Michelle has been going through divorce and has two children aged twelve and fourteen. She agrees that divorce is challenging but she also found it liberating. Here’s Michelle:
From bulimia to body image and beyond …
Choosing to end my marriage was the most difficult decision I’ve ever been faced with. The hardest part was admitting it to myself, and as I look back, I had been resisting it for many years. But stepping into that decision did something remarkable for me. Not only did it free me from a painful marriage, it also liberated me from a 20-year struggle with bulimia.
To back up a bit, I married my college boyfriend at age twenty-six, after dating for several years. At that point I had already been dealing with bulimia, so it’s not as though my marriage caused the habit, but the dynamics of our relationship certainly supported it.
Throughout our sixteen-year marriage, there were recurring problems around communication and intimacy that I had been burying, stuffing down, not wanting to face head on because I was afraid it would mean the end of us.
And there were parts of me that were unexpressed, even unwelcome in the relationship. For example, I am a person who craves a deep connection and emotional bond. This was not a strong desire of my ex’s. In fact, he preferred to stay clear of the feeling realm altogether. As a result, I was constantly trying to suppress my deepest feelings, desires and needs in order to keep the peace. Bingeing and purging gave me a way to cope with the pain of unfulfilled dreams, unexpressed emotions, unmet needs, shame and powerlessness.
When I finally made the decision to leave, it was as if that part of me that had been secretly saying, “This is not OK with me!” had finally found a voice. I was able to reclaim a sense of personal power, and I found that I didn’t need the crutch of an eating disorder anymore. The part of me I had been stuffing down was finally free, out in the open. I was claiming the truth of who I am and what I want for the first time in decades. In a way my divorce saved my life.
Now, my story is perhaps a little unusual as my experience helped me heal from unhealthy coping habits. But it can also have the opposite effect.
Divorce forces you to redefine yourself. In many ways it can be a wonderful opportunity for a woman to reconnect with herself, and to find new ways to more fully express her authentic self as she carves out a new trail in life. For me it was also the catalyst to shift to a more rewarding career, reevaluate my life goals and dreams, and to renew my approach to motherhood.
But, whether you like it or not, you can no longer identify yourself as somebody’s wife. (I remember the first time I went into a new group of people as a single, I felt so naked and exposed without my ring as I looked around at all the married people. I no longer had any anchor or symbol that declared, “Somebody picked me”.)
And so it is also a highly vulnerable time.
Big life changes can bring to the surface old issues such low self-esteem, poor body image and can even lead to the onset of eating disorders. You may find that putting yourself “out there” brings up feelings of insecurity about your appearance. Let’s face it, the idea of dating is scary enough, but the thought of someone new seeing you naked can bring on a full-blown panic attack, especially if the last time you were dating you were twenty-two and hadn’t had babies!
I joke a bit, but it is really a serious issue. According to a recent article on the UK’s Daily Mail reports that “The Renfrew Center of New Jersey has seen a 42 percent increase in the number of women over the age of 35 seeking help for anorexia or bulimia. Experts say that major transitions in the lives of middle-aged women – including failed marriages – can rekindle eating disorders that begun years before or even bring them on for the first time.”
In her book on female mid-life crisis titled The Breaking Point, Sue Shellenbarger discusses the spike of eating disorders in middle aged women as a result of fears women develop around losing their attractiveness, competing with younger women, and as a way of coping with feelings of sadness or powerlessness around a divorce.
It’s really no surprise when you consider our culture’s obsession with thinness, cosmetic surgery, unrealistic female bodies and the whole “Real Housewives” phenomenon. Add to that trying to figure out who you are going to be as a single woman, and it can really do a number on your self-esteem. So it’s easy to want to latch to the one thing you think you can control – the way you look.
Although my eating behavior is healthy now, I still deal with insecurity around dating too. I notice myself wanting to “work out a little harder” when I’m interested in someone or heaven forbid, date a younger man and worry about how I stack up against the rest of his dating pool!
We all want to be loved and accepted, and never does that become more evident than when we unexpectedly find ourselves a onesome instead of a twosome. I think what I’ve learned is that our identity is constantly evolving and it’s important to notice how closely our self-image may be tied to how we identify ourselves within or coming out of a marriage.
Whatever the circumstances of divorce may be, what it really represents is a search for new meaning in our lives. We need to be gentle with ourselves, embrace our imperfections, and show ourselves the same compassion we show our children and our closest friends. We need to surround ourselves with people who support us and champion our growth, and who reflect to us the beautiful, powerful, limitless woman within.
I have no experience with eating disorders although I can easily understand how the low esteem issues from a troubled marriage may cause or exacerbate an eating disorder. Having interviewed over seventy women about divorce, I’m surprised this topic hasn’t come up before and so I especially appreciate Michelle’s willingness to speak about her bulimia. Have you struggled with an eating disorder? Do you think your marriage made it worse? Did you also find it easier to overcome your disorder after the end of your marriage?
Michelle Leath is a Co-Active Life Coach, Food Psychology Coach, mentor and writer, and the founder of Unlock Your Possibility. She specializes in helping women to harness their internal power; erase the self-imposed labels and rules that limit their possibilities; and make empowered choices to create the lives they truly want and deserve. Michelle has a special place in her heart for women who struggle with eating disorders, and speaks candidly about her own journey in this area. She is passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and creating a safer environment for women to reach out for the support and tools they need to achieve lasting recovery.