Coming Clean: “I had an eating disorder… for 15 years.”

candice sand: coming clean

Photography by Libertee Muzyka

Coming Clean: “I had an eating disorder… for 15 years.”

By recording artist & songwriter Candice Sand, edited by Asim Wali

     Writing this has not been easy. The only reason I’ve decided to speak openly about what has been my darkest secret for most of my life, is to help. I want people to understand eating disorders better, and my hope is that someone who is struggling in secrecy (like I was) will read this and know that I have gone through what they are living right now. I want them to know that although they may be scared, embarrassed, or afraid that asking for help might expose them to judgement or mockery, there are in fact people who understand, who relate, and who can help.

Saying it out loud…

     I was sitting in a waiting room, nervous and impatient but not for the usual reasons like test results or an embarrassing examination. I was there to confess.
     I heard my name called and was led into my doctor’s office. She began by asking me the usual questions about my music career, my boyfriend, and my general well-being. Then the question came, “What can I help you with today?”
     The scariest thing about my answer was the realization that I’d never actually spoken the words. I paused. I’m not even sure how long that pause lasted, but inside I kept telling myself to say it. Just say it.
     As the words fell from my mouth, tears from my eyes fell right along with them. “I have an eating disorder… and I don’t want to do it anymore.”

The mental shift…

     The month before my confession I had taken a trip to Punta Cana with my boyfriend. I had an amazing time, sipping Pina Coladas, lying on the sand staring at the ocean, and reading a book called “The Happiness Project,” by Gretchen Rueben. I had no idea this book would change my life. It may seem cliché, but it’s true.
     I loved the very idea of this book: a woman telling her story about going through all of the areas in her life and making small adjustments in order to live happier. I dove into it and it wasn’t long before I was confronted by my own “happiness barrier.”
     Chapter One focused on ‘Vitality’ and it emphasized keeping your living space clean, and ensuring you got enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition. It discussed how simple ideas, like eating when you’re hungry, can improve all the areas of your life: keeping you engaged in your relationships, improving your energy and focus at work, and contributing to your overall comfort and contentment.
     My problem was that I was always hungry. Always. Every second. I had taught myself tricks to numb my hunger but the numbing never lasted for long. I strived to eat less than 1500 calories a day, and sometimes less than 1000. I drank loads of caffeine to keep me going, which of course also affected my sleep. Plus, I also had trouble sleeping because I would often wake up hungry in the middle of the night. I couldn’t stay engaged in conversation with friends. The constant, gnawing hunger in my stomach was louder in my head than any words being said.
     The idea of fulfilling these “basic” needs in order to be healthy and happy felt like it left a stain on my mind. I didn’t try to push it away like I usually would. I finally let myself think about it and the more I did the more I realized the truth. I diet like crazy. If I slip up and eat too much or eat something I shouldn’t, I make myself throw up. To someone who has never had these types of thoughts it must seem obvious that there was a problem here, but I had spent 15 years repeating this same cycle promising myself every day that tomorrow I would be better.
     I finally admitted to myself that this was consuming me and I needed to find a way to stop.
     When we returned to Toronto I started looking for help, secretly of course, and I discovered the NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Centre) website, which contained a ton of information to help me. I looked at the different resources on the site, read some articles, and also read a book NEDIC recommended on bulimia, all of which concluded with “Tell your doctor.” So I made an appointment to do just that.

The hard questions…

     My doctor was comforting and supportive, and made the experience of confessing so much easier than I could have ever imagined. She commended me for being brave and coming forward.
     Then she presented me with treatment options and I decided I wanted to receive therapy.
     Two weeks later I was sitting in a sterile white room, with three chairs, a desk and a weighing scale in the corner. The two psychologists in charge of my assessment were doing their best to be gentle and friendly. They explained that they were there to determine what my diagnosis was and if/how they could help.
     “Do you think you have an eating disorder?”
     “Yes.”
     “When do you think it started?”
     “When I was 12.”
     “Do you diet?”
     “Yes.”
     “How often?”
     “Every day.”
     “Do you restrict calories?”
     “Yes.”
     “By how much?”
     “Depends on the week. Sometimes less than 1500 a day. Sometimes less than 1000. I never eat more than 1500.”
     “Do you purge after meals?”
     “Yes.”
     “How often?”
     “Sometimes I’ll be good and I won’t for a couple months. Other times I’ll have a bad week and do it almost every day.”
     “When did you start purging?”
     “When I was 12.”
     “Have you ever binged?”
     “Yes.”
     “Can you explain if something triggers your binge?”
     “In all honesty, if I do binge it’s planned. It’s not an accident. When I can’t take the hunger anymore I’ll go grab something that I usually would never eat. Foods that are forbidden. I’ll eat and then purge. It stops the hunger for a while because afterwards I just feel numb.”
     “Do you weigh yourself every day?”
     “Yes.”
     “Do you think you’re overweight?”
     “No. Sometimes I feel ‘fat.’ I see areas… areas of my body that I’m not happy with. They’re just not small enough. The reason I diet is because I want to change those parts of me.”
     This painful questioning continued for an hour and a half. I walked home wearing my biggest pair of sunglasses hoping to hide my eyes which were swollen from crying so much. The psychologists had determined that I had EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) the most common type of eating disorder which shared symptoms from both anorexia and bulimia. I was enrolled in six months of cognitive behavioural therapy and the hard work began.

Tearing apart the monster…

     The first step was to talk through and figure out my tendencies. They wanted to discover the triggers and motivations for my behaviour while at the same time confronting myths in my beliefs. I spoke as openly and honestly as I could and during our third session, my therapist (let’s call her Dana) pulled out a piece of paper and started drawing. She talked me through what she called my “monster”- the cycle of my eating disorder. Here’s how it went: because of my body image issues I would diet. My diet would turn more and more extreme until I was starving. I would get to a point where I would break and be so hungry that I would eat something I wasn’t “supposed to” or I would eat “too much.” That led to me feeling guilty, which would lead to my purging. Then I would feel guilty for hurting myself and I would promise myself that it wouldn’t happen again. I would swear to be better at dieting and that this time around, I would not break. Then the cycle would begin again.
     Dana then told me “We are going to tear apart your monster bit by bit, moving backwards through the cycle. This way, we would be working from the easier things to deal with to the hardest thing, which started it all: body image.
     She gave me two rules to begin with. No weighing myself (except in therapy sessions) and no purging. I’ve always been a disciplined student, but this wasn’t going to be easy.
     The last day I purged was June 27th, 2011. As strange as it sounds, I was sad that I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew how harmful it was, but I wanted to be thin so badly that it seemed worth it. Purging was my eraser. It was my way of quickly correcting the “sin” of overeating and failing my diet. But I made a promise and I knew this was the most obvious symptom of my eating disorder. I had to let it go.
     I was proud of myself for stopping so abruptly. I have never purged again after that day. It was hard, but it felt so good to know that I wasn’t hurting myself anymore.

