The Nail in My Shoe: A Lesson in Dealing with Suffering

I’ve been in recovery for the better part of a decade, and I like to think I’ve become a more effective human being, but for several months I’ve been living with a nail in my shoe. Literally. At some point, the little guy lodged himself dead center in the sole, just below the arch of my foot, and began his work. The special thing about this particular nail was that it was just barely long enough to give me an occasional poke when I stepped wrong on a stair, or a sidewalk, or a root while hiking. It never broke the skin or caused any real damage to my foot, but the occasional stab was enough to inspire frustration and slight adjustments in the way I approached stairs, sidewalks, and hiking. It was having a real impact in my life, however slight, and I was in denial about it.

For a while, I assumed I just had a strain in the arch of my foot, or a little rock beneath the pad, or that the shoe was itself was defective. Finally, after hundreds of little stabs, I settled on the fact that I just needed a new pair of shoes. The pain was never enough to inspire a close inspection of the shoe to figure out the problem. Sure I looked at it, but never close or long enough to solve it. I didn’t get around to fixing it until the pain got sufficiently bad.

When I finally found the nail, I was on a hike with some friends in the Cascade Mountains. We were walking over some very jagged volcanic rock, perfect terrain for a nail in the sole of a shoe that wants to do its work. The entire way up, the bottom of my foot was being viciously poked. What had been a pain I experienced occasionally, and had largely avoided by climbing stairs on my toes and avoiding sidewalks and roots, was now unavoidable. Eventually, in a state of severe frustration, I stopped, removed my shoe, and looked until I saw the nail’s little head, perfectly obscured between two treads, almost invisible. What a revelation! I dug it out with a pocketknife. Piece of cake. And my problem was solved.

I feel pretty foolish thinking about that nail in my shoe now, the simple solution, and the months I ignored it and went about my business, accepting the threat of little pokes to the bottom of my foot as a fact of owning this particular pair of shoes. But when I think about that nail, I understand it’s really just a metaphor for the way in which I deal (or don’t deal) with those things in my life that cause me pain. Perhaps I’m especially talented in my capacity to ignore things, but before you deem me a complete idiot, I’d like to suggest that metaphorical nails in our shoes are common. In fact, I feel pretty confident that you probably have a nail in your shoe right now. 

Even after years on this path of recovery, I have a tendency to put up with things that are unhealthy or painful for longer than I should. The prolonged and intense pain of addiction, an experience that is at once physical and psychic, set the barometer high for my sense of what a normal level of suffering should look like. I know how to deal with pain, and I tend to accept it even when it’s not necessary. At times I’m even capable of spinning it as some kind of spiritual activity, as if my suffering is a saintly endeavor. In addition to this ability to tolerate pain, I have a real knack for adaption. It’s not hard for me to settle into uncomfortable states of being and accept them as new kinds of normal. This is what my addiction looked like. A continual acceptance of worse and worse states with the belief that, “this is just the way my life is now.” When I reach this point, things begin to get tricky because I lose the sense that anything is even wrong with a particular situation. I just begin to live with it. In a strange way, I lose sight of the fact that I am even suffering, though I continue to bear the consequences. I begin to feel tired, frustrated, and out of control. And while I’m expending energy to avoid that first nail in my shoe, I usually collect other nails, and continue to accept and normalize them until the pain gets intense and some real damage has accrued.

Like many challenges I’ve faced in recovery, I don’t think this one is unique to those who deal with addiction. My sense is that this sort of thing is a struggle for most human beings. The main difference, at least from my perspective, is that most people don't respond to pain by consuming copious amounts of alcohol and narcotics, which was always my chosen method. Maybe they see a therapist, or go to church, or engage in some kind of unhealthy form of self-soothing—shopping, Netflix, Cinnabon, trolling people on social media—but none of these activities are immediately lethal. People who have experience with addiction, on the other hand, often respond to pain in the way we always have, by getting loaded. The real difference is not in the act of avoidance, but in the chosen method of avoiding, and the subsequent outcomes. Ultimately, the stakes are higher for people in recovery when it comes to pain and suffering.

As a guy who walked around with a nail in his shoe for several months, it feels a bit presumptuous to tell you to go ahead and get the nails out of your own. What I am trying to shine a light on is my personal tendency to normalize and ignore pain and suffering, and suggest that there are very real consequences connected to this way of living. Perhaps you have this tendency, too. Maybe it’s a relationship you know isn’t working, or a job you hate, or a way of behaving that causes wreckage in your life. I assure you that you’re not alone. What I can say is that after dealing with a source of suffering—which I have done successfully through writing inventories, going to therapy, and talking honestly with others in recovery—I finally begin to understand the extent of the pain I have been in. I don’t see it clearly until the pain is gone.

This was absolutely the case with the nail I lived with. After removing it, I kept thinking to myself, “wow, hiking really is delightful now that I don’t have a nail in my shoe.” I didn’t realize the ways in which it was ruining my experience. And so it is in most cases. Ultimately, walking this path of recovery is just more pleasant when I am actively dealing with the sources of my pain. In a later post, I will touch on some of the specific reasons I tend to avoid dealing with painful situation, but for now, I leave you with a question: what is the nail in your shoe?