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Reality Bites

How Do We Solve North America’s Heroin Epidemic?

I'm a drug recovery nerd.

I’m a drug recovery nerd. When I’m not working with addicts at my husband’s sober living facility, Acadia Malibu, I’m watching YouTube videos created by recovery experts like Dr. Gabor Maté, a groundbreaking addiction specialist who works with addicts in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, which is the area with the most concentrated levels of drug use in North America. The neighbourhood recently received international attention when Glee star Corey Monteith died from a toxic combination of heroin and alcohol nearby, but heroin related deaths aren't isolated to Vancouver or celebrities. The number of young people using heroin has risen in many North American cities, and some public officials believe we are in the midst of an epidemic.


After helping many heroin addicts find sobriety, Dr. Maté believes current prevention and recovery methods are failing our youth. He thinks we need to reconsider addiction’s causes and change the way we help addicts. I couldn’t give two fucks about going to dinner with Kim and Kanye, but I was dying to speak with Dr. Maté about how we could solve these issues. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and discuss the roots of the heroin epidemic, my experiences as a young addict and how addiction treatment could benefit from a total revolution in the way we treat physical and emotional pain.

VICE: Why is there a large-scale heroin epidemic among young people in North America?  
Dr. Gabor Maté: Heroin is a painkiller. It's actually the strongest pain reliever that we have, and it relieves emotional pain as much as physical pain. So the real question is not why is there a heroin epidemic, but why is there so much pain amongst young people today? And that has to do with two factors: one is that a lot of young people are traumatised and abused in childhood, and another is that lot of other people that are indirectly abused are still not getting their emotional needs met. Their parents are too busy, too stressed, too distracted, too depressed, too overwhelmed themselves to give them what they need. So children grow up with a sense of emotional lack and emptiness, fear and distress. Heroin partially soothes that pain and that distress.


I have seen that first-hand.  My parents sent me to every type of specialist possible, and it’s true – I really never felt heard or acknowledged. My father’s also an addict though, and I wonder if the combination of genetics and childhood trauma makes someone more vulnerable to addiction.
Genetics play a very little role in addiction. This is contrary to what most addiction experts seem to believe. The official line is that 50 percent of addiction is genetically determined, but I don't think it's even five percent. Even if people have certain genes that predispose them to be treated, those genes may never get activated. So the presence of a gene does not mean that you're going to have a certain behaviour. It just means that that behaviour is more likely, given certain circumstances. It is the circumstances that either turn off the gene or activate them – we know this from both animal studies and human studies.

Corey Monteith passed away from a toxic combination of alcohol and heroin use. Do you think we need to educate more young people about the fatal effects of mixing drugs and alcohol?
It’s not a question of education. Everybody has heard that alcohol and heroin are dangerous. The question is why are people ignoring the warnings? And if you look at Corey Monteith's history – and I don't know much about him, but I was interviewed by People magazine this morning, so I looked up a bit about his life. He had a very difficult childhood. He first entered into rehab when he was 19 years old, and he's been in rehab repeatedly. That speaks to the inefficiency and lack of success of addiction treatment in North America.


Why do you think treatment has been ineffective for so many young people?
It's ineffective, because it sees the addiction as the problem. The problem is everything else I've been talking about. Addiction is not the problem. Addiction is the addict's attempt to solve a problem. What did your addictive behaviour do for you? I don't mean what was negative about it – that’s obvious to everybody – but what did you get from it? It gave you something. What did it give you?

It saved my life.
How did it do that?

It allowed me to not have to deal with any of the trauma that occurred to me when I was a child. I had a lot of sexual abuse from when I was three till when I was six years old. I didn't tell anybody until I was almost 19.
So it saved you because it allowed you to function without falling apart?

To cope and to be OK in the world.
In other words, the addiction wasn't the problem. Your addiction was your attempt to solve a problem. If you don't understand that, you can't talk to anybody. When you went to treatment, how many times were you asked about trauma?

Once, maybe.
Then you wonder why these programs fail.

That makes sense.
I was going to ask you a question. Did you see the movie that was made about your life?

No, I haven’t seen it yet. There are a number of reasons. I mean, first and foremost, because I have a new baby, and I am exclusively breastfeeding and doing a lot of attachment parenting. I still feel very fragile.
Good for you – you’re looking after yourself.

Thank you. 
I’ll tell you what I was struck by. I was struck by Emma Watson’s comment about your character – which wasn’t about you, it was about the character that she was playing. She was actually hostile to the character. She had no compassion for the character that she was playing. Which was striking to me.

It really comes down to storytelling. We don’t like our own story – that we are a society dealing with tons of pain and trauma. So instead we read celebrity magazines and judge other people.
Why was People magazine talking to me today? Because a celebrity died from drugs. A bunch of other people die every day of the same thing. That doesn’t make the papers.


Previously by Alexis Neiers – Why Are the Millennials Screwed Up?