I never thought I'd get divorced.
Divorce is for people who rush into marriage.
I take lots of time to make the right decisions.
Divorce is for people who come from broken homes.
My parents have been married for more than 40 years.
Divorce is for people who are stuck in their ways.
I read books about relationships, I go to counselling, and I attend conferences where self-discovery and change are encouraged.
Divorce isn't for people like me.
At one conference I attended, the speaker talked about the escalating divorce rate:
"Look to the person on your right. Now look to the person on your left. The statistics say that one of those two people is going to end up divorced."
I followed his instruction, awkwardly glancing over at my neighbours and forcing a smile. There's not much you can say in an uncomfortable moment like that, but I clearly remember what I was thinking...
"These poor people sitting beside me...one of them is going to get divorced. Sucks to be you."
Then, just five years after getting married, I found myself divorced.
Why Are We Talking About Divorce?
I'm sure some of you are asking this question right now: "Dave, you're a fitness coach, not a relationship columnist. Why are we talking about divorce?"
You're right - I'm no expert when it comes to relationships, but divorce and healthy living are intertwined, more than most people who haven't been through divorce themselves could ever know.
In fact, research has shown that divorce and marital separation rank as the second and third most stressful events people can experience in life.
This stress caused by divorce often leads to severely deteriorated health for everyone involved. These are real health issues. Trust me, I have felt many of them. So talking about divorce seems like a worthwhile conversation to have, especially here on my health blog!
Why Divorce Leads to Health Breakdown
We all have a limited ability deal with stress. Whatever form that stress comes in, whether it be work-related, emotional, relational, physical, or from some other source, we can only take so much before our bodies begin to break down.
Think of it this way...
Your body is a bucket and stress is like water that flows into that bucket. During divorce, stress is constant. There is no escaping it. It's as if someone turned the water tap all the way open, and your bucket is filling...fast!
When the bucket overflows, stress begins to pour out. We see it in the form of health problems, both psychological and physiological.
This was certainly my experience. Despite being a so-called "expert" in the fitness world, I was not immune to the effects of stress from divorce. I would actually say that my health was at an all-time low during my divorce.
Psychological Health Problems I Faced After Divorce
I have never been an anxious person. I am generally very optimistic and confident in most things in life. But that all changed following my divorce. For the first time in 10 years (5 married and 5 dating), I was alone. I didn't have a partner to do life with day-to-day, and it was scary.
My mind was filled with worries that had never been there before:
What am I going
- to do with my life?
- Am I going to be alone forever?
- What happens if my business fails and I can't support myself?
- What will people think when they hear I got divorced?
- My friends are all married. Who am I going to spend time with?
I thought I might end up like this...
Side note: My friends threw a surprise Halloween party when I got engaged. The costume they brought for me?...Yup, Napoleon Dynamite. My destiny?
Anxious thoughts left me in a constant state of fight or flight. I found myself either desperately fighting to stay afloat (e.g. trying to make new friends, creating new business ventures, proving that I was going to be okay), OR I'd escape reality by withdrawing to be by myself.
In addition to dealing with a mind full of worry, I forgot who I was and what I liked about myself. My self-esteem plummeted.
When I realized that this was actually happening - I was getting divorced - a weird thought immediately popped into my head:
"I need to get back in shape. I better start going to the gym!"
Looking back, I can see the humour in this. I've always kept myself in good shape, and there was no need to go to the gym any more than I typically did. But, that thought spoke volumes about what had just happened to my self-worth.
When I had been in a relationship, there seemed little reason to doubt my worth:
Someone had chosen to be with me.
I had value.
I was a catch.
Now I just felt rejected. I began to focus on all my faults. I felt unattractive, boring, unintelligent, and pretty unlovable.
In these moments, I gained a deep empathy for anyone who battles depression ongoing. Waking up and feeling no compelling reason to start the day is a tough situation to be in. It's hard to get out of a funk when you don't feel you have any reason to try.
