Staying Alive

Posted on March 15, 2010. Filed under: addiction, Addiction Resources/Support, Treatment Centers | Tags: , , , , , , |

A few days ago, my friend, Ang, texted me to tune in to National Public Radio (NPR) and listen to an interview that they were doing with Dr. Gabor Maté.  I wasn’t near a radio and couldn’t listen to the program, but later, I did google Dr. Maté.  Here’s some interesting info regarding Dr. Mate’s controversial work in Vancouver, BC.

Dr. Gabor  Maté is a physician specializing in the treatment of drug addiction in Vancouver, BC. For over seven years Gabor Maté has been the staff physician at the Portland Hotel, a residence and harm reduction facility in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. His patients are challenged by life-threatening drug addictions, mental illness, Hepatitis C or HIV and, in many cases, all four.

Tune in to an overview of this drug addiction treatment center on CBC’s TV series, Staying Alive and read what’s been written about it below:

“It has been called “an abomination” by a minister of Stephen Harper’s Canadian government. Its staff members claim it “saves lives.” A regular client calls it “a community centre for junkies.” Whatever you might call it, Insite is the only one of its kind in North America — a supervised injection site for drug addicts.

Insite, located in Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside, has been controversial since it first opened its doors in 2003. An exemption from federal drug laws was granted to allow addicts to bring their drugs onto the premises and inject them; Insite provides clean needles and medical supervision. It’s funded by British Columbia’s government and championed by community leaders, but Harper’s government is openly hostile to it and is trying to shut it down.

Now, for the first time, cameras have been allowed to record the daily dramas at Insite. Inside is a world not many have seen before. In Staying Alive, reporter Hana Gartner introduces us to some of those who work there, including Darwin Fisher, the intake manager, and Dr. Gabor Maté, who has been caring for addicts, prostitutes and the homeless for the past 10 years. You’ll meet three addicts doing their best to survive. There is Dave, a user for half of his 40 years who has been coming to Insite since it first opened and who speaks to the harsh realities of life on the street. And Taz, who comes to the centre to detox and, in the process, confronts her past sexual abuse as she struggles for a better life. And finally, Shelly, who, despite her addiction, wants us to know: “I’m somebody’s kid. I’m somebody’s sister. All I want is for people just to say ‘hi’ sometimes and remember I have a heart that beats.”

Insite‘s future is uncertain. In this CBC exclusive, for the first time, viewers can see inside Insite and make up their own minds.”

Dr. Maté has written a book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

I haven’t yet read this book, so I’m including the review I found online, below.  If anyone has read this book, or is familiar with Dr. Mate’s work, please comment.

“In this timely and profoundly original new book, bestselling writer and physician Gabor Maté looks at the epidemic of addictions in our society, tells us why we are so prone to them and what is needed to liberate ourselves from their hold on our emotions and behaviors. But if Dr. Maté’s patients are at the far end of the spectrum, there are many others among us who are also struggling with addictions. Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, work, food, sex, gambling and excessive inappropriate spending: what is amiss with our lives that we seek such self-destructive ways to comfort ourselves? And why is it so difficult to stop these habits, even as they threaten our health, jeopardize our relationships and corrode our lives?

Beginning with a dramatically close view of his drug addicted patients, Dr. Maté looks at his own history of compulsive behavior. He weaves the stories of real people who have struggled with addiction with the latest research on addiction and the brain. Providing a bold synthesis of clinical experience, insight and cutting edge scientific findings, Dr. Maté sheds light on this most puzzling of human frailties. He proposes a compassionate approach to helping drug addicts and, for the many behavior addicts among us, to addressing the void addiction is meant to fill.

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 over-eaters or shopaholics, the obsessions of gamblers, sex-a-holics 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.
from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Dr. Maté asks an important question regarding the treatment of drug addiction, How do you measure and define success?

When asked why he finds his work so gratifying and how he keeps himself going in the face of such such tragic, depressing outcomes , Dr. Maté answered that the deep authenticity of his patients is something he could never find in any other pool of patients.  At the point when these addicts enter his clinic, their honesty is so compelling and heart wrenching, that Dr. Maté and his staff will do whatever it takes to give them the care and compassion they deserve and are so desperately seeking.  Their need is  huge,  and the fact that often, Dr. Maté can mitigate their suffering, is a powerful and satisfying motivation for his work.

Maté contends that addicts are almost always abused.  The essence of his treatment approach is one of harm reduction:  to treat the symptoms of addiction and reduce the harm of the habit – that this is a legitimate medical goal. He advocates the decriminalization of drug possession and medically supervised drug use and treatment – that these ‘simple’ societal changes could be a huge economic savings to our entire society, that addicts shouldn’t have to commit crimes to support their habit – and that rehab settings should be comfortable and loving environments that prepare addicts to re-enter society with skills training and psychological support.  This approach to recovery is a  less costly and safer approach, at the very least, and more importantly, is more humane.

I’m anxious to hear from you about some of these ideas.  My own have changed a lot since beginning this blog last September.

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13 Responses to “Staying Alive”

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My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different website and
thought I might check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you.
Look forward to finding out about your web page repeatedly.

Thanks for stopping by. I haven’t updated my posts for over a year now. My daughter just celebrated 4 years of being clean and sober from heroin addiction. Yay! I hope to update things soon, but in the mean time, there’s plenty here to get you started.

