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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

by Gabor Mate M.D.

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I rate this book 4.5 Stars.

From Amazon: "He would probably dispute it, but Gabor Maté is something of a compassion machine. Diligently treating the drug addicts of Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside with sympathy in his heart and legislative reform in mind can't be easy. But Maté never judges. His book is a powerful call-to-arms, both for the decriminalization of drugs and for a more sympathetic and informed view of addiction. As Maté observes, "Those whom we dismiss as 'junkies' are not creatures from a different world, only men and women mired at the extreme end of a continuum on which, here or there, all of us might well locate ourselves." In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts begins by introducing us to many of Dr. Maté's most dire patients who steal, cheat, sell sex, and otherwise harm themselves for their next hit. Maté looks to the root causes of addiction, applying a clinical and psychological view to the physical manifestation and offering some enlightening answers for why people inflict such catastrophe on themselves.

Finally, he takes aim at the hugely ineffectual, largely U.S.-led War on Drugs (and its worldwide followers), challenging the wisdom of fighting drugs instead of aiding the addicts, and showing how controversial measures such as safe injection sites are measurably more successful at reducing drug-related crime and the spread of disease than anything most major governments have going. It's not easy reading, but we ignore his arguments at our peril. When it comes to combating the drug trade and the ravages of addiction, society can use all the help it can get."

Having had the opportunity to meet Maté and hear him give a talk and reading was an amazing experience. He is truly a remarkable person trying to improve a flawed system while advocating to empower those within society who continue to be marginalized. He offers dignity, humanity and understanding to a complicated issue, complex people and a down-and-out neighbourhood.

Maté has also addressed the issues of illness and learning disorders in other books. He offers insight and information that is sometimes interpreted as controversial but I feel he thinks, speaks and writes from a place of truth and is a person who is genuinely trying to enact positive social change. It is a rare individual that does not judge others and has the strength of empathy to put himself in another's shoes. I recommend all of his works very highly. ( )
  DawsonOakes | Apr 10, 2013 |
"My soul, sick and covered with sores, lunged outward instead, in a mad desire to scratch itself against some physical relief." St-Augustine

This is an excellent book. Dr. Maté understands this completely and has much to add to it. ( )
  dmarsh451 | Mar 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I feel I must apologize to Dr. Mate for not writing my review sooner. This book was so fascinating. It took me a while to get through it because I wanted to absorb every piece of research that went into it.

The term "hungry ghost," to those who aren't familiar with buddhism, describes a kind of hell realm in which the deceased person looks like the most poverty stricken image you can imagine because he is literally starving, no matter how much he consumes, and the more he consumes the worse his hunger is. It is, I think, a feeling or image than anyone who has death with addiction of any kind (or knows someone who is suffering) can relate to. I didn't expect to find so much that resonated with me in this book, but it has something in it for everyone, particularly if you are interested in neuropsychology current research in related fields.

I particularly appreciated how Mate uses examples from his own life throughout the text. I don't want to reveal his own addictions here, but have to say that his book emphasizes the many kinds of addiction there are out there - it's not all drugs, alcohol, and food. It can be a very personal experience, and a lonely one at that.

I highly recommend it and know I will be using it as a reference text in the future. ( )
1 vote infogirl | Mar 24, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A fascinating look at the world of addiction. Mate very easily shows us how various factors work together to cause addiction. He also bring sup his own experiences with his love of music as akin to addiction. Very interesting and informative.
  ejd0626 | Dec 1, 2010 |
I waited a long time to read this book after requesting it at the library as it was so popular. Important ideas here, but I found it rather geocentric and the author's need to identify with addicts by going on about his compulsive music-buying habits both intrusive and odd. There's a difference between having OCD and being an addict. I would have edited it quite differently. Still, very glad I read it. ( )
  ruthseeley | May 14, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 155643880X, Paperback)

Amazon.com Exclusive: A Letter from Gabor Maté

Dear Amazon.com readers,

I've written In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts because I see addiction as one of the most misunderstood phenomena in our society. People--including many people who should know better, such as doctors and policy makers--believe it to be a matter of individual choice or, at best, a medical disease. It is both simpler and more complex than that.

Addiction, or the capacity to become addicted, is very close to the core of the human experience. That is why almost anything can become addictive, from seemingly healthy activities such as eating or exercising to abusing drugs intended for healing. The issue is not the external target but our internal relationship to it. Addictions, for the most part, develop in a compulsive attempt to ease one’s pain or distress in the world. Given the amount of pain and dissatisfaction that human life engenders, many of us are driven to find solace in external things. The more we suffer, and the earlier in life we suffer, the more we are prone to become addicted.

The inner city drug addicts I work with are amongst the most abused and rejected people amongst us, but instead of compassion our society treats them with contempt. Instead of understanding and acceptance, we give them punishment and moral disapproval. In doing so, we fail to recognize our own deeply rooted problems and thereby forego an opportunity for healing not only for them, the extreme addicts, but also for ourselves as individuals and as a culture.

My book, in short, is an attempt to bring light to core issues shrouded in darkness. The many positive responses I’ve received encourage me to believe that I’ve succeeded in making a contribution toward that goal.

Best wishes, Gabor Maté

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:12 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"...This insightful book explores the scientific and psychological causes of addiction, as well as the impact on the addicts treated at the Downtown Eastside Vancouver clinic where Mate is a physician. He widens the lens to address the larger societal problem--speaking also to the risks of more "high-status" addictions, such as wealth, power, and sex. He boldly challenges the War on Drugs, proposing a more holistic, constructive set of alternatives. A riveting, debate-provoking book about an illness that reaches all levels of society, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts provides a much-needed glimpse of hope from an innovator who is taking on addiction with startling clarity, vision, and wisdom"--Cover, p. 4.… (more)

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