MARCH 2008


Addiction doc struggles with his demons

Dr Gabor Mat�'s new book is a gritty glimpse of Vancouver's mean streets

The war on drugs has been an abject failure, concludes Dr Gabor Mat� brusquely. For almost a decade he has witnessed the consequences of the government's battle against illicit substances in his work with hardcore addicts in Canada's most notorious skid row, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The things he has seen and heard are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but more often horrific. The current federal government's hard line on illicit drug use demonizes addicts — many of whom are victims of sexual abuse, neglect and violence — and places them on the losing side of the social scale, disdained by society and battered by the law.

In his new book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close encounters with addiction, Dr Mat� lays out a rich exploration of addiction inspired by his east side patients. After three years spent researching and writing the book, he's come to a pretty radical conclusion.

Dr Mat�'s patients

Carl is a 36-six-year-old native man who was "banished from one foster home after another, had dishwashing liquid poured down his throat at age five for using foul language and was tied to a chair in a dark room in attempts to control his hyperactivity." Dr Mat� relates that when Carl becomes angry with himself for using drugs he gouges his own foot with a knife as punishment.

Dr Mat� keeps a birth diary for Celia, an addicted and HIV positive patient who became pregnant and longs to escape the downtown east side. She hopes to leave behind her life of abuse and create a home for her child and partner Rick. Yet she keeps using. "The less dope I'm doing, the more stuff from the past surfaces," she says. Celia's stepfather started sexually abusing her — including a horrific spitting ritual — when she was five years old. Dr Mat� urges her into an addiction recovery home, but she can't follow through and gravitates back to drugs.

"I would decriminalize drugs," he says without hesitation, "and provide them for people under supervised programs and use that as a way of connecting them with healthcare. I would provide a centralized system of recovery facilities for people in various stages of addiction."

Every day, Dr Mat� encounters the casualties of the drug war in his office at the Portland Hotel, an east side domicile where addicts are invited to live, in an attempt to keep them off the streets. The Portland houses North America's first supervised injection site as well as a clinic where Dr Mat� treats a client base of 700 residents who abuse multiple substances and carry deep psychological wounds.

He used to have a successful family practice of his own in Vancouver, but about seven years ago Dr Mat� came to a point in his career where he felt he needed to move on to another challenge.

Something about those living in the Downtown Eastside had always resonated with him. "I recognize myself in them very much," he acknowledges.

Like many who work with disenfranchised people, Dr Mat� has experienced his own share of hardships. As an infant during World War II he lived under Nazi occupation in Budapest's Jewish ghetto. He and his parents survived and emigrated to Canada in 1957, but his grandparents perished at Auschwitz.

He's got other problems, too, which he explores openly in his books. His struggles with ADHD and obsessive music-buying —he once dropped $8,000 in a week — give him, he says, a certain kinship with his patients.

In Hungry Ghosts Dr Mat� delineates his proposal for treating his patients by first delving into the world of Vancouver's addicts, telling their stories in the book's opening chapters (meet two of them above).

Throughout Hungry Ghosts Dr Mat� compares his own workaholic tendencies and his compulsive purchasing of classical music CDs to the addictions of his patients. Although he admits his own compulsions wear "dainty white gloves" next to those of his drug-addicted patients, they bear a resemblance. In the book, Dr Mat� writes about the time he forgot his 11-year-old son in a comic-book shop for nearly an hour. He just intented to pop over to the music store across the street for 15 minutes, but when he couldn't find the disc he wanted, Dr Mat� hopped in his car and drove downtown to another shop to find the record.

Through tales like these he invites readers to examine their own lives for addictive patterns. Addiction is a repeated behaviour that a person keeps engaging in, even though they know it harms themselves or others. It's just that some of these behaviours are more socially accepted than others.

"There's absolutely an internet addiction, a work addiction, a food addiction, a gambling addiction," Dr Mat� says. "When you look at the brain scans of people engaged in any addictive relationship or behaviour it's the same parts of the brain that are involved." When you scan the brains of shopaholics, he says, "it's the same parts that light up as those in drug addicts. The more expensive the product, the more the brain lights up."

His observations seek common ground between those on the street, workaholic doctors and compulsive gamblers. And although each finds themselves on a different point on the spectrum of addiction, each deserves compassion and treatment rather than vilification.

"There's no 'war on drugs,' there's a war on drug addicts," Dr Mat� says emphatically. "When you ostracize people and you demonize them and force them into the shadows of an illegal world, which many of these people come from, it drives their behaviour even more."



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