E. suggested I read “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” as part of my introduction to Vancouver, and gosh but was he right in recommending it.
The book’s author, Gregor Mate, is a doctor who works in Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside – a neighbourhood known for being a drug zone. Mate uses interviews and character sketches of his patients as the individual grounding for his discussion of the causes and outcomes of addiction, as well as the detrimental drug policies that currently govern drug addicts’ behaviour. The chapters vary among first person reflections on his own addicted behaviour, reflections on the life experiences of his patients, accessible descriptions of brain science and development and exhortations for evidence based addictions/drug policies.
The book is, simply put, brilliant. Mate methodically lays out his argument all the while drawing in personal narratives that make the science not only accessible but entirely compelling. The reader cares about addictions science and drug laws because we are made to know the addicts – ourselves! – as people. The demand that we reserve judgement because we too, find ourselves in addicted patterns, or because we begin to understand the lack-of-choice inherent in addicts’ actions, persuasively asks us to reconsider our long held judgements about those addicted to X or Z.
I’m anxious for someone I know to read the book, too, so that I might discuss the ending – a suggestion that the ‘cure’ for addicted behaviour might be meditation and mindfulness – and the overarching premise of the book that addiction isn’t so much a choice as a set of circumstances thrust upon that must be chosen against, refused, rather than actively sought. My local library is hosting a book club night on the book, and I’m eager to go and hear what others in my community thought of the book, but I’d really (really) like for you to read it, too, and let me know your thoughts.
Given how much I’m struggling to sort out how to reconcile the gross inequality I’ve been encountering in Vancouver, and given my own (relative) addictions, the book has been incredible in provoking thought, challenging assumptions, and arguing for a kind of generosity to the self and to others that is otherwise unspoken.