What I Wish I’d Asked Dr. Gabor Maté When I Had the Chance

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A few months ago, I attended a live Zoom event on Guidely with Dr. Gabor Maté, author of The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. He was talking about being abandoned for a month at the age of one because his mother was protecting his life during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. He explained he could not possibly have any conscious memory of that, but it was preserved in his implicit memory, and was a factor in his lifelong shopping addiction. In this meeting, attendees had the opportunity to ask Dr. Maté a question, live. By the time I gathered my thoughts and overcame my shyness, I was too far back in line.

I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Here’s what I wish I had asked Dr. Maté:

Does my complex post-traumatic stress disorder, my alcoholism, major depression, and rage, go back farther than I think? Past the “two major accidents a year through the age of six” as my father once confessed to the woman who would become my second wife? Does it go back to the womb and my earliest days of life? Is that even possible?

My 47-year story of recovery from alcoholism and depression begins in 1976 when, overwhelmed with depression and unable to regulate my drinking, I dropped out of exclusive Pomona College and drove home to Portland, Oregon, without telling a soul. I delivered newspapers, lived in a $60/month housekeeping room, drank and played the piano. I joined “the Program” a year later and quit drinking. I went to ten meetings a week for the first year and seven a week for the second year, managing not to take that first drink despite living with major depression. There was no such thing as “dual diagnosis” back then. Depression was a “sincere form of self-pity.” So I soldiered on. I got married, adopted my wife’s four-year-old son, had three daughters, and finished a bachelor’s degree in sacred music.

After 20 years sober, my depression had become crippling. It was time to put aside the destruction of my ego and focus on building up my self-esteem. I went to Intensive Outpatient (IOP) treatment; there, I learned for the first time that my alcoholism, depression, and rage stemmed from a childhood without any sense of safety.

Those 12 “major accidents?”

One was a scalding accident, the circumstances of which I won’t go into. I still remember my mother giving me Epsom salt baths and peeling great swaths of skin off my leg for weeks afterward.

For another, I was told I rolled off the couch and broke my collarbone as a two-year-old. Just a couple years ago I asked my mother about that, and that’s how she remembers it. I’ve always wondered how plausible that was. Was my mother coached to frame it that way? Was it a shaking injury that had gone unreported? One of my therapists opined, “Sounds to me like a throwing injury.”

Another “accident” occurred, also at age two, when I got into my father’s stamp collection. He exploded, and I, the story goes, ran right through the living room picture window, requiring 20 stitches. I suppose I could have been old enough to “run” as toddlers do, but, c’mon, really? If a large picture window can be that brittle, how does it stand up under its own weight? One version of the story, if I remember, had it that I went up to the window and slammed my head and forearms into it. Can you picture it? Neither can I.

Even when I asked my mother about this incident a couple of years ago, she described me as “running right through” the window, but I wonder if she actually saw it, or if that was the story she was given by my father. I did get a few other insights I never had before from this most recent conversation. She remarked that she was mystified at the time that someone could get so angry over a stamp collection. She also revealed that a neighbor had to take us to the hospital. She doesn’t remember why Dad didn’t go.

It’s also telling that my reaction, at that age, was so violent. This was no isolated incident. This was a dance that had already played out many times. If that’s what actually happened.

I have no memory of the other nine “accidents,” and neither does my mother, now 96. So why did my father find it necessary to beat me to the punch and give my new girlfriend his spin on my harsh upbringing?

What I do still remember is at age four sitting next to my father on the piano bench singing Christmas carols and out of nowhere being slapped full across the face because I had blasphemed. (I was trying to affect a British accent on “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”) I remember being suddenly snatched up many times, thrown over the front of the kitchen sink, and my mouth being scrubbed with Ivory soap because I said a bad word. I no longer have any specific memory of the many spankings. A bizarre incident when I was thirteen provides a glimpse into the more distant past. My father tried to turn this 120 lb. young man over his knee and spank me, I think with his belt. We ended up wrestling on the floor, my father yelling, comically, “How dare you wrestle your father!”

I got another clue about 15 years ago. I was visiting Mom and Dad at their retirement village condo, as I did weekly. Dad was still domineering toward my mother and toxic to me, and on this occasion he was vilifying not me, but my younger brother. I had a volcanic explosion, one of a kind in its intensity, a lifetime of resentment spilling out all at once. The best he could do by way of apology was “Forgive me for my faulty parenting!” When I finally calmed down and left, my mother followed me to my car and said something that floored me: “I was waiting for your father to die so I could apologize for not protecting you.”

