In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts Book Summary - In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts Book explained in key points
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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts summary

Gabor Maté

Close Encounters with Addiction

4.6 (32 ratings)
19 mins
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    In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
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    Who are addicts?

    Serena is just over 30 years old and addicted to narcotics. She has lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since she was 15, when she gave birth to her daughter. The father was Serena’s auntie’s boyfriend, who had molested her and threatened to beat her auntie if she said anything about it. This, sadly, was part of a pattern. Serena had been sexually abused by both her grandfather and her uncle since she was seven years old. 

    Serena’s experiences resemble those of many other addicts Dr. Gabor Maté has worked with at the Portland Hotel Society. The Portland is a facility where addicts are provided with medical treatment, clean rooms, food, and group activities like poetry readings and movie nights. There, patients are accepted, no matter how troubled they are – or how much trouble they cause. 

    Claire, for instance, is no longer allowed into the reception area due to her outbursts. Seemingly without warning, she launches into tirades, screaming at other patients and breaking whatever she can get her hands on. Yet most of the time, she follows Dr. Maté and other staff members in the street, asking for hugs.

    So, yes, addicts look like Serena and Claire. But they also look like people we know and admire. The psychologist Sigmund Freud was a cocaine addict. William Stewart Halsted, a pioneer of modern surgical practice, was addicted to opiates for over 40 years. 

    Addicts also look like Dr. Maté. At face value, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Dr. Maté lives in a comfortable home in a nicer part of Vancouver, and he doesn’t need illegal substances to get through his days. Yet nevertheless, he’s an addict –⁠ and his drug of dependence is classical music. 

    In a little over a month, Dr. Maté blew two thousand dollars on classical CDs in spite of repeated promises to his wife that he’d stop binging. He frequently spends his days obsessing about what music to purchase next. He can’t walk the dog, read, or write without music in his ears – yet he has boxes of CDs he’s never listened to. When he goes on a spending spree, he shamefully hides his stash on the porch.

    You might be finding it difficult to understand how Dr. Maté’s classical music obsession could be classed as an addiction. We’ll explain further in the next section.

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    What is In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts about?

    In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008) is a heartful exploration of the complex condition known as addiction. It tells the real-life stories of addicts, who are so often denied the space to do so, alongside science-based analyses of why and how people get addicted. Importantly, it also challenges us to think of the ways, obvious or not, in which we too are addicts – and what we can do to heal ourselves.

    Who should read In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?

    • People with addiction, who know someone with addiction, or who work with addiction
    • Pop-science “junkies”
    • Social justice advocates and anyone opposed to the War on Drugs

    About the Author

    Dr. Gabor Maté is a Canadian physician who in his multi-decade career has run a family practice, served as the medical coordinator at a hospital palliative care unit, and been the staff physician at a facility for patients with severe addiction. For his work in addiction treatment and mental health, he received the 2011 Civic Merit Award of the City of Vancouver; in 2018, he received the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. He has written numerous best-selling books, including Scattered Minds, When the Body Says No, and The Myth of Normal.

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