addicted to power, they are addicted to wealth, they are addicted to acquisition. They want to make themselves bigger.

. . . so a real sense of insecurity and inferiority. And they needed power to feel okay in themselves, to make themselves bigger, and in order to get that power, they were quite willing to fight wars and to kill a lot of people, just to maintain that power . . . power, the addiction to power, is always about the emptiness that you try and fill from the outside. And Napoleon, even in exile on the island of St. Helena, after he lost his power, he said, ‘I love power, I love power.’ He couldn’t think of himself without power. He had no sense of himself without being powerful externally.

And that’s very interesting when you compare it to people like the Buddha or Jesus, because if you look at the story about Jesus and Buddha, both of them were tempted by the devil, and one of the things that the devil offers them is power, Earthly power, and they both say no. Now why do they say no? They say no because they have the power inside of themselves, they don’t need it from the outside.

And they both say no because they don’t want to control people, they want to teach people. They want to teach people by example and by soft words, and by wisdom, not through force; so they refuse power. And it’s very interesting what they say about that . . .

And so as we look at this difficult world, with the loss of the environment, and global warming, and the depredations in the oceans, let’s not look to the people in power to change things, because the people in power, I’m afraid to say, are very often some of the emptiest people in the world, and they are not going to change things for us.”


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  1. I wish the question could be asked of Dr. Mate, about the difference in the quantitative statement “They wish to make themselves bigger” as opposed to the qualitative statement, “They wish to make themselves better”. The pace and rhythm the struggle to be alive, is amazing. Though to bring into focus, a different context by which to exist is difficult, when the culture is driven by more, more, MORE?

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  2. Thank you, Dr. Mate, for this very insightful and compassionate article. I always think about addiction as using something to fill a hole that we have…Why the pain is such a good question. I think if we understood more about what drives people to seek relief, we could be much more compassionate and humane.

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