The Current

Workaholism, unresolved trauma contributors to decline in overall health, says Canadian doctor in new book

Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté says our overall health is on the decline — and he blames the society we live in. He and his son Daniel Maté discuss trauma and the power of a good walk for our mental health in their new book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture.

‘If physicians actually understood the scientific literature … we would not just hand out pills’: physician

Dr. Gabor Maté (left) and son Daniel Maté discuss trauma and the power of a good walk for our mental health in their new book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. (Knopf Canada, Ken Wilkinson)

Family physician Dr. Gabor Maté doesn't hold back when asked about his regrets as a parent.

"The fact is that when my kids were small, I was a workaholic physician, very much respected in the community and well remunerated," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"But I wasn't emotionally available for my children… Because of my workaholism, when you're at home, you're irritable because you're in withdrawal, and that's what my kids experienced."

Daniel Maté, Gabor's son and a composer, lyricist, and playwright, said he experienced his father's absence in two ways: in the literal and emotional senses.

"The ways he would have to recuperate from all the workaholism would involve sitting alone, kind of sometimes moodily in the living room, blasting Mahler," he told Galloway.

"[This] creates a [sense of] 'I'm not the most important thing in this person's life,' which is painful for a child."

Gabor's workaholism — a compulsive need to always be working — is not rare. According to a 2007 Statistics Canada study, nearly one-third — 31 per cent — of Canadians aged 19 to 64 identify themselves as workaholics.

But just because it's common doesn't mean it should be considered healthy or natural, according to Gabor.

"It's considered normal in a society that children don't see their parents the whole day, and the people they do see are not emotionally nurturing caregivers," he said. "It's considered normal in the society for people to work in stressful jobs that impose mental and physical burdens on their systems."

"What I'm saying is that what is considered to be normal in a society in many cases is unhealthy and unnatural for human health and for optimal healthy human development."

That point is one of the main focuses of Gabor and Daniel's new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. 

Released on Sept. 13, the book untangles some misconceptions about what makes people sick, and offers a guide for health, healing and challenging perceptions of normalcy and trauma.

"My intention in this book is that people should understand themselves and they should understand the conditions that shape their lives, their thoughts, their relationships, their health, their illness," Gabor said.

Daniel Maté says walking is 'a medicinal outlet and a conduit to loosen things up, which is exactly what needs to happen if we're going to get healthier.' (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Healing in nature

Daniel said he believes society sends a lot of mixed messages about what's normal.

"On the one hand, we're told to be all you can be and to be yourself — that's often sold to us as a kind of brand," he said. 

"At the same time, we've been conditioned to either be nice and accommodating or to squelch certain parts of us. And we have these personality patterns that were built in many ways as coping mechanisms to deal with the deficiencies and adversities of our childhoods."

Daniel, who runs what he refers to as "a mental chiropractic service" called Walk With Daniel, said he believes people end up "misaligned inside of ourselves."

"So if you think of the mind as having various constituent parts … these are thoughts, emotions, prejudices, perceptions, assumptions, when all of these things are working together, we are operating with a full deck, you might say," he said.

"When we're not, or when these things are clashing against each other — as I think is normalized in our society, a kind of institutionalized neurosis that many people end up with — we simply can't be our best selves."

He said the practice of walking — and movement in general — is like "a medicinal outlet and a conduit to loosen things up, which is exactly what needs to happen if we're going to get healthier," he said.

Gabor said connecting with nature helps us to develop authenticity and connect with our real selves. He points to former Olympian Clara Hughes, who would go on months' long, continental walks during parts of the year in a quest to be her authentic self.

So in turning our back on nature, we're turning our back on our own nature as well.-Dr. Gabor Maté, family physician

"We may not all want to walk from Alaska to Mexico, but we all want to be authentic. We want to be ourselves."

He added that nature is a healing process has been something known and practiced by Indigenous societies worldwide, but it was forgotten about in our "very alienated society."

"So in turning our back on nature, we're turning our back on our own nature as well."

Nothing to be ashamed of

Gabor said one of the reasons he brings up his regrets as a parent is to emphasize the multigenerational spread of trauma, which is a point he tries to make in the book.

"I was a traumatized child; my wife had her traumas," he said. "Then, these two traumatized people unwittingly and despite all the love for children, passed on our trauma to our children."

Although some might try to hide their trauma and dysfunction from the public eye, Gabor said there's nothing shameful about sharing.

"This is just to be ourselves as human beings, and human life is a process of learning and growth and development throughout the lifespan," he said.

"If physicians actually understood the scientific literature … on the relationship between stress and trauma in autoimmune disease, we would not just hand out pills.-Gabor Maté,

Gabor said he hopes his family's experience of trauma, coupled with the science of it, can "widen the lens to look at the social conditions that drive those dynamics."

In the book, Gabor refers to this as being trauma literate — which he believes is lacking in several academic fields.

"The average physician, the average medical student, does not get a single lecture on trauma and its impacts on physical and mental health, which is unbelievable given the vast literature," he said.

As a result, he said some fields like law and medicine lack compassion and information on how to deal with trauma.

"If physicians actually understood the scientific literature … on the relationship between stress and trauma in autoimmune disease, we would not just hand out pills. We would also talk to people about the stresses in their lives," he said.

On top of that, he said better training would help educators recognize that children with "so-called bad behaviours" are actually experiencing the impacts of painful experiences.

"We would relate to these kids not as behaviour or learning problems, but as human beings in development — and we would ask ourselves, 'how do we promote their development?'" he said. "So it would change everything."


Produced by Julie Crysler and Cathy Simon.

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