Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Parshat Aharei Mot
Shabbat HaGadol
9 Nisan 5771
April 13th, 2010

I was skeptical when a psychologist friend recommended Dr. Gabor Maté’s book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It is about addiction and substance abuse, to which my eyes are being opened because of its quiet, overwhelming prevalence in our middle class world. Most of the books about it I have found to be either overly technical or – how can I put this? – kind of foofy.

There is nothing foofy about this book. Maté has spent decades in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the homeless drug addicts live. And die. He is their physician, and he helps some of the most difficult, powerless, violent, traumatized people in the world prevent  septicemia, caused by too much IV drug use, from overwhelming their weak immune systems, from HIV and Hepatitis, as they sacrifice their well being for just one more hit (just one example).

My moment of clarity came when Dr. Maté compared their addictions to his overwhelming need to buy as many classical CD’s as possible. Suspicious of any incipient foof, I was about to put the book down until Maté mentions that he once spent $8000 in single week on albums.

We think that there is this class of people called drug addicts, who are so badly damaged or built that they are somehow separate from the rest of us. This is not the portrait Gabor Maté paints.

Rather, he talks about an infinite spectrum of trauma, from the humdrum into the hellish: physical abuse, sexual abuse, massive betrayal, tragedy, death. “Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance abuse is the addict’s attempt to avoid distress…Addictions always originate in pain.”

We all suffer. And many of us try to fill that suffering with alcohol and drugs, pills, internet pornography, gambling, compulsive spending, compulsive overeating, working to the point that our work consumes our lives – all so that we avoid the suffering. But these do not work.

What Torah offers us instead is a way to close the hole, to understand the pain and bear it, to repurpose our desire to fill it towards beauty, towards health. Hayitani miyordei bor – “in the midst of my dwelling in the pit, You gave me life,” teach our Psalms.  No easy consolation, but a true one.

Just to the east of us, Beit T’Shuvah saves people’s lives everyday through Torah; all around us are Alcholics Anonymous meetings and their various offshoots; in my office is a safe space for any who need it. The life that Torah gives is strong than addiction.

Beit T’Shuvah - -  is the Jewish community’s powerful response to addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous –
Narcotics Anonymous –
Overeaters Anonymous –
Sex Addicts Anonymous -

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