When recovery gets hard

Going through recovery from an eating disorder can be a daily challenge. Here are some tips, tricks and insights to help you get through the rough patches.

Going through recovery from an eating disorder can be a daily challenge. Here are some tips, tricks and insights to help you get through the rough patches.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I hear women tell me their eating disorders were easier than recovery. Recovery stories so often glaze over the incredibly difficult, painful, messy parts and jump to how great recovery can be.

The truth is, recovery is hard. It will probably feel, at times, like going back into your eating disorder would be the easier way. Maybe it would be, but the fact of the matter is that your eating disorder means death. Recovery means life. Many of you know that I have over a decade and a half in recovery from my eating disorder. I do not look back on those early years with rose-colored glasses. From what I remember, they were painful and emotional, challenging and exhausting. There were many relapses in the beginning, because recovery felt like it was just too hard, until it wasn’t. It suddenly seemed like recovery became doable, and all of the recovery tools that I learned from my many treatment teams started to make sense. The journey was hard, but the outcome (being recovered) is a freedom that’s hard to describe.

It’s worth it and you can do it.

Here are a few tips for getting through those tough patches when you’re truly exhausted and thinking about giving up. 

Focus on right now

Recovery begins to feel overwhelming and impossible when you look forward at all the ground there is to cover before you can call yourself “recovered”. It's also difficult when looking  backwards at how long you’ve had your eating disorder and how big it has become. Using mindfulness practices and staying centered in the moment is one of the most valuable tips I can give you. One day at a time, or better yet, one moment at a time!

“Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha

By focusing, nonjudgmentally, on the present moment you will be better able to deal with the negative eating disorder thoughts and uncomfortable feelings that are so present in early recovery. The idea is that each moment is manageable, and it is only when you string the moment together with the enormity of the past and the present that you begin to feel overwhelmed.

Reach into that toolbox 

Whether you have been to a residential treatment center, are working with an outpatient therapist, or you're in some level of treatment in between, you have been acquiring tools for your toolbox. Here are a few of my favorites:

Distract: in my early years of recovery, I would paint my nails and toenails every single night. The evenings were the worst for me, and I was overly anxious, so to get me through, I would plan out my outfit for the next day and then paint my nails a complimentary color. For me, it was the best distraction tool I had and it got me through some really rough times. Painting my nails saved me from hours of obsessing over food, my body, my perceived failures, and so on. This was before we did mindfulness practices in treatment, but I really think this was my personal way of just being in the present moment without getting anxious about everything I couldn’t control.

Reach out: okay, to be fair I actually HATED this tool while I was in recovery, but it never failed to help me out when I used it. Someone in my life once told me that nothing is as heavy as the phone when you're close to a relapse. I think there is so much self-hatred and negative talk in an eating disorder, that it gets hard to imagine how anyone wouldn’t be bothered by a phone call. Here’s my truth, and that’s all I can give you. No one ever complained when I reached out for help. NOT ONCE. Whether it was family, a friend, or someone I had done treatment with, people stepped up and gave me the support I needed, which was usually just being there to talk and to let me know I was important.

Do the opposite: this is exactly what it sounds like. Do the opposite of what the eating disorder is telling you. When my eating disorder told me no one cared and I was a burden, I would pick up the phone anyway and reach out. When my eating disorder told me life sucked and I wasn’t worthy, I would turn up my stereo entirely too loud to dance and sing. I would go outside for a walk when I wanted to pull the blankets over my head and eat my meal when I wanted to throw the plate out the window. And each time I was able to accomplish any of these things, I would congratulate myself for doing recovery, because each of those things was a milestone in my journey.

Change your thinking

Combat those eating disorder thoughts with healthy ones. Your eating disorder has an arsenal of negative crap to say to you and it’s not easy, but there is a way to combat it. The trick is to slowly build up healthy self-statements and change your thinking.

Imagine for a moment the first time you rode a bike. There was likely a lot of confusion and trial and error, since you had to learn to move your legs one way while balancing and steering. As you continued to ride the bike time and again, the neuropathway in your brain became deeper and deeper. Eventually, you have probably gotten to the point where you jump on your bike without even having to think about the fundamentals of riding. Neurologically, the act of riding a bike has become hard-wired in your brain because you have done it so many times. The same thing holds true for those negative thoughts, they have been repeated over and over so many times they’ve become automatic. As you begin to create new, positive statements, they will feel flimsy and weak in comparison to the entrenched negative ones, but given time and practice it’ll be like riding a bike. Without even thinking, your brain will default to the positive thoughts rather than the negative ones.

Negative thought: You’ll never be able to do this, it’s too hard.
Positive thought: I can do this right now and that’s all I need.

Negative thought: If you eat that you’ll be fat.
Positive thought: One meal will not make me fat. In fact, it will give me nourishment so I can finally do all the things I want to do.

Negative thought: Recovery is impossible, but the eating disorder is safe and easy.
Positive thought: I have lost so much because of my eating disorder, and it's not safe and easy! It's painful and eventually will kill me.

Care for yourself

This can often be a tough one for some people, because you may not be used to showing yourself love and kindness. In the same way that practicing positive self-talk will reinforce and carve those neuropathways deeper and deeper, practicing self-care will become easier and easier with time.

How long has it been since you have treated yourself and your body to something soothing and relaxing like a massage or a facial? Maybe it’s time for an at home pedicure?

Self-care doesn't have to cost a ton. Doing something that brings you joy and is not destructive to your recovery, that can be self-care.

Self-care doesn't have to cost a ton. Doing something that brings you joy and is not destructive to your recovery, that can be self-care.

Self-care doesn’t have to cost a ton of money, it can be as easy as taking some you-time to read a good book, enjoying a nice cup of coffee by the fire or iced tea in the sun. 

I shared some personal things that I did in my recovery, but I want to point out that I wasn’t able to use all of the tools all of the time. Sometimes the eating disorder will win, and that may feel sucky, but it is also to be expected. Your recovery will become easier when you learn to give yourself a break when you slip. There is something to learn from each slip and something to celebrate in each success.

Share your stories with me in the comments below. I would love to hear about the tools you use to get through the rough spots. Your story may help another reader in her/his journey.

If you are located in Vancouver, WA or Portland, OR and are looking for someone to help support you in your recovery, please fill out the contact form by clicking the button below. I will then contact you to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation.


Tamara Werner

Tamara Werner is a counselor, author, speaker, and activist. Her private practice, Get Centered Counseling in Vancouver WA, helps women with food and body issues learn to love themselves, their body, their life, and their relationships. Her life’s work is steeped in personal experience, having fifteen years in recovery for anorexia, in addition to being a breast cancer survivor. An up and coming force in the counseling community, Tamara has been published in a textbook called Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions, and has sat on a panel at the American Counseling Association Conference, where she spoke to her peers on strategies and tools to use with clients struggling with eating disorders. Having a deep, personal understanding of what it takes to recover from this condition, she seeks to be an example to those she treats, to let them know that recovery is possible.