Speaking Up About My Eating Disorder
I was terrified of three things during my junior year of collegiate cross country:
- Gaining weight
- Binge eating
- Talking with ANYONE about gaining weight and binge eating
My top fears that year were unfortunately my reality—in between school and racing cross country for my college, I was eating vast quantities of food beyond comfort, well into physical pain; eating while hiding in the laundry room at the national cross country meet hotel; and stepping onto the scale every morning only to watch, with horror, as the numbers climbed out of my control.
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Years prior, I had victoriously seen them drop under my control.
Running in Silence
This year marks five years since I revealed my eating disorder to the world. The day I decided to share my story on runninginsilence.com was partly due to yet another night of binge-eating. I had been thinking about creating the website weeks prior to this binge, but more than anything I needed something to distract myself from trying to purge or recount the calories I had eaten over and over again. The eating disorder left no time for me to focus on my homework, so I began a website about my issues instead.
As a writer, I had been pondering sharing my experiences, but fear and embarrassment held me back. It seemed almost simple to talk about my “discipline” and “control” when I had been at a low weight and running the fastest I had ever run in my life, but to reveal an unruly appetite? To try to explain “eating disorder” when most of the population pictured anorexia, skin and bones? I sat before my computer, nearly forty pounds heavier, unsure of how this would fly.
I mulled over the phrase “Running in Silence.” It wasn’t something that felt “perfect” the moment it popped in my mind, but I hadn’t thought of anything better. It made sense to me—I had kept silent about my battle with an eating disorder for many years. The eating disorder silenced me. Running and eating were my voice, and I couldn’t let them keep the real Rachael silent.
Rachael would speak now.
The Big Reveal
The moment I wrote the first blog post about my eating disorder as a runner, I was terrified. I was afraid my friends and family would now watch me eat at every meal (which was already a fear I had—it was another manifestation of the eating disorder). I was nervous for social media acquaintances to look at my heavier body in pictures and say, “Eating disorder? If anything, she’s just bigger.” I worried about how my teammates would react, if they would believe me, if they would think the issue trivial, if they might start restricting food to run faster as I had years prior.
It was one thing to write about experiences in the past, but to be in the midst of my eating disorder and still have another few years of racing collegiately, this felt outright embarrassing. People were still going to watch me compete. They wouldn’t just see a bigger runner—they would know my secrets. They would know what I did behind closed doors.
I myself was unsure if this “qualified” as an eating disorder. Was my weight gain merely a lack of discipline and willpower? I questioned the eating disorder when I had been at a low weight, too. Had I really been anorexic? Did it matter if it was anorexia? I hadn’t restricted that much, had I? What if my preoccupation with food was just an obsession that I was over-dramatizing? I’m a runner, how could runners have these problems? Everyone knows that those who exercise effortlessly lose weight.
As all these questions, uncertainties, and fears were racing through my mind, I awaited the reactions to my first blog post when I shared it on social media.
People did respond: Friends and family. Past high school rivals. Teammates. Strangers who found my website. And when I received everyone’s responses, I realized I was certainly not alone. No, I was far from alone—I had been surrounded by many runners also running in silence. I was also surrounded by many people who cared about me, who had wondered if something had been wrong for a while, who applauded me for speaking out.
Creating the website was one of the scariest things I had ever done, but that’s what made it the bravest. It was the moment I decided to say something because I couldn’t stand being stuck where I was. And if I ever wanted to grow—if I ever wanted to make something of myself—I knew I would have to admit what had made me feel ashamed for so long. Only then could I tackle it.
Nearly five years later, I’m thankful for speaking up. Sharing about my binge-eating and restrictive past does not embarrass me anymore. Looking back, I’m now fully aware that I had an eating disorder—mostly because of how much better I feel today, but also because I’ve come to realize that eating disorders go beyond physical appearance. I’m no longer consumed by the obsession and preoccupation with food.
No matter what you are struggling with, whatever your “running in silence” may be, I encourage you to share it–maybe even before you feel completely ready. I read that first blog post written years ago, knowing that I wasn’t ready, but I remembering knowing that something had to change. I read it today, thankful that such a great change started with just a few words despite my fears.
By sharing my truth, I was able to speak again.
Rachael Steil, author of Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It, is committed to correcting the misconceptions and ending the stigma of eating disorders for those at any body weight who struggle to speak up.