My Physical Health Deteriorated Quickly
Emotional eating is such a common response to stress. For me, it was emotional NON-eating. My appetite was non-existent, and motivation to prepare healthy meals (something I usually enjoy) was completely gone.
I lived on peanut butter and bananas for about a month.
I'm not kidding - the cashiers at the grocery store would always ask me why I was buying so many bananas and nothing else.
Sometimes I considered telling them,
"I just got divorced and am dealing with high anxiety and depressive thoughts. I can't muster the energy to cook meals, but I can peel a banana and scoop some peanut butter on it. Is that okay?"
(I never did say this. I don't think it's in the job description of a 17-year old cashier to deal with my issues! I usually just told them that I like bananas. A lot.)
While my eating habits bottomed out, anxiety and depression eventually kiboshed my exercise routine too. I was just too burnt out mentally and physically (I was barely sleeping for weeks) to do any meaningful physical activity.
Eating Only Bananas + Not Working Out = Skinny Dave
I don't know exactly how much weight I lost, but none of my clothes fit any longer and I had to move down 2 holes in my belt. Sure, some people would be excited to drop weight so quickly, but this wasn't healthy.
And just in case I didn't realize how emaciated I looked, I ran into a former student who reminded me:
"Dave, what happened to all your muscles?"
(Sure, kick me while I'm down!)
Rebuilding a Healthy Life After Divorce
So that was me. I was a skinny, peanut butter and banana-eating, depressed, stress case who didn't want to get out of bed a lot of days. It sucked.
But, it didn't last forever.
A friend, who had been through a similar divorce, gave me the best advice:
"It gets a little easier every day."
I'm not going to pretend that I now have all the answers figured out. I don't. Divorce, just like any tragic life event, will be different for everyone, and the coping skills required will vary too. But, I do know that my friend was right. It did get a little easier every day.
One thing I emphasize in a lot of my writing and on my podcast is the value of doing life with others. We all need community - Nobody can do life alone. I must have subconsciously listened to my own message because at my lowest point I reached out for support from my family and closest friends. I asked for help even though I was embarrassed to admit that I needed it.
I don't like asking others for anything. I pride myself on being capable and resourceful. But without the help of others, I don't think I would have been able to take the necessary steps to recover from divorce.
As a health coach, I knew that I needed to proactively restore my physical health ASAP. It's hard (or impossible) to feel good mentally when the body is weak or sick.
Here are the steps I used to heal my body and to begin restoring my mind:
- I recruited an exercise buddy to make sure I got back into the gym.
- I ate a lot of meals with others. Nobody else wanted to eat only bananas and PB, so I was forced to eat real food.
- I created a list of 5-ingredient meals that didn't take much effort to prepare. This made meal prep seem less daunting when I did end up eating alone.
- Each day I met a friend at the library to do work together. This helped me rediscover daily routine.
- I created goals (i.e. work, fitness, personal development, relational) and told LOTS of people about them. This gave me hope, accountability, and invited others to help me along the way.
- I talked to people who had been through divorce. I learned what had worked for them during their recovery process.
- I read a lot, not just about divorce, but about being human, finding personal value, and being purposeful in life.
- I set a bedtime and a wake-up alarm in the morning. When the alarm went off, I got out of bed even if I didn't feel like it.
- I planned a vacation. This gave me something exciting to look forward to.
I didn't implement all of this right away. These strategies took hold over the course of weeks and months. But, slowly my game plan began to pay dividends.
I started sleeping better. My anxiety lessened, although I did have a anxious moments even many months later. I gained the weight back. I started to like myself again and discovered new things to like about myself. My confidence returned (although this also took time).
Best of all, I can look back now and see how the entire experience refined me into a better version of myself. I'm not done yet, and never will be, but I am on a better path.
One of my favourite quotes goes like this,
"Remember how far you've come, not just how far you have to go. You are not where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be." - Rick Warren
Recovering from divorce is a process, but it will happen. Every day is another step on the road to rebuilding a happier and healthier life.
If you've had a similar experience that you'd like to share, feel free to connect with me here.