Conventional physicians and psychiatrists are focused on their patients’ presenting symptoms, and most often prescribe medication to suppress the symptoms of emotional, physical or psychic illness. Just how helpful is this approach? 

In The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Dr Gabor Maté and his son Daniel, challenge our notions of human nature and the human brain’s ability to function optimally in an increasingly toxic culture. Maté makes the most rational argument for our bodies’ illness stemming from unresolved or suppressed trauma.

The grind: In a capitalist culture which values profit over people, ‘normal’ presents itself as leaving your infant in daycare, commuting to work to earn a living in cubicles, where the organisational culture is closely modelled on the rigid discipline of conformity in schools. We enter the rat race because we have to earn money for our commute, to pay for homes and possessions in competition with our neighbours, and produce perfect children who deliver top grades in class. The dis-ease becomes clear when we listen to friends and colleagues bitching about the lousy deal life dishes out. Can we blame them?

From childhood, we’re lucky if we are raised by compassionate parents who encourage the healthy expressions of anger, joy, curiosity and adventure, and promote living authentically.  Regrettably, too many experience neglect, betrayal and / or trauma which makes us dissociate from our authentic selves to escape the pain.  When young we had no choice but to depend upon the adults around us. No matter how tough, survival demands we do what it takes to maintain these attachments, so we adapt rather than die.

Emotional Band-Aid: Maté says trauma occurs when bad things happen and we have no one to turn to.  He says both big-T trauma (sexual, emotional and/ or physical abuse) and little-t trauma (neglect, abandonment, loss of loved ones and emotionally unavailable parents) lead our young minds to conclude we are the problem. So we shrink ourselves and find ways to bandage the wounds in the only way we know.

In a hypothetical dysfunctional family, where the same siblings witnessed parental abuse, feared their parents or were violated sexually, there could be a range of coping mechanisms. Rewriting the family narrative as happy, investing in Band-Aid stock to cover festering wounds, or separation from fellow siblings whose depression, auto-immune disorders and cancer refute the myth of the happy family, are common responses to childhood trauma.

Gagged voices: On an individual level, each may present with endometriosis (very common among girls who have been abused), while in others it can show up in psychiatric dis-ease or addictions ranging from alcoholism to being a work- or shop-aholic.  When reality is too painful, we run from it by silencing the voice of our authentic self. At our core, our shining light is alerting us that something is awry. If we listen to this voice and dig deep to find what we are looking for, we embark on a path to unravelling the past, finding our inherent human worth and understanding how and why survival demanded that we separate from our authentic self.

Where poverty, isolation, racism, misogyny and phobias of otherness intersect, the unravelling is more complicated.  Unmanageable stress, disconnecting from loved ones, and unexplained illness cannot exist unless we lacked love, psychological safety and healthy, supportive interactions with other humans. This is the case for too many people raised in a world that does not provide for human needs.

Brain jam: Maté makes an irrefutable case for a direct link between all forms of trauma and the limitation of healthy intellectual development. If you have to learn what happiness is, it is unlikely that you will have the same zest for life, enthusiasm and intellectual development as a non-traumatised child.

In a society where conforming to rigid structure, routine, unquestioned authority and fixed gender roles are ‘normal’, we are constantly ‘on’ and this keeps us disconnected from ourselves. When the inner voice of vulnerable strength prods us to peel off the Band-Aid and cleanse the wound, we step onto the pathway towards health.

NO!: A good starting point is to notice when we can’t say ‘no’, especially if these are things we don’t want to do. The discomfort tells us what we sacrificed to please or appease those we depended upon. With enough repetition, these habits embed as behaviours and this becomes who we think we are, the sham we call our personality.  Far from it, these were just habits we adopted to adapt or fit in.

To restore our health, we need to heal our wounds by remembering and acknowledging the pain.  Maté reassures us that we will never feel as vulnerable as we did in childhood and, in truth, our return to our authentic selves can only happen once we start being honest with ourselves by feeling the hurts and realising that we were not to blame.

7 A’s: Maté’s pathway to health:

  • Acceptance: Acknowledge the pain
  • Awareness: Notice what our body is telling us, bodies tell the truth
  • Anger: Rage is self-protective, it lets us know when we’ve had enough
  • Autonomy: Healthy boundaries teach others what we will and won’t accept
  • Attachment: Seeking out real relationships where we are free to be ourselves
  • Assertion: Having agency to be who we are rather than acting out a role
  • Affirmation: Express our creative need to make a difference in the work or calling we choose


Video: For those who prefer not to read, Maté offers a summary of his book at the launch event in London: