Handcuffed to Recovery: 5 Ways to Manage Urges When Life Gets Tough


“I can’t even restrict, over-exercise, binge or purge, smoke cigarettes or distract myself with attention from boys!” My psychiatrist sat listening to my frustration, and toddler-like tirade with sensitivity and patience. “I’m a mom now, a wife, a therapist (treating eating disorders, of all things!), I can’t have that life anymore.” His eyes smiled back, knowing that I was being dramatic and facetious, but also knowing I was communicating to him, with my desire to have those behaviors back, how much I was struggling. After a long pause, he said, “My dear, you’re screwed; it’s like being handcuffed to the steering wheel!” 

We laughed about the ‘injustice’ of it all, because sometimes, all you can do is laugh when you hurt. As two people who have weathered terrible storms, we knew deep into our beings that eating disorder behaviors weren’t the antidote for my pain. With a heavy sigh, I said, “So this is how it is?” He replied with a quick, “Yep. This is how it is.”

I drove back home, my hands on the steering wheel, and I really thought about what it means to be recovered when times are hard. It’s easier to be recovered when life is unfolding beautifully – a new baby in your arms, moving into a new home or cramming everyone into the giant SUV that’s become your second home to head to the airport for a family vacation. That’s easy. I’ve got that down.


But what about when the tide shifts, as it does in this life. It’s so tempting to fall back into those familiar patterns that once dictated your life. 

Quick is the voice that slyly reminds you of how the eating disorder served to disconnect you from pain and organize the chaos in your brain. 

Days marked and measured by how ‘good’ you were, how ‘small’ you were, how ‘obedient’ you were. My psychiatrist’s analogy was fitting, but living, if you can call it that, with an eating disorder, well, that’s the ultimate imprisonment.

The truth is, I didn’t really want those behaviors back, but I was desperate for some space in between myself and the pain I was feeling at the time. The other truth is, eating disorder behaviors work fast.  Doing the hard work of managing emotions without your drug of choice is less of a quick fix. The beauty of riding out the tough times without the eating disorder is that you aren’t drowning in your shame afterward, which only serves to compound the original source of pain. 

Since I’ve tethered myself to recovery and believe it’s where I belong, I’ve come up with some rituals to help ride the waves when the urges to go back down the old dusty road show up:

1.  Express Gratitude: I know it might sound odd, but if what you resist persists, it’s best just to acknowledge the eating disorder thoughts and give some thanks. “Well thank you, eating disorder, for reminding me that I always have the option to rely on you if need to be. For now, I’m going to rely on what has truly served me well, and what I can genuinely count on.” Again, it sounds a little crazy, but it helps quiet the eating disorder voice. 

2.  Validate & Locate the Pain: Sometimes when I’m hurting I will say things gently to myself, much like I would to my children, “Of course this is hard for you right now, you’ve never gone through this before.”  Get clear on where the pain is hanging out in your body, acknowledge what it feels like, and let it be ok.  Ex: “I feel a knot in the pit of my stomach. My shoulders and neck are tense.” Thank the pain for showing up in your body to let you know something isn’t right. 

Our emotions are powerful messengers, let’s give them some props when they do their job.

3. Move: In Chinese medicine, they talk a lot about how our emotional pain gets stored in the body. One remedy for this is movement. A fifteen-minute walk, where you set the intention of releasing what no longer serves you can soften the edges of your sadness. A series of yoga poses to stretch, open up, and allow more space. (Notice I didn’t say run a million miles, I said move. Don’t let the eating disorder see this as an opportunity to strike).

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4. Let it out: The emotion needs room for expression. So, talk, write, paint, cry your eyes out and start over if you need to. Holding emotions in, without expressing them, keeps you stuck. 

5. Do something you love: Even if you don’t want to, do it anyway. Watch a funny movie, have lunch with a friend, or give yourself a pedicure. Distraction can be helpful when it’s not self-destructive. 

Much like me, the clients in my psychotherapy practice become fearful and panicked when they experience the uncomfortable emotions (sadness, grief, anger, loneliness, etc.). I remind them, as I remind myself, that our emotions are not intended to be static. And, that whoever came up with the phrase, “this too shall pass,” was right. 

So, my dear recovery warrior, what do you do when you feel handcuffed to the steering wheel of your recovery? 

Love + Light,


Image Source: Flickr

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1 Comment

  • I really enjoyed reading Angie’s article. It reminded me to stop and take a moment before launching into the food. It is definitely hard to feel feelings. Very hard. Sometimes I don’t want to feel and that’s when I use food to cope. I liked the article and would love to hear more about this topic about managing urges, particularly emotional pain.
    Many Thanks. I love Recovery Warriors!

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