Thankfully, I have been healthy (both physically and mentally) for more than 10 years. But during my nine-year struggle with anorexia, I couldn’t escape the clutches of the disease and couldn’t see a way out. In my first year of high school, thoughts of weight and eating intensified – I was at an all-girls school, full of competitive, impressionable young girls who could be easily influenced by fad diets and peer pressure. I was also dealing with issues stemming from my parents’ divorce when I was nine and believed that, for many reasons, my dad felt I wasn’t good enough.
In grade 9, the negative thoughts – or ‘voice’ – took hold and I began to lose weight. After a few months of dieting, hiding food and over-exercising, our domestic worker saw me using my toothbrush to throw up in the bathroom, and alerted my mum. I wasn’t bulimic – I was throwing up the tiny apple I had reluctantly eaten as I felt guilty for allowing myself to eat anything.
My mum took me to see our GP and she sent me off to Riverview Manor – a rehab in the Natal Midlands. There – at the age of 14 – I had to mix with hardcore drug addicts, alcoholics and other eating-disorder patients… It was terrifying. But the staff members were incredibly supportive and did everything in their power to help me realise what I was doing to myself and my family. But, you could have the best team of doctors, psychologists and dietitians in the world trying to help you but if you don’t want to get better, there is nothing anyone can do. After my six-week stay there, my psychologist said to my mum: ‘Be careful. Candice hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.’ Sadly, he was 100% correct.
The following year, my health deteriorated and I became more obsessive. As my mum and sister now kept an eye on my eating habits, I became very secretive. I would wake up at the crack of dawn, prepare my breakfast before anyone else woke up, and then immediately throw it away or feed it to our cats. Later I would lie to my mum and say something like, ‘Ow, I burnt my tongue while eating my boiled egg.’ I would make up convincing stories for everything. During lunch at school, I ‘ate’ on my own and, of course, threw my food away. Dinner was more tricky; I was so obsessive, I was willing to do anything to not eat. I resorted to pitiful ways to get rid of food and was shockingly manipulative. I told my mum that it was hard to eat in front of others and that I wanted to eat in my room while I did my homework – at that time, she didn’t realise how sneaky and devious I could be. I hid food in decorative tins in my room (and would throw it away later on) and eventually resorted to throwing food behind the stove, as my mum and sister had cottoned on to what I was doing in my room. I was desperate and felt trapped – a trap of my own making.
I became delusional and irrational. I refused to touch oil, butter and even scented moisturiser – in case the oils ‘seeped into my skin’ as fat. How ridiculous is that? Ironically, I developed another strange obsession – baking. With gloves firmly on, I would bake biscuits, muffins and desserts, and would literally stare at my family while they ate what I had made (and made them feel extremely uncomfortable). It was the closest I could get to food. Many people assume those who suffer from anorexia don’t get hungry – this couldn’t be further from the truth. I was ravenous all the time and even daydreamed about food. It was pure torture.
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At night, when my mum and sister were asleep, I would spend hours doing sit-ups – doing anything else would make too much noise. I would initially attempt to do, say, 100 sit-ups but after finishing, the ‘voice’ would say, ‘You’ve only done 10’ and I’d believe it. I was losing my mind.
I began to hate myself and despised what I saw in the mirror.
In March 2001 I was sent back to Riverview Manor for another six-week stint but I was still not ready to get better. During my grade 10 exams, I was only eating about 400kJ (roughly the amount of energy one banana gives you) a day. One day I woke up feeling very weak and decided to stay at home. My mum took me to see our doctor as she became increasingly worried and helpless, watching me lose more and more weight – I was skeletal. She was horrified and immediately hospitalised me. I was furious but, as I was under 18, I had no choice. After no improvement, I was sent to Tara Eating Disorder Unit in Jo’burg – roughly 500km away from my home in Pietermaritzburg. I was only 15 and had to leave everything and everyone I knew.
I was there for almost five months and it was incredibly tough – living in one room with 10 other girls suffering from eating disorders. One girl there said I looked like something out of a horror movie. My body was a mess – my heart beat was irregular and I had electrolyte imbalances, osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis), lanugo (soft, downy hair – my body’s attempt to keep me warm) and was severely anaemic.
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After the next few years, I was hospitalised a few times and went back to Riverview Manor, but in matric I put on weight and seemed okay by the time I left for UCT in 2004.
I loved my first two years at varsity – I felt confident and genuinely happy. However, in 2006 I foolishly decided to stop taking Prozac (which I had been taking for years). No-one should ever stop taking medication without consulting a doctor first, but I thought I could cope without it – I felt happy, what was the problem?
At the time I was suppressing my feelings towards my dad (who often said very nasty, hurtful things). A few months into the year, I started to feel dejected – I wasn’t interested in my course anymore and my confidence dropped dramatically. I was regressing, and slowly began cutting out food and exercising more.
By June, I was extremely ill and was admitted to Kenilworth Clinic. I was still not ready to get better and had every intention of relapsing as soon as I left. Again, the manipulative voice took over and I convinced my parents and boyfriend that I was absolutely fine – I had just been stressed with exams. It scares me how conniving I could be. I thought I was in complete control, but deep down I knew I was sliding down a dangerous slope.
As soon as I left the clinic, my health deteriorated dramatically. I was in and out of hospital yet again. I felt like a guinea pig as doctors and psychiatrists fed me a plethora of antidepressants, antipsychotics and strong benzodiazepines (sedating drugs). The side effects were terrifying – one night, I had no idea where I was and didn’t even recognise my parents.
After being released from hospital in Pietermaritzburg, my boyfriend broke up with me. It is extremely difficult and near impossible to be in a relationship if you have an eating disorder and, looking back, I completely understand why he could no longer handle it. The break-up fuelled the ‘voice’ and I was more determined than ever to carry on down my path of destruction. I honestly did not want to live any more.
But, while in hospital in Cape Town, I somehow came to a realisation. Friends and family came to visit me often, and were all capably dealing with everyday life and were happy. Why couldn’t I be happy? I started to seriously think about what I was doing to myself and those around me – I would have to redo my third year at varsity, I had lost my boyfriend and alienated friends, and had caused my family immense stress. It was really not worth it – I had so much to live for!
This was the first time I decided to get better – in the past, I had always been forced to go to rehab or hospital. I chose to go to Crescent Clinic – a scary decision but one, I believe, saved my life.
I was there for almost five months, and I truly made an effort to deal with my issues and get better. I had an amazing psychologist, Graham Alexander, and an incredible team to help me move forward.
The following year (2007) I truly knew that I was better and could cope with life – and this realisation came after my father took his own life. It was a horrific time, but I stayed strong and didn’t retreat back into my little hole where I used to feel safe. I knew then, that if I can get through something as traumatic as my father’s suicide, then I could cope with anything – without using my anorexia as a crutch.
I have been healthy since then and am adamant I will never go back to being that anorexic girl (as I was known at school). Admittedly, it is still tough – the voice is still there, whispering that I’m fat or ugly, but I can now control it and try not to listen to it. What has really helped me to stay strong is talking to people – expressing my feelings and voicing my opinions. Keeping everything locked up inside is toxic.
If you’re currently suffering from an eating disorder, know that there is hope! Through reading my story, I hope people will see that it is possible to get better and lead a happy life.
Reach out and talk to someone – there is always help!
Eating Disorders South Africa:
012 993 1060; Edsa.co.za
021 762 7666; Crescentclinicedu.co.za
033 701 1911; Riverviewmanor.co.za