Addictive behaviour can be understood to mean anything that depletes life whilst seeming to make it better. This can be shopping, internet pornography, eating or any compulsive behaviour that affects how we feel as well as drugs and alcohol. The fairy tale about red shoes by Hans Christian Andersen tells us a lot about this and how we can become trapped in what promised freedom. The story is about a poor girl who wears rags and lives modestly but fashions a pair of red shoes from scraps which she loves. She is adopted by a rich old woman who gives her all the things she needs materially but insists she is “good” (conforms) and throws her home made red shoes out. The girl is bereft until she spots another pair that are beautiful in a shop that she fervently desires. They’re a substitute for the old ones and despite disapproval she insists on wearing them. When she’s got them on she can’t stop dancing and she feels fantastic. Soon they force her to dance in a way that is contrary to her own volition and she struggles to get them off. At the end the shoes are controlling her and she begs people to cut them off her as she becomes skeletal and worn out.
The story describes the pull of addictive behaviour as it promises a feeling of release, elation and powerfulness. Working with this is in therapy, it’s useful to ask what the drug, substance or behaviour does for the individual. Behavioural approaches focus on what the addiction does to you. Clearly this is important given the destructive nature of addictive processes which can wreak havoc on lives. However an addicted person often struggles between two polarised positions of giving in to the desired behaviour and giving it up. It is important to be able to tolerate and understand these two opposing positions. The red shoes represent the thrill of the addictive behaviour that actually fails to satisfy because it can’t fill the hunger that was lost when the shoes that were created by the child were discarded. Those original shoes were precious and had been taken away. What helps is to find a bridge between the two positions of “giving in” and “giving up” so that something new and authentic can emerge like the self created ragged original red shoes.
The Red Shoes
I stand in the ring
in the dead city
and tie on the red shoes.
Everything that was calm
Is mine, the watch with an ant walking
The toes lined up like dogs
The stove long before it boils toads,
The parlor, white in winter, long before it flies,
The doe lying down on moss, long before the bullet.
I tie on the red shoes.
They are not mine.
They are my mother’s.
Her mother’s before.
Handed down like an heirloom
but hidden like shameful letters
The house and the street where they belong
are hidden and all the women, too,
All those girls
who wore the red shoes,
each boarded a train that would not stop.
Stations flew by like suitors and would not stop.
They all danced like trout on the hook.
They were played with.
They tore off their ears like safety pins.
Their arms fell off them and became hats.
Their heads rolled off and sang down the street.
And their feet- oh God their feet in the market place-
their feet, those two beetles, ran for the corner
and then danced forth as if they were proud.
Surely, people exclaimed,
surely they were mechanical. Otherwise…
But the feet went on.
The feet could not stop.
They were wound up like a cobra that sees you
They were elastic pulling itself in two
They were islands during an earthquake.
They were ships colliding and going down.
Never mind you and me.
They could not listen. They could not stop.
What they did was the death dance
What they did would do them in.