By Dr. Gabor Maté
Sep 4, 2014
It is always big news when a celebrity is stricken dead by a substance overdose. What never makes the news is why such tragedies happen.
The roster of drug- and alcohol-related show-business deaths is ever expanding: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain; in the recent past, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston; and, most recently of all, Cory Monteith. A complete list would, of course, include many others.
The popular media gathers around the famous dead like vultures around a cadaver, picking their stories clean to feed the public appetite for intimate and irrelevant details. What friends did Cory spend the evening before his demise? How does his girlfriend feel back on the set of Glee, the TV program where Monteith found stardom?
My daughter works part-time as a hostess at a bar in Vancouver’s Gastown area. One night, shortly after Monteith’s death, two British journalists showed up. “We drove up from LA,” they said. “We have heard Cory had some drinks somewhere in this neighbourhood the night he died. We are tracing his last steps. Did he come in here by any chance?” Clearly, for readers in Britain it was of pivotal importance that these intrepid scribes identify the exact watering hole where the actor may have had his last drinks. They had driven over two thousand kilometres to find out.
In our celebrity culture only the demise of a famous person attracts press attention to what is a daily human tragedy across North America and the world. Many other human beings succumb to drugs, an entirely preventable carnage that almost completely eludes public notice. Car crashes, murders, accidental deaths from other causes are the fodder for excited headlines. The death of the drug afflicted passes under the radar.
If a celebrity suffers, the media deems it essential information. When a famous unfortunate, say, Charlie Sheen, publicly displays his bipolar illness and self-medication with alcohol, a nubile woman on each arm, that rivets media notice. If a star dies, that is front-page material until the next celebrity gives birth or sleeps with someone. But even with all this obsessive focus on one person’s decease from drugs, the question of why this happened (much less why it happens to people in general) is seemingly of little interest.
Striking about the coverage of the Monteith saga was the lack of investigation into what it may have been about life that made this talented young man seek refuge in drug use. There was virtually no discussion of why a number of treatments and interventions, since his teenage years, had failed to divert him from his fatal course.
I was encouraged, therefore, when a reporter for People Magazine contacted me for an interview. “Hi Dr Maté. I’m a staff writer at People. We are writing, in the wake of Cory Monteith’s death, about the struggles of addicts, the problems of heroin addiction, and the easy availability of heroin in Vancouver. Seems you would be uniquely qualified to talk as an expert, so I’m hoping we can connect…”
I had no high expectations, given People’s dedication to superficiality and its adoration of the short attention span. Still, I did welcome this opportunity to inject at least a tincture of science and experience into the public discourse. Even at my age, sometimes my own naïveté amazes me.
It did not matter that the reporter seemed not to have researched my very publicly expressed views, having happened upon my name through a contact in Los Angeles. Here was my opportunity to explain my perspective: Addiction is not the fundamental problem, but the addict’s desperate and doomed attempt to solve a problem—that of unbearable emotional pain, self-loathing and emptiness.
Trauma and childhood emotional loss are the template for addictions. They instill the pain, engender the self-loathing, and create the emptiness. Crucially, they program the very chemistry and physiology of the brain to make the cerebral circuits more receptive to the soothing or exciting effects of substances. Interventions, treatment program, laws, social opprobrium do not work—often make the addiction more tenacious, in fact—because they do not address causes, only behaviors. Behaviors are effects and you don’t solve a problem by tampering with effects.
Cory Monteith’s life was a case in point. His parents had divorced when he was seven, after who knows how many years of rancor and stress. He had learning difficulties and, quite likely, ADHD. In the most incisive, and perhaps only in depth analysis of his history, the wonderful journalist Maia Szalavitz described the appalling treatments he had been subjected to:
“Monteith’s history with ineffective and harmful anti-drug programs started almost as soon as he began using, at 13. Between that age and 16, he attended some 12 different schools, including several aimed at ‘troubled teens,’ a phrase that has become shorthand for harsh programs that we now know can backfire.
“During the years when he was locked inside troubled teen programs—1995-1998—tough love reined. Tactics were aimed at “breaking” youth through physical and emotional abuse—everything from solitary confinement, punitive restraint and sleep and food deprivation to public humiliation like wearing signs saying, ‘I am an asshole,’ being made to dress in drag and being forced to scrub bathrooms with the same toothbrush you must later use to brush your teeth.”
Monteith experienced the physiological and psychological consequences of early childhood in a dysfunctional home. Effectively bereft of nurturing adult contact, from adolescence, he was traumatized by a system ostensibly designed to help him. It is a near certainty that none of the treatment programs he later attended ever helped him to understand and overcome the impact of trauma: most treatment programs ignore trauma.
The issue, I pointed out, was not “the easy availability of heroin in Vancouver.” A recent New York Times article lamented the growing problem of heroin in New England where, in New Hampshire for example, forty people died of overdoses in 2012. And heroin is certainly available in LA, where Cory lived and publicly suffered from his opiate addiction. The issue was the terrible misunderstanding, at all levels of our society, of why people become addicted and how they can be helped.
The People reporter seemed genuinely interested in all this material, asked intelligent questions, and expressed appreciation. We spoke for well over half an hour.
The article never appeared, and I didn’t hear from the journalist until I wrote to ask. “The editors were planning a sidebar story on abuse issues with expert commentary, but they scrapped that plan later in the game when space got cut. Sorry about that.”
I understood perfectly. In Britain Kate Middleton gave birth and in Hollywood someone was probably sleeping with someone. How would a discussion of the causes of addiction and of the failure of our current system to understand it compare with matters of such urgent import?
Can we hope that perhaps the next celebrity casualty will ignite the needed discussion around addiction? Unlikely. What is certain is that in the meantime many other humans, unworthy of notice in the media mindset, will be buried daily–victims of drugs and, even more so, victims of ignorance.