Road to recovery…

     I put my entire life on hold so I could concentrate on my recovery. I stopped singing, songwriting, and even going out with friends often. My treatment and therapy was one of the hardest things I’ve EVER done and I knew I needed to dedicate myself to it fully.
     I lived through gaining weight back, falling apart every time the scale moved up even half a pound. All the insecurities about my body were rushing to the surface and I couldn’t push them down.
     I had to face them and fight them. I did my homework religiously, read every book on the subject that I could find, all the while trying to keep my treatment a secret. I cried continuously as I struggled to turn my mind around, but at the same time I was determined to get better.
     Suddenly, I wasn’t allowed to measure my body anymore, I wasn’t allowed to measure my food, and finally I wasn’t allowed to diet at all. I was forced to learn what feeling satisfied after eating felt like, something that was completely new to me after living with hunger for so long. I had to accept feeling full, as I no longer had my trusty eraser. I even had to eat foods I had labelled “forbidden” and learn to be ok with it, and even possibly enjoy it.
     The final stage of treatment was to confront the root of my eating disorder and the reason my monster held so much power: body image. I had always struggled to see my body and my shape in a forgiving and accepting way. I had such a difficult time with this aspect of treatment that they had to extend my therapy. We needed more time to flip the switch in my mind. Finally, Dana suggested I read “The Body Image Workbook,” and just like “The Happiness Project” had done months before, another book was about to change my life.
     The book was written in a voice full of logic, even humour and irony. It talked about the nature of one’s appearance in society and what it really means. It forced me to look at my own true goals and values in life and made me realize that being super skinny had nothing to do with my true happiness and fulfillment. I realized that spending so much time obsessing on how I look did nothing to bring me closer to my family or friends or to further my career. I realized how much time and energy I had been wasting chasing this thing that could never really fulfill me.
     I began to be more appreciative of my body and respect all that it does for me. I was thankful that it didn’t turn on me like I had turned on it, and that I hadn’t done any permanent damage with my harmful habits.
     Most importantly, this book ignited a sense of integrity and self-respect within me, and I realized how great it would be to simply appreciate and own what I have been given. To celebrate my own uniqueness instead of starving myself to look like a mannequin. For the first time in my life I was excited to just be me.
     I revealed this feeling to Dana along with my new goals and excitement about my new perspective.
     She smiled, looked at me and said “I think we’re done now.” I still remember that moment. It was a great moment.

Fast forward to freedom…

     During our last session Dana gave me her contact information and assured me that if I ever relapsed, I could find her. I did contact her once. The following year I wrote her to thank her for all her help, care, and patience. There was no relapse. I was free.
     There were still challenges to deal with and work through after therapy ended, but the difference was now I was equipped with the tools to do so. Every day, month and year since 2011 has been easier and I really do feel free. I’m so happy to have more time and energy to really experience and enjoy my life.
     I promised myself to never diet again and now when I exercise I make sure I do things I enjoy.
     My fitness goals are focused on being faster, stronger, and healthier. I discovered that I love the endorphin rush from a good run and the serenity of yoga. I take dance classes just for the fun of it!
     I began donating to NEDIC in 2012 because I was so VERY grateful for the resources and support it provides. I still kept my story private from most people other than a few close friends and family members, but when Merryl Bear (the director or NEDIC) sent me a thank you letter for my donations, I decided to share my story with her.
     In 2014, feeling stronger than ever, I approached Merryl and explained how I wanted to help the cause, and why. Ever since that meeting, I’ve been working with them in any way I can to try and spread awareness of Eating Disorders and how people can get help. I stand behind them wholeheartedly because I know what an important organization NEDIC is. Without them, I might still be fighting my monster today.

A final word…

     My only hope in writing this is that my story can help someone. I encourage you to share it so more people can learn from it and get the support or treatment they need. I’ve learned a great deal about eating disorders through my own recovery and was startled to discover that anorexia is the leading cause of mental illness related death in Canada. I’ve also learned a great deal about the horrible damage you can do to your body from the unhealthy habits associated with anorexia and bulimia. If I hadn’t gotten help when I did, that damage could have been permanent. If you have an eating disorder, please get help. Contact your doctor, find resources through NEDIC at WWW.NEDIC.CA or call the NEDIC help line at 416-340-4156 or toll free at 1-866-633-4220.
     If you think you might know someone with an eating disorder, again contact NEDIC. It’s free, confidential, and you’ll be able to speak to professionals who know the best way to approach the situation. I went to great lengths to hide my eating disorder and after therapy ended, some friends and family admitted to having suspicions but never really knew how to talk to me about it. Don’t be afraid to contact NEDIC and ask for advice.
     For those of you in recovery, stay strong! I can’t say it enough: tearing apart your monster may be hard, but it is SO worth it! There really is a happier side of life. A side where you are comfortable with your body and you can experience so much more of what life has to offer!