After IOP, I spent 20 years on medication and in talk therapy. I believed I inherited my temper from my father and tried to manage it beginning in high school by sheer force of will. I believed my alcoholism was genetic and treated it as a spiritual malady. I believed my depression was a medical problem and in 20 years I took every antidepressant ever invented, sometimes three at a time, plus other drugs prescribed off-label, all of this under supervision. Wellbutrin was a constant. On top of that, a succession of SSRIs: Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Effexor, Remeron, Lexapro, etc. Plus a third prescription antidepressant for sleep such as amitriptyline or trazodone. And on top of all that for some years, a massive daily dose of gabapentin.

In short, I’ve spent 40 years of my recovery barking up the wrong tree.

In the last five or six years, I’ve come to understand that alcoholism, rage, and depression, as well as anxiety and addiction, are not diseases. They are symptoms of trauma—in my case, developmental trauma. Years of not only physical and emotional abuse but constant dread and wariness caused toxic stress responses that rewired my developing brain, leaving me with flat affect and labile emotions, unable to experience pleasure, plagued with guilt and insecurity, shrinking in the presence of strong personalities, acquiescent, people-pleasing, scrupulous, and codependent.

The long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are not limited to mental health problems, not by a long shot. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child summarizes the implications of the groundbreaking 1995 ACE study better than I can:

The key findings of dozens of studies using the original ACEs data are: (1) ACEs are quite common, even among a middle-class population: more than two-thirds of the population report experiencing one ACE, and nearly a quarter have experienced three or more. (2) There is a powerful, persistent correlation between the more ACEs experienced and the greater the chance of poor outcomes later in life, including dramatically increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, smoking, poor academic achievement, time out of work, and early death.

So last September at that Zoom conference with Dr. Maté, I got to thinking, is it possible my bottomless pit of depression and loneliness extends back to the womb? I was a twin. I spent the first seven and a half months of my life in utero with my brother David. We were born a month and a half premature, David fifteen minutes before me. He had a heart defect, a hole in the septum that allowed the venal blood to corrupt the oxygenated blood. This was in 1953. They tried treating it with sulfa drugs, but David died three weeks later. I was probably put into my own incubator and never saw David again after emerging from the womb. My mother once told me that in her uncontrollable grief and delirium, she blamed me for killing David and refused to hold me. I don’t know how long that went on. Not very long, I suppose.

I’m not blaming her, not for a second. But I find the implications fascinating. What did that experience do to the attachment bonds my mother and I were supposed to be establishing in those first days of life? I have an ACE score of 6. Could I make that 7, adding the death of my twin? And what about the stress and fear I absorbed, in and outside the womb, from my mother, who had to live with and try to manage my father’s temper? (Death of a sibling isn’t actually covered in the original ten ACE study questions, but neither are many other types of childhood trauma, such as bullying or surviving a severe accident.)

My story, and, indeed, the ACE study, show that developmental trauma and subsequent complex PTSD can occur in the context of an intact, middle-class, churchgoing family. My father may have been a well-meaning parent, but he was a very troubled man. His only sibling, his older sister June, whom he adored, was killed by a bus at 19. His mother had his father involuntarily committed to an asylum for depression and then divorced him. He converted to Catholicism in college and embraced it as a drowning man does a life preserver, becoming pathologically, rigidly devout, typical of many adult converts.

As the oldest child, I was Dad’s little apprentice and first experiment in parenting. When I was, I don’t know, six, I had a black cocker spaniel named, you guessed it, Blackie. I would forget to feed Blackie and Dad would threaten to take him back to the pound if I forgot again. One day I forgot to feed him and Dad made good on his threat. My memories of childhood are very, very spotty, but seared in my brain is the one of me sitting on my bed watching through the attic dormer window as the family’s blue Buick pulled away from the curb with Blackie in it. I told that story to my first wife years later, and she said, “That’s so cruel!” I didn’t know what she was talking about.

Six years ago, after my second wife died, I found a new career in mental health care. I’m now a peer support specialist and QMHA (Qualified Mental Health Aide). After a year and a half giving direct care to elderly men on the autism spectrum, I obtained certification as a peer supporter. I spent three years in residential settings working with people with “severe and persistent mental illness” (SPMI), and currently do peer work in the community in conjunction with a county program that helps formerly institutionalized people live independently. I’ve been transformed by this work. I can smile. My depression and anxiety attacks are virtually non-existent. I love to make people laugh. I lead support groups, and speak and write on mental health issues. I thrive as a mentor and companion-on-the-journey, winning over individuals I’ve never met and giving them encouragement and hope. Eighty-some years ago, AA founder Bill Wilson said: When all else fails, get into the lives of other people. Turns out it’s my cure for trauma. As Dr. Maté and others have said, the opposite of addiction is community.