Check my last post referencing this piece of Gabor Mate –

[…] The drive for the medicalization of addiction is highlighted in places like Vancouver and Doctor Gabor Mates’ work.  What most of us do not readily see is the rest of the iceberg; the greater impact of […]

i have been involved with some1 for 9 almost 10 year and seen the progression of his addiction. I was 14 when i met him i am now 23. we have a 5 year old son 2gether. He has been in and out of rehabs for about 7 years and i disagree with the traditional 12 step program. I love what Dr. Mate is doing, his approach and his view of addicts. Most addicts are very emotionally fragile and have built up walls and unhealthy defenses. Being with an addict has caused me to evaluate myself and address my own addictive habits and behaviors. I have also gone 2 NA and AA meetings in support of my spouse. In that setting you can get a sense of how fragile these people really are. It is very refreshing to see someone like Dr. Mate, someone that cares about his patients. I have learned more than i could have ever imagined about myself,society, and the darkest parts of human nature. So, i think that Dr. Mate is spot on about his observations, approach, and perspective.
(I also experimented with drugs as a young teen, and had been sexually abused as a child, but my addiction didn’t end up being drugs. I ended up becoming addicted to helping understand addiction and addicts(that’s how i became familiar with Dr. Mate’s work), oh an exercise addiction and very rebellious)

Briana – thanks for your comment regarding traditional 12 step programs and Dr. Gabor Mate. I, too, am a bit skeptical of the 12 step program, yet am being forced to re-examine my opinion and bias due to the fact that my 31 yo heroin addict daughter is now in recovery and embracing her 12 step recovery program. I think that the 12 step program can be a foundation, and a structure of support and guide towards recovery. However, I also think that there are plenty of other strategies that can be used in the recovery process – – – it is, afterall, a very individual path towards sobriety. At this point, I’m ready to look at anything that helps keep my daughter strong and sober.

I’m glad you had a chance to look into this guy and I must say, a fresh approach to dealing with addictions may not be as crazy as it seems on the surface? It is never a bad thing to be open to new ideas. The thing that has struck me the most about his view of addicts and from what I have learned from you is how prejudicial and dismissive we are of drug addicts. Why is it we look down on this the way we do? I have learned so much through Hayley’s story.

When I saw this post I was immediately fascinated, because of the title of Dr. Mate’s new book. When I heard of hungry ghosts years ago, as I studied Tibtan Buddhism, I immediately thought of my daughter and her insatiable appetites. “Hungry Ghost” is a terrifying and accurate description of those with addictions, it seems to me. I thought that the video interview with Dr. Mate was informative, thoughtful and filled with insights. I do recommend reading about his book and listening to the interview before jumping to conclusions. This is a most compassionate man with a wealth of experience in the world of addiction. Isn’t it true that our world has been so unsuccessful for so many centuries, in helping people with addictions? Most of what we’ve chosen to do is punishment. We are so furious about the pain and damage addicts cause that we can’t get beyond it. I know that I harbor tremendous anger and resentment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. I still long for an apology or acknowledgement or something. I hope I can let go of that someday. We’ll see. But, Dr. Mate seems to be able to see some things clearly, that are completely muddled to most of us. I really appreciate his belief that the “success” of a program can be defined in ways other than succeeding in helping people to live without any drugs or alcohol, such as “reducing the damage”. Maybe it isn’t possible for some people to live without some kind of intoxicant. I don’t know, but surely we need more options, discussions, and a great deal more compassion.

Wow, Donna. Your comments are interesting. You’re right. The current statistics for treating many addictions, especially heroin, are so dismal, that maybe we need to consider other options? At least discuss them, and acknowledge that what we’ve done in the past in terms of treatment, hasn’t been very successful. The term, “hungry ghosts”, is hauntingly accurate – – – never getting enough – – – of anything. Thanks for this input and introducing some questions and dialogue that we all need to be engaging in.

There are parts of this harm reduction that make sense. Why not give them their drugs and then reduce them little by little. Isn’t that what we do to stop smoking or reduce eating?

Almost all of the damage an addict does to society comes from what they do to get their drugs.

I think addicts should be under close and confined supervision for as long as it takes. Time is the biggest healer that we know of. I do not think that we should treat them badly while they are confined.

Some people can be cured in a month, others take a year or more. They all have to be careful for the rest of their lives.

uh,,,,i don’t think you want to hear my comment LOL

I’m always interested in what you have to say, Dawn. Unfortunately, you seem to be the “veteran” of the group – in all sorts of ways. So – go for it.

okay. I don’t think the slowly reducing the dose and giving them a safe place to shoot up is any help at all.

Opiate addiction, by its very chemical process, demands MORE and MORE and MORE and MORE.

slowly reducing the amount in an infant withdrawing does work, because an infant has no emotional baggage or other issues that led them to use.

I wonder about providing addicts with a warm fuzzy environment where everyone tells them “oh, this isn’t your fault, etc.

But, there are going to be clinic after clinic popping up all promising to ‘cure’ addiction. They will work for some, who probably would have gotten clean anyway because they were motivated by themselves to get clean.

the rest of them will just spend their money, or their parents money, or the states money and it will be for nothing.

thats my opinion.

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