• Elizabeth Harvey

Mini-Review: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts



In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté, MD, is an essential read on addiction that brings the role of early relational trauma to the forefront in understanding both substance and behavioral addictions as well as providing a focus on the societal roots of addiction.


Maté’s advocates for compassionate self-understanding as the path to healing and wellbeing for those struggling with addiction, described at length in the last section of the book, “The Ecology of Healing.” Maté’s is a very different take from the paradigm of shaming, pathologizing, and criminalization that has dominated the narrative in the US for decades.


A physician, Maté spent years working with severely addicted intravenous drug users in Vancouver, and has led advocacy efforts for policies in support of harm reduction and treatment rather than criminalization of drug use. Maté weaves a deep understanding of trauma throughout this multi-faceted look at what drives human addiction desires and behaviors, delving into recent research on emotional and neurological development, brain function, and substances, behaviors, and types of addiction.


The stories of Maté’s patients are gripping and tragic. The book provides a way to turn towards hard stories that deserve to be known, and can help inform policy, treatment, and personal healing. Maté incorporates his own story of behavioral addictions in parallel with his work with severely suffering patients. His modeling of compassionate self-inquiry as the book unfolds lays down a template for seeking to understand oneself or others who are struggling with addiction. This approach informs how I try to support clients, seeking to increase compassion and reduce the shame that often accompanies addiction.


I highly recommend this book for individuals and professionals who seek a deeper understanding of addiction and its implications for people and societies.


A key quote to close:“We despise, ostracize, and punish the addict because we don’t want to see how much we resemble him.”