I’m writing this for everyone who minimizes their pain, who doesn’t think it’s deserving of attention, who says, “I was spanked and I turned out all right,” “I came from a good home,” “I don’t dwell on the past,” or “I didn’t have it so bad.” To you, I say: sixty years is a long time to go without the ability to experience happiness. If you see yourself in my story, I hope you find a professional or peer who can help you get to the real cause of your addiction and depression, rage and perfectionism, loneliness and codependency, because these things don’t exist in a vacuum, and if left untreated (or perhaps I should say unexamined), they will not just compromise your quality of life but shorten your life expectancy by decades.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. I have a similar story. I had a narcissistic, abusive father, and a passive, dissociative mother incapable of protecting me from him. I am the black sheep of the family, an artist, musician and eccentric who was bullied by my peers and their a**hole parents, and punished by teachers and coaches for simply being a free spirit in a place that has always paid lip service to freedom and individualism, but in reality hates anyone who freely expresses their individuality.

    I also had a good long tour through the mental healthcare system, and sampled almost every known medication with zero positive effects and plenty of negative ones, some that linger to this day.

    I have a lot of respect for Dr. Gabor Maté, going back 25 years to when I first read his book on ADHD (Scattered Minds), but I’m not sure about in utero trauma. While such a thing is possible, is it really necessary to dig that far back when growing up in a toxic culture is a sufficient explanation for ACE’s?

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  2. Doug, I’m happy you finally found the kind of attention you needed. And thank you
    for highlighting the word ‘unexamined’ because although ‘untreated’ may sound harmless to most people, I believe saying ‘untreated’ plays into the myth that struggling emotionally means you’re ‘mentally ill’, meaning you need ‘treatment’ from a system that I believe in many ways is the re-enactment of an abuse-ridden childhood (minimizing, devaluing, lying, manipulation, verbal abuse, etc.)

    Needless to say, I don’t think the mental health system offers anyone the right kind of attention.

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  3. Doug, I left you a string of messages on this MIA post on Twitter with 2 videos if you’re interested. I’m an self made expert in this area too. MD looking to try to figure what was done to my mind for 30 years. Thanks Tina.

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  4. My ACES score is 4. I struggled with depression since I hit puberty. When I was in my 40’s I was prescribed antidepressants. Many prescription changes later, I was still depressed. SURPRISE! (there’s sarcasm here). After 25 years of misery I finally got a new doctor who weaned me off the drugs. It took over a year. A lot of talk therapy, group therapy, and other modalities have helped me learn to feel that I have value. I also started attending a local Buddhist center and learned to meditate. I have friends now – a new thing!

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  5. Thank you for sharing your story, Doug, and I’m sorry you had such distressed, misguided, and inappropriately behaving parents. But to this day, the “mental health professions” can still NOT bill to help child abuse survivors, which is a problem.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    You sound like understanding the truth, and helping others, has helped saved you. I’m the mother of a child abuse survivor (the abuse occurred outside our home), who was psych drugged to cover up the abuse of my child, for a pastor. But being a very active volunteer, and helping others, did help me while dealing with egregious psychiatric anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings … and on my subsequent healing journey.

    Let’s hope and pray some day, the “mental health professions,” who seemingly believe all distress is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in one person’s brain (a scientifically debunked belief), will some day realize child abuse is a bad thing, which causes legitimate distress – both for the child, and his initially in denial, but loving mother.

    And I hope the mainstream religions start to understand why their paternalistic “partnership” with the scientific fraud based “mental health professions,” is a faustian deal.

    “… the truth will set you free.” And I agree helping others, in my case largely innocent children, does help one heal … in addition to the truth.

    God bless, Doug.

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  6. Doug you are a great and compassionate man to share your experience of such intimate cruelty with such clear sight and calmness
    You will help many
    How have our psychiatrists ignored trauma for so long
    It is a scandal
    Thank goodness some are now catching up with Gabor Mate
    Richard E Schwartz
    Bessel Van De Kolk
    And other sages of our era
    Good luck in healing
    Nina

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  7. Thanks for sharing your story! I’ve recently come to the conclusion that addiction, and many psychiatric diagnoses, are actually unhealed trauma!
    Since I’ve quit “the program” and started doing trauma work, I feel much better! I’m amazed.

