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The Myth of Normal
On anxiety, attention, and Gabor Mate
Attention is a fickle animal. Slippery when it’s just out of reach, elusive even when you are in its grips. Over the last month, finding the stillness needed to fuel attention and drive creativity has felt like a fool’s errand. My little one has been out of school on holiday break, and I have spent the last five weeks spending most of the day with him. This is a privileged position, but it means I have little time to think and write, which an astrologer once told me I need more than air itself.
Beyond parenting duties, something denser has been weighing on my attention span. I reestablished contact with my father last year after an absence of 30 years. One doesn’t restart a severely fractured relationship easily, so I have been taking it slow. We exchanged emails for a couple of months, but then the emails stopped around the same time my little one went on holiday break. This triggered an unexpectedly deep emotional reaction in me.
Around the new year, my anxiety levels spiked. It felt like a constant low-grade heart attack or indigestion. Along with the physical symptoms, I have been falling down rabbit holes in my mind thinking that my body was failing. It was only last week when I got a handle on what was happening.
The sudden stop in my father's emails reignited all the emotions connected to my abandonment as a child. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to process his departure rationally when he left. Could an adult even understand such a rupture? So I developed a coping mechanism of persistent anxiety (and a pretty dim view of other people, which is a story for another day) that has never subsided. Even when things are going well, I secretly fear everything will come crashing down. The anxiety is a defense against being surprised again. I learned to live like this, but the recent outburst of anxiety escaped my control. While it might sound counterintuitive, my recent experience has been an extraordinary gift.
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I feel the source of a lifetime of anxiety for the first time. I can see how it transcends space and time. Despite all these years, the trauma of abandonment lies deep in my psyche with enough power to make me feel like I am having a heart attack. Reconnecting with my dad unlocked these true emotions.
I have found Gabor Maté’s work indispensable as I negotiate these avenues of my psyche. His new book, The Myth of Normal, has given me fresh insights into the issue of anxiety and childhood trauma. Maté has become an influencer with his approach to trauma and the global mental health crisis. You would have to be living under a rock if you weren’t familar with the depths of our mental health challenges. Every week, a new piece is published about the crisis. This is especially true and shocking in the United States.
Maté’s argument is simple: childhood trauma manifests in physical and emotional turmoil later in life. This doesn’t only include extreme instances of trauma. In fact, we have become blind to the depths of trauma we experienced as children. Moreover, childhood trauma often stems from generational trauma replayed over and over in our family lines. Overarching this gloomy picture is a modern capitalist system antithetical to healthy families and children.
The body remembers
It’s easy to blame our troubles on our parents, but much more challenging to see our parents as part of a long line of trauma. Armed with this perspective, our ability to break the line of trauma has a much greater chance of success. Yet, the current mental health crisis isn’t solely due to generational trauma. Maté spends a great deal of time explaining how modern capitalism has worn down our ability to raise children in nurturing environments.
From a biological standpoint, capitalism’s family model is unnatural. “No hominin species could have survived long enough to evolve had its members seen themselves as atomized individuals, pitted by Nature against their fellow beings,” he writes. “Contrary to our present ways of operating, a traditional view of self-interest would be enhancing one’s connection and membership in the community, to everyone’s benefit.”
Human babies are hardwired to be close to their caregivers for a far more extended period than most other animals. As such, Maté focuses on the trauma of sleep training as an example of the West’s broken approach to child-rearing. When we put a baby in a dark room and let them cry until they can’t anymore, which is how the most extreme form of sleep training works, we are sending a clear message: no one is there to comfort you in your time of need. It doesn’t take a degree in child psychology to see how detrimental this can be for early childhood development. Yet, it is considered a mainstream and safe practice – and a lucrative industry.
In some indigenous cultures, however, babies aren’t even put down for the first two years of their lives. These cultures tend to feature larger family units in which the burden of raising a baby is shared among a group of adults. That’s hard to replicate in a situation of one or two parents who need to get up and work in the morning.
Weak or broken attachment to caregivers in early childhood is the root cause of many problems, from drug addiction to ADHD and depression. This formative period of our lives sets the ground – whether solid or shaky – for all the learning, behavior, and health (or lack of it) that comes later. Given this reality, Maté continues, “children’s sense of security, trust in the world, interrelationships with others, and, above all, connection to their authentic emotions hinge on the consistent availability of attuned, non-stressed, and emotionally reliable caregivers. The more stressed or distracted the latter, the shakier the emotional architecture of the child’s mind will be.”
No wonder I have suffered from anxiety most of my life. As I dip my toes back into my childhood by reestablishing a connection with my estranged father, the shaky “emotional architecture” from childhood has come to dominate my current reality. Even though I am an adult, I feel powerless to control my recent struggles with anxiety. Because one of my caregivers abandoned me and the other was in the grips of depression, there is little wonder that my body reacts the way it does even after three decades. It’s part of my foundation as an individual.
Maté doesn’t offer many direct solutions to the mental health crisis. He is an advocate of using psychedelics to understand and heal trauma. His disdain for sleep training and other popular Western child-raising techniques is evident. Yet, his lack of prescription is refreshing. We need a new conversation about how we raise our children.
It’s become commonplace to assume that we are “fucking up our kids” in some way or another. Nora Ephron used to say that she knew she had succeeded as a parent when her children could afford their own therapy. While that’s a brilliant joke, it’s not normal to assume this is simply how it is. Maté’s prophetic gift is to hold a mirror up to society and give a face to collective trauma. Only when we look in the mirror can we start to truly heal.
After a longer-than-expected holiday break on account of how much time and energy it takes to keep a four-year-old happy and entertained, I am back on a regular publishing cycle. I have prepared three pieces to ensure a regular publishing cycle for the rest of the month. Wherever this might find you, I am happy that you are here.