The Wooden Shoe

Most of us who have worked in addictions have heard the slogan: relapse is part of recovery. I believe this to be true both in the addiction entrenched world as well as the ‘everything seems to be normal’ world. Yet, I also believe that our interpretation of our self-worth is the wooden shoe that stomps all over our garden path of new beginnings and recovery. Yes, that’s right, the wooden shoe of relapse. Not exactly poetic, but at some point, here, I’ll explain.

When I began working at an addictions recovery centre on Vancouver Island I was told a story by my colleagues; a paradigm for managing expectations around patterns of healing in order to create a more nurturing and supportive environment for clients. A man in his forties, a client of the centre, was well on his way to becoming healthy. He had been at the centre for several months, arriving with many of the same issues many men have who arrive at the centre. He had burnt bridges with his family and friends, had long since lost his job as a tradesman, and had broken bridges with those in his field. He had nowhere left to turn, and he wanted help with his addiction which had long become unmanageable. So, now several months into the program he began going to school, working towards finishing his high school diploma. He had reconnected with his family, and was working towards rebuilding those bridges. I was told he carried with him a vibrancy and joy, which he himself stated not ever really knowing or feeling before, or vaguely remembering as if the memory of some other lifetime. In other words, he was beginning to become healthy. He left the centre one weekday morning to go to the education centre he was attending. Nothing unique about that morning. Nothing that would alert anyone to the impending situation that would come later that day. The cops called the centre that afternoon stating that he was in town, drunk, walking in traffic. Later it was learned that earlier in the morning he had quit school without warning, walking out saying he was ‘tired of this shit’. Then went straight to the liquor store. He didn’t come back to the centre, vanishing into the city after his release from the police. Indeed, the wooden shoe of relapse had been at work.

As I began working at the centre many of the men that came for healing would begin to see successes. Their realities would transform with the rising potential they began to experience, developing new pathways for self-respect. Yet, they weren’t used to success, to experiencing inner wealth, to developing spiritual health, to feeling self-respect. The depth of their addictions formed deep grooves in their psyche, meaning that stepping out of those old patterns into new ones meant facing many walls. And as those walls came down, so did the sense of security and safety found in those deep grooves of addiction. So, after a while of rising potential and new life many of the men would sabotage their success in order to regain the comfort and safety of familiar ground, even if that safety of familiarity meant self-destruction.

Feeling out of control is natural to creating new pathways. Feeling out of control is natural when we begin reinterpreting ourselves to align with what is core to our being; especially when the experiencer doesn’t yet have in place the coping mechanisms to manage well with this lack of familiarity; with this newly forming sense of self. Self-destruction is the essence of the old pattern both because of its familiarity and because it aligns with the self-identification to which many of the men at the centre had grown accustomed: the black sheep of the family, the down and out, the unlovable, the rebel - all these self-identities carry a pattern of isolation with them meaning that losing job, friends, family aligns with the identity. However, losing self-respect is even more elusive. It is the underbelly, the unseen, the rug that is pulled out from under our life; and it is lost long before loved ones and livelihood. As the addict mind remembers joy and rekindles relationships there is much to be done to attend to this underbelly, this bleak interpretation of ourselves often developed long long ago and deployed with each run on the familiar track, deepening our grooves.

One of the truths I hold close to me is that we can’t change the events of our lives, we can’t change what has happened, but we can change our perspective, our interpretation. Each person who steps into the world of addictions recovery believes they are worth saving, worth fighting for. Yet, the goal for many of us, is to sustain wellness, so that even when we fall back into old patterns, we allow ourselves the kindness to make mistakes without sabotaging ourselves (or continuing to sabotage ourselves).

I am quite familiar with self-sabotage. I used to sabotage relationships, thereby sabotaging myself. Even when I began maturing and making healthy choices in many aspects of my life, I would enter into a meaningful relationship and sabotage it. For those fans out there of etymology ‘sabotage’ emerges from Old French use of ‘sabot’, meaning ‘wooden shoe’. The intention of its usage indicates breaking something by kicking it with a wooden shoe, or to walk noisily and disrupt a peaceful soundscape. When we sabotage ourselves, at least from my experience, it’s more like kicking down the structures of our new reality, of our new path - a new path which likely is still tender, fragile, developing. Hence, the wooden shoe of relapse. When we self-sabotage we trample on the new growth, we kick down the garden fence, motivated by a deep subconscious urge to reclaim our sense of safety, security and familiarity. We return to the identity not where failure is an ever lingering possibility, but the very foundation that supports us - a bottom of sorts.