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  8. I just read your story, Doug. Thank you for writing this. Yes, I, too am an Adult Child of ACEs. What struck me most in this writing was how you described what are usually considered illnesses — crippling depression, anxiety, etc–as simply symptoms of trauma. What a turn of perspective that is for me. And for me, the rest of what I ‘struggle’ with are my normal human attributes that my parents didn’t like..or perhaps, with a change of my perspective in this moment, my human vagaries that my parents and family didn’t appreciate.
    That one change of perspective of symptoms vs illness, strikes me as something worth repeating for myself often as a healing mantra….
    Compared to the treatment by my family as me being ‘less than,’ I hope I can hold on to that idea that truly I am not sick; I am just showing the reasonable, horrible signs, the side effects, of the difficult, and sadly, abusive things that happened to me as a child, when I was powerless to control what was happening to me.
    Great, great and helpful sharing of your story. And well written, too, in my humble opinion.
    Thank you.

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  9. Dr Gabor Mate has been a good influence on our intellectual culture in the West, but all alleged ‘experts’ in psychology and psychiatry who write books for the general public are unfortunately unconsciously destructive, and it pains me to say this, but when I explain you will see there’s undeniably something to what I say, so here me out.

    The only way we can resolve our trauma is through the uninfluenced perception and understanding of our trauma and it’s expressions in the psychological and physical symptoms: every genuine insight Gabor Mate has into trauma comes through his observation of it inwardly and in the lives of those he encounters clinically or otherwise, and any insight that does not come from such observation is not true insight at all. But if we believe, as we do, that understanding our own psychological problems requires that we read experts or go to a psychiatrist or psychologist, then we forego the only method that gives direct access to this phenomena, which is of course the observation and understanding of our own psychology, which is the basis of mindfulness and implicitly, CBT and in a round about way talking therapy, although the emphasis is on expressing rather then observing the psychological phenomena. If we think we know about trauma because we have read Dr Mate, then we will lose our curiosity and any motive for observing and understanding one’s own trauma, and even if we did expose trauma, we would now refer to Dr Mate’s explanations which now condition any perception we have, and beleiving or ‘knowing’ about trauma intellectually DOES NOT HEAL TRAUMA. It is the perception, the patient observation and understanding of our own trauma which heals, and the best therapy will be about supporting you to do that, and to talk it through and therethrough gaining awareness and understanding of one’s own trauma. But no psychology or psychiatry will help solve the mental health crisis in America and Europe and much of the developed and developing world unless and until it swallows this painful truth: that really, psychiatry and psychology are distorted intellectual approaches that become largely redundant once your understanding of the true cause of psychological problems has developed sufficiently to realize that no-one else but you can access the primary problem, which is the psychological conflicts, that are necessary to access if we are ever to heal them. This is the Buddhist approach to all psychological problems and you may notice they are among the most psychologically healthy peoples of the Earth, although they still have intellectual domination of their lives and conformity to rigid practices and ossified religious beliefs, something the Buddha always stood firmly against. We need a total revolution of human consciousness globally, and many recognize that today – probably some hundreds of millions of people around the world.

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    • “But if we believe, as we do, that understanding our own psychological problems requires that we read experts or go to a psychiatrist or psychologist, then we forgo the only method that gives direct access to this phenomenon, which is of course the observation and understanding of our own psychology, which is the basis of mindfulness…”.

      Yes! We’ve been badly misled by the intellect.

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  10. I say “absolutely!!” to the question whether you should add the death of your twin to the list. In fact, I would say this is the core wound and all others followed. Loosing the inextricable bond with your other half via their sudden absence would have not only been heartbreaking but beyond confusing. How could someone so close and so much apart of me, abandon me? This I would say is the original prototype/pattern for all the others to come. E.g. How could my mother abandon me, how could my father repeatedly abandon his duty to love and protect me etc. Why is everyone’s behaviour the exact opposite to what they should be doing?

    From an archetypal perspective, these are corrupted archetypes of the twin, mother, father etc. E.g., twins should not be separated (at least not in infancy or childhood), a mother should not abandon her child (physically or emotionally), a father should not be our personal terrorist . . .

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  11. Thank you Doug Westberg for this generous accounting of how childhood violence imparts multiple streams of suffering in adulthood. As the brilliant DW Winnicott said, “There are only two things that can go wrong in childhood: things that happen that shouldn’t happen, and things that don’t happen that should happen”! When what happens during childhood constitutes a loss of some kind (broken bonds, in utero for example, trust, violation of our person through emotional or physical violence, betrayal, etcetera.), those losses, the more cumulatively comprised, can reek the kind of havoc you’ve so beautifully written about. To think anyone (ergo professional experts!) believed “throwing” antidepressants at your losses was a “cure” of a any kind, is a testament to how lost and intellectually and morally bankrupt professional mental health is. I wish you well and continued fulfillment…

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