This is a case study of a trans man (born female) with many serious mental health problems, including an eating disorder. He was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the trauma seems to have been at the root of his problems.
He had “an eating disorder with restriction and purging, substance dependence, gender dysphoria, panic disorder without agoraphobia, PTSD, dissociative disorder, learning disorder, sleep disorder, mood disorder, borderline personality disorder, and pain disorder.”
This case study does not make any connections between his eating disorder and his gender dypshoria. Given the abuse and the multiple comorbidities, it is unlikely that the gender dysphoria caused the eating disorders.
The authors suggest that both the eating disorder and the gender dysphoria were caused by the early trauma.
“the underlying foundation of these multiple diagnoses is the presence of early developmental trauma to the emotion regulation system — which manifests as physical and emotional pain with impulsive and maladaptive attempts to engage in behaviors to meet personal needs, including safety. Zanarini and colleagues performed a study examining Axis I comorbidity in patients with BPD [borderline personality disorder] and identified high rates of comorbid PTSD. They also observed that meeting criteria for multiple Axis I disorders predicted meeting criteria for BPD.”
Treatment focused on the most severe issues first; suicidal thoughts and behaviors, then purging behaviors, urges towards substance abuse, self-harm, self-care, and interpersonal behavior. The patient was treated with dialectical behavior therapy.
Medical transition came later and was not part of the recovery from the eating disorder. However, at the time the patient entered therapy, he had already taken a male name and was dressing and living as a male.
This case study has some similarities to the case of a teenage girl* who developed gender dysphoria while being treated for an eating disorder. The teenage girl was also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with multiple mental health problems: anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, excessive exercise, and OCD-type rituals related to germs (spraying her body with Lysol and excessive hand-washing). In addition, she had a past history of PTSD, OCD, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
These two cases suggest that in some cases, gender dysphoria is not the main cause of an eating disorder. Rather, trauma causes multiple mental health issues.
There are two more case studies of transgender people with eating disorders who were survivors of child abuse. They suggest different possible conclusions, however.
A trans woman whose eating disorder began when she started to live as a woman. Her goal was to have a more feminine shape. Transition and hormones did not cure the eating disorder, however. She had been physically and sexually abused as a child.
A trans woman whose identical twin also had an eating disorder. Both twins were feminine in behavior from a young age and both were sexually attracted to men. Both survived an abusive father who threatened them with assault and death. However, one was a trans woman and one was a gay man.
In the first case, the eating disorder seems to be closely connected to the gender dysphoria since it started when she began to live as a woman. She clearly describes wanting to look more female. The abuse may have affected her, but gender dysphoria was also a factor.
In the second case, the eating disorder seems to have been caused by a combination of genes and environment, since both twins had anorexia but only one had gender dysphoria.
We’re left with the possibility that the answer is different in different cases. Sometimes severe childhood trauma may cause multiple mental health problems that include an eating disorder. Sometimes a combination of gender dysphoria and early childhood trauma may contribute to an eating disorder. And sometimes the same genes and environment will produce two people with similar eating disorders but different gender identities.
Of course, these are only four case studies. We can’t draw conclusions from them about all transgender people with eating disorders. Most of the case histories I have found don’t mention child abuse. Many of them suggest connections between gender dysphoria and eating disorders.
What we can see from these cases, however, is that for some transgender people with eating disorders, gender dysphoria is not the main or only cause of their eating disorder. Therapists should keep this in mind when treating transgender patients for eating disorders.
And, as always, we need more research.
Original Source (full text):
UPSETTING MATERIAL ABOUT ABUSE BELOW
A few additional details of the case history:
The article provides an interesting discussion of diagnosing and treating a patient. The full text is available online without cost, but here are a few details of the case:
The trauma the trans man survived involved “repeated episodes of sexual violence perpetrated from age 4 to 9 years old by a childhood friend’s father in the neighborhood.”
“The patient believed he had suffered multiple head injuries related to physical violence and asphyxiation in the context of sexual trauma, but was unclear if he had lost consciousness because of head injury or because of psychological dissociation during these events.”
He had “a history of heavy chemical use, starting with first use of alcohol at age 7, which continued through age 23. He also used diet pills starting at age 14, followed by heavy use of cannabis at age 15, and cocaine and other narcotics, including pills and heroin, at age 18 years.”
The patient had severe pelvic floor dysfunction which caused him a great deal of pain. It took him a while to get this diagnosed correctly.
“The patient was born and raised as a female, but in retrospect realized he did not fully identify with either the male or female gender. In the previous 2 years, he had decided to openly adopt a male gender, name, and manner of dress. He had the intention of pursuing hormone therapy and, eventually, chest reconstruction.”
Treatment and afterwards:
“Suicidal thoughts and behaviors were identified as the highest-priority target; after 6 months, these thoughts and behaviors had resolved. The patient was engaged in therapy and did not require significant emphasis on therapy interfering behaviors; therefore, quality-of-life interfering behaviors could be targeted, including purging behaviors, urges to use substances, self-injury, self-care, and interpersonally effective behaviors with friends, family, and other medical professionals. He graduated phase 1 of DBT therapy and proceeded to phase 2 to continue working on healthy emotional experiencing and management of trauma sequelae.
The patient graduated college with a high grade point average and went on to pursue master’s level education. He underwent sex hormone treatment and chest reconstruction.
He developed additional medical comorbidities, including insulin resistance and adrenal insufficiency. These medical conditions necessitated moving back in with his parents, resulting in significant familial conflict. The patient’s therapist made a referral for family therapy through our department, which was coordinated among treatment providers. The patient is enthusiastic about the progress made in treatment and states he often wonders if he would be still be alive without the intervention he received. Over the course of 3 years, his medications were all tapered to discontinuation, with the exception of prazocin 10 mg at bedtime for nightmares, ramelteon 8 mg for sleep, and clonazepam 1 mg three times a day, which was continued to assist with pelvic musculature functioning.”