Divorce, Abandonment Issues and Eating Disorder Recovery

Contributor: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President at Eating Disorder Hope

Most of us realize that eating disorders are likely caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. In the field of eating disorder treatment, it is commonly stated that “Genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger”.

Some, but not all, contributing genetic factors can include:

    Family history of eating disorders
    Predisposition toward anxiety or depression
    Tendency toward perfectionism

When an individual personality develops with these attributes at play, and then that person experiences trauma in their life, it can sometimes end up in an eating disorder.

The Trauma of Abandonment

Abandonment, or the perception and feeling of being abandoned, is very painful. It is emotionally traumatic to feel abandoned by someone we love or depend upon.

This injury to the soul is tough to cope with under the best of circumstance, but even more difficult when it happens to one who already may struggle with anxiety, depression and approval seeking (as is often seen in the makeup of those suffering with eating disorders).

One of Webster’s definitions for abandonment is “to withdraw protection, support, or help from”. So, imagine an individual who is already vulnerable due to inherent personality traits of high sensitivity. Now envision that person feeling abandoned and finding experiencing the emotion to be almost intolerable.

Unless they are well prepared and well stocked with internal emotional fortitude, they may fall victim to some form of dysfunctional outlet for the pain. Hence an eating disorder may be born or reignited.

How Abandonment Can Hurt Recovery

Woman in depressionThis traumatic sense of abandonment can be an underlying contributing issue beneath an eating disorder relapse. For example, a former client of mine, Lila, had been in recovery from anorexia for a number of years. She was married, a step mother and enjoyed a successful teaching career.

However, when her husband suddenly revealed he was having an affair and wanted to terminate their marriage – her recovery fell apart. She rapidly descended back into her old anorexic behaviors of extreme food restriction, excessive exercise and withdrawal from relationships and emotional intimacy.

Using an Eating Disorder as a “Comfort Zone”

Lila had come so far in her recovery, but her tendency toward exquisite sensitivity to rejection by others made this incident of abandonment by her husband absolutely overwhelming for her. She auto piloted right back to the comfort zone of controlling her food, body and weight. Initially, this felt like a lifesaving defense. She found that the anorexic behaviors helped her to numb herself to the shock, grief and anger she felt toward her husband.

However, as Lila’s health declined, her colleagues at work expressed their concern about her compromised health and “out of it” state at work. Also, she began to feel terribly weak and light headed, sometimes while driving, and feared she would injure herself or others.

Lastly, her sister continually confronted Lila about her obvious descent back into anorexia and refused to accept Lila’s justifications. All of this brought Lila back to accepting that she needed to maintain recovery behaviors in order to move forward with her life. She could not change her husband’s painful decisions, but she could go on to rebuild a fulfilling and meaningful life for herself.

Pulling Yourself Out of Relapse

Relaxed young woman lying on couchLila pulled herself out of the relapse over the next year. She increased her therapy sessions to twice a week and worked hard to process her feelings of sadness and loss over the demise of her marriage. She met with her nutritionist weekly and resumed her meal plan.

She reminded herself that for a while, “food was her medicine” and she ate many of her meals with friends or family until she felt she was back on firm footing in her recovery. Lila also purposely chose to become involved in some community groups that she had pulled away from, realizing that she needed and wanted to feel more connected to others and not so isolated.

Having the Will to Always Recommit

Ultimately, Lila is a great example of how relapse happens and specifically, how traumatic life events – like abandonment by a loved one, can be the catalyst for a spiral back into an eating disorder after years of recovery.

Her story helps us recognize that we may need to be willing to recommit to our recovery plan on a deeper level when unexpected or traumatic life events occur. Lila also is a shining example of the strength of a woman in recovery and her ability to sustain a deep blow by life, trip up a little, but then be able to regain her recovery and focus on health and wellbeing.

Painful emotions come up, trauma happens, abandonment may be one of the worst…but, just like Lila, we can always rely on our healthy coping skills, treatment team and support network to catch us if we relapse. We are strong and resilient and can always begin again.

Community discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Has the sense of abandonment been an underlying contributing issue beneath an eating disorder relapse for you or your loved one? What healthy coping skills have you utilized in your recovery?

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 21st, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.