How can humans free themselves from the painful cycles of addiction? Gabor Maté, a medical doctor who specializes in addiction treatment, suggests that ayahuasca might hold the answer, he explains how addiction imprints itself on the brain and how the psychedelic substance can help release people from their destructive habits.
“That’s where addictions come in,” the doctor continues. “Whatever we can’t do for ourselves, we want to see something from the outside to complete ourselves.”
Maté works with people who are pushed aside, stigmatized and forgotten about by society, who are trapped by their compulsions to relentlessly pursue sex, gambling, heroin and other addictions.
“I define addiction as any behavior that has negative consequences, that one is compelled to persist in, and relapse into and crave, despite those negative consequences,” he says. “The addictive personality is someone with the sense of deficient emptiness, with the sense of inchoate distress, without the capacity to sooth themselves and regulate themselves without that external source of relief.”
“If you’ve never had that from other sources, and you do heroin for the first time, you feel normal for the first time in your life,” he says. “You feel that life is worth living for the first time in your life.”
The brain’s circuits then build up pathways reinforcing the notion that normalcy and comfort can only come through the substance. Many people with addictions are never able to break free from their learned patterns.
That’s where ayahuasca comes in. The drink, brewed from plants that grow in the Amazon and used for centuries by native peoples for healing and religious purposes, can have a powerful effect, especially when taken as part of a ceremonial rite. Maté doesn’t expect that his patients could simply take the drink, submit to the ayahuasca experience and be healed. But “if there was a context in which the medication was used appropriately, ayahuasca, then I could see it being a big potential help,” he says.