For me, I consciously identified with the hopeless romantic, but that simply allowed my ego to create an image for my deeply unconscious pain holding the belief that I wasn’t worth another’s love. Sabotaging a relationship, then, may be rationalized by the hopeless romantic image, just as sabotaging addictions recovery may be rationalized by ‘I’m tired of this shit’, or the image of the black sheep, but it is motivated by the unaddressed need to regain control over the emotional upheaval brought on by living in the unfamiliar reality of new beginnings. We do this, many of us: trample on our newly planted garden path with a wooden shoe in order to get back to how we think of ourselves, to get back to the comfort and familiarity of failure, misery, isolation - those emotional worlds we feel we have some control over.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run with Wolves, writes about this, portraying the psychic feature as an Animal Groom, often found in fairy tales, and represented in dreams. This is the archetype within women in particular, that seeks to cut down our aspirations in life. For the working metaphor here, the Animal Groom is the Wooden Shoe.

“The presence of this factor in the psyche accounts for why women who say they wish to have a relationship instead do all they can to sabotage a loving one. This is how women who set goals to be here, there, or wherever by such and such a time never even begin the first leg of the journey, or abandon it at the first hardship. This is how all the procrastinations which give rise to self-hatred, all the shame-feelings which are pushed down and away to fester, all the new beginnings which are sorely needed, and all the long overdue endings are not met. (53)”

The self-sabotage comes as a result of our lack of awareness of this part of our psyche that we must encounter, confront, stand up to, and dismantle. It is enough to say here that this aspect within us seeking to keep us small, silent, impotent exists regardless of our history, though some of us may have grown up in environments (and may have subconsciously recreated environments later in life) that did not encourage us to identify and stand up to that within us which seeks to limit us, and silence us.

In order for each of us to access our potential we must begin to ask the ‘key’ questions that help us develop a healthy awareness of how we limit ourselves, how we sabotage ourselves. Shifting our interpretation of our narrative requires ‘keys’, Estes writes, to unlocking the doors that hide what lays dying within us. So, where do you think that door is in you? What lies beyond it? What do you know deep within you that you wish you did not know? What within you lays dying? These are messy questions, yet they send us on the journey, possibly the only journey worth being on - that which helps us discover our worth, our voice, our boundaries, our Light. When we talk about self-worth we are talking about what in us is worth protecting, caring for, fighting for, speaking up for. On the journey to discovering our value, we are resurrecting what in us that lays dying, that hasn’t been nurtured perhaps since we can remember. For those of you familiar with the Hebrew Bible, it makes me think of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones. When we are willing, whether we are ready or not, we are all sent into the wilderness to breath life into dry bones, resurrecting often the most powerful parts of ourselves which lay baking, lifeless in the scorching desert; lifeless due to inattention and unawareness caused by that voice that tells us we can’t, we aren’t, and perpetuated by our living into patterns that echo that voice and resonate with an inner identity of, ultimately, ‘not good enough’. Perhaps the first step, then, is to simply be willing to face what needs to be faced. And then, the questions.

The thread that runs through my experience with clients at the recovery centre, patients at the hospital, and clients who come to my home is the often shrouded expression of longing to feel worthy; worthy of healing, worthy of another’s love, worthy of a new beginning, worthy of living into the core of who we truly are. We may get healed, we may find love, we may develop healthy coping strategies, begin a new life path, yet if we don’t believe that there is a self worthy of these things then their arrival into our life (when we are unwilling to face ourselves) may simply be fodder for the pattern of self-sabotage. Time to bring out the wooden shoe, trample on our newly planted garden in order to get back to how we think of ourselves, back to what we’re used to. I always love it when I meet clients who come seeking boundaries - seeking that ‘no!’ - often it’s expressed as a desire for the health of a particular relationship, maybe with mom, maybe with a lover, maybe with friends - but what must come first is saying ‘no!’ to the inner voice that tramples our garden path. Seeking boundaries, from my perspective, is a longing to begin fighting for, protecting, encouraging the true self to shine; a no longer wanting to play nice, no longer wanting to settle. Creating healthy boundaries is the practice of recognizing that there is a self worth protecting. So, we pick up the wooden shoe once used to trample our new growth, and we use it to stand taller, to see farther, and (when necessary) to kick down what in us seeks to limit our potential, our worth, our value, our inherent goodness.

So, not when you are ready, but when you are willing, ask yourself: What in you lays dying? What in you is worth standing up for and resurrecting?