Agassi confesses he “hated tennis and took meth” and Dr. M reveals his demons while struggling to help addicts on Vancouver’s mean streets
CYNDI INGLE — Are you now, or have you ever been, in the realm of the “Hungry Ghosts”? The Hungry Ghosts is one of the six realms in the Buddhist Wheel of Life — the un-fun one where people constantly search for something outside of themselves to bring fulfillment and relief.
Tennis superstar Andre Agassi, he of the eight Grand Slam titles and tens of millions of dollars earned, was certainly in that realm.
According to his autobiography, the aptly named Open, Andre started drinking in adolescence (at age 12 he received a beer for each tournament he won), lit fires in hotels to release anxiety, and progressed to using crystal meth.
While Agassi lived a life of luxury and excess while struggling with his demons, as Dr. Gabor Maté, the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Knopf Canada) explains, addiction crosses all ages, gender, and economic boundaries.
Dr. Maté’s experience is in working with drug-addicted patients in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for the last decade and his book evokes a powerful sense of empathy and irony because the good doctor also suffers from an addiction — a behavioral kind. But his affliction seems more like an eccentric character flaw compared to the life-threatening crack, heroin, meth and alcohol addictions of his patients.
Maté’s afflictino: he’s a workaholic, and an obsessive-compulsive streak compelled him to buy and horde classical music from an upscale Vancouver music store. He was sometimes spending $8,000 there in a week.
What Dr. Maté (pictured at right) has in common with all of the hardcore drugsters that he cares for is an early trauma, a first few years of life fraught with emotional stress and instability.
In this, he and Agassi have a commonality. Agassi’s father was a strong-willed Iranian immigrant, a former Olympic boxer who forced his four children to play tennis. As a pre-schooler Agassi was forced to hit balls on the backyard court every day for hours, and later, prior to junior tournaments, consume caffeine pills.
As Dr. Maté’ explains in his book, his patients are survivors of unthinkable physical and sexual abuse, while Dr. Maté himself had the historical misfortune to be born a Hungarian Jew in Budapest in 1944.
To say that his mother was a little preoccupied (while Hungary was being occupied by the Nazis) is an understatement.
At a year old, Maté was smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto and into the hands of a kindly Gentile foster family. Although this sounds like the script for an Anne Frank story with an alternative ending, the tensions and traumas swirling around Maté as a kid set the stage for life-long patterns that have spilled into his personal and family relationships.
So what is the tipping point for addiction? How does one “decide” to smoke a crack pipe, spend thousands of dollars on classical music, or develop a taste for meth?
In the case of coke and meth addicts, studies show that their dopamine receptors are suppressed. To foster a feel-good vibe in their mind and body they have to keep using a pipe, engaging in a self-defeating spiral of deeper dependency and its attendant health and social consequences.
“The less effective our own internal chemical happiness-system is, the more driven we are to seek joy or relief through drug-taking or through other compulsions we perceive as rewarding,” Maté writes.
The chemistry of the “addicted brain” has been well studied by the medical community, and the scientific consensus is that it is fundamentally different from the grey matter of non-addicted individuals.
The million-dollar question remains, is the difference in brain function due to damage from the intake of the addictive chemical/substance, or do the brains of addicts have environmentally-forged circuitry that sets them up for addiction in the first place?
There are two parts to the answer. A baby who matures lacking the three “fairy godmothers” of consistent emotional nurturing, good nutrition and physical security will have a brain that develops differently than a child who has an abundance of these factors.
But parental mood is also a factor. You may have been well-fed but if you had a clinically-depressed mom, your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels could have jacked your nervous system into a chronic state of over-activation.
(Interesting side note: many substance and behavioral addicts, including Maté, have a dual-diagnosis that includes attention deficit disorder.)
Long story short — is addiction a life-long sentence? Should those of us who have addictions or compulsive behaviors – just give up and call it quits? The answer is NO!
Like other muscles and organs, some of the brain’s circuits continue to develop over the entire human lifespan. As well, conscious thought can supersede the neurons and chemical stew that swirl through this 14-ounce organ. Perhaps the void that is seemingly filled by the addictive substance can be swapped for “spirit.”
Difficult to define but getting back to the Buddhist way, here’s a starting point. We have the capacity to reflect and observe the addicted mind. Step 1: self-compassion is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer ourselves…and others.
Please visit the Soul’s Code slide show on ADDICTION: CAUSES AND CURES for more information.
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