The Myth of Normal: My Take Aways from Gabor Mate's New Book

Physiotherapist and author Brent Stevenson discusses Gabor Mate's new book The Myth of Normal.

Brent Stevenson

For the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of listening to Daniel Mate’s storytelling while I drove to work, ate my lunch on the False Creek Sea wall, and walked my dog at sunset through the beautiful cemeteries in the centre of Vancouver.  My September mornings started as a bit of a fire drill, helping my three children and wife get out the door, all heading in different directions to their respective schools, while I headed to one of my two offices to work as a physiotherapist trying to help exhausted health professionals, stressed out office workers and pain focussed people looking for help.  I spliced my busy reality with the theatrical voice of Gabor Mate’s son systematically explaining why everyone around me, including myself, seemed to be having such a hard time settling into an increasingly chaotic world.

So much of what Gabor has to say rings true with my experience both personally and professionally as a husband and father of three that spends his days trying to help people, many times at the expense of his own needs.  It is easier to help other people than to know where to begin in attempting to help yourself because it seems to be human nature to repress our emotions in order to deal with what is right in front of you.  The Myth of Normal, does a very compassionately thorough job of creating context as to how and why many people are negatively impacted by the cultural norms that we have developed, and how the disconnect between our inherent needs as human beings and the resources provided by our institutions can be the driving force behind many people’s ill health.  

In my first book, Why Things Hurt: Life Lessons from an Injury-prone Physical Therapist, I attempted to help people understand how and why people get to a place of discomfort in their bodies as opposed to searching for a diagnosis of what is wrong with them.  I touched on the topics of mindfulness and the role of stress, but the content was more heavily focussed on explaining the physicality of our bodies.  I still believe everything I wrote to be true, but I have come to appreciate a whole other level of ‘why’ after experiencing the world go through a global pandemic and my taking the time to read books like What Happened to You, How to Change Your Mind, and now The Myth of Normal.  

My job as a physiotherapist, is to meet people where they are at, to try and help them with their immediate physical dysfunctions, while in the long run teaching them how to become more antifragile while living in an imperfect world.  Most people will acknowledge that they are under stress, but those same people typically do not understand what that stress does to their bodies or why sometimes their body may exude stress while they don’t perceive cognitive strain.  In The Myth of Normal, Gabor Mate tells stories, interprets the research and expresses an empathetic understanding and explanation of the roots of many people’s stresses.  Reading or listening to this book will help you move beyond acknowledging the stress that you are experiencing and help you process what happened or is happening to you to generate that stress.

One of my biggest challenges as a physiotherapist is to try and help someone feel better physically and explain the root cause of their problems, all in a series of thirty-minute appointments.  I listened to Daniel Mate for eighteen hours while he read me the wisdom of his seventy-eight-year-old father, but most of my clients that need to hear his words the most are unlikely to watch more than a thirty second Instagram clip of Gabor talking about his book on various podcasts.  It becomes my job and that of other health professionals, teachers, and empathetic friends and family to support the people around us and pass on knowledge in digestible chunks as people are ready to hear them.  For healthcare professionals like myself, it is a source of stress to only be able to help people in short snippets of time, which is why some of us try to create resources to help people help themselves.  It is evident that Gabor experiences writing as a cathartic process that helps him make sense of the world around him and where he fits into it.  I think everybody could benefit by taking the time to read or listen to the teachings of a man that has experienced and witnessed as much trauma and healing as he has over the past seventy plus years.  

I too, collect my thoughts via writing in the small pieces of time that I make for myself.  I have found it to be an outlet when I don’t get the chance to tell my whole story to someone, and a way to slow my brain down and make sense of my thoughts and experiences.  I haven’t been posting much content on this blog in recent years because I have been writing my second book that happens to dovetail very nicely with The Myth of Normal, in its ability to create context for people’s day to day discomfort, by means of storytelling and empathetic knowledge translation about the human body.  Gabor discusses illness in the form of medical conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure and rheumatic arthritis while I touch on the less sinister, but the more common experiences of low back pain, migraines and physical dysfunctions that may be the precursors to what push people into the medical system, for better or for worse.  I bring the perspective of a forty-three-year-old physiotherapist that has injured most parts of his body and is standing on the shoulders of authors like Gabor Mate, Michael Pollan, Bruce Perry and Daniel Siegel.  

As a parent of three soon-to-be teenagers, the son of two sets of baby boomers and the husband to a social worker in training, I resonate with the challenges of three different generations as we all move into an unstable future together.  I have experienced the cracks in our public education system, the crushing pressures on our public healthcare system and a growing distrust in information, all at a time when my children need to be taught and my parents are going to need to be taken care of.  At work, I am feeling the bodies of stressed-out mothers, overworked doctors, underpaid teachers, and lonely seniors all reaching out for help with their own seemingly unique challenges.  I enjoy my helping role as a clinician, but my brain functions at a systems level and it is stressful to experience our societal systems approaching their breaking points.  

The goal of my book is to build on the values expressed in The Myth of Normal, and help layout a path to integrate education and healthcare to teach our children and families about how our bodies and minds grow, endure, recover, and degenerate over time.  We need to empower individuals to understand the messages of their bodies and more assertively look after themselves and those around them, instead of relying on government run programs that can’t possibly help everyone.  I believe that the harm reduction strategies that Gabor has championed are the most humane way to deal with our current health care crisis while equal attention is paid to helping educate our young families how to cope with the stresses that are still to come.  I hope to lay out my stories, explanations and systems-based plans in the new book I am working on currently titled Why We Hurt: Understanding How to Be Comfortable in Your Own Body. 

In the meantime here is a list of interesting blogs, podcasts, & videos that I hope more people make the time to read or listen to:

Blog Post Book Reviews by Brent

How to Change Your Mind: Books, Physio & Psychedelics   

What Happened to You?


Gabor Mate on Tim Ferriss Show discussing trauma and illness in a toxic culture

Michael Pollan on Tim Ferriss Show discussing psychedelics

Dr Paul Conti on Huberman Lab Podcast talking about therapy and life challenges


Dr Bruce Perry talking with Oprah Winfrey about how our brains develop and process trauma

Hope this helps!

Feel free to leave a comment below and I will try me best to respond in a timely manner.


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