By Rachael Steil, eating disorder recovery advocate, founder of Running in Silence.
As I walked with my family through New York City in the summer of 2012, all I could think about was food.
“I’m hungry,” I said, hoping it was loud enough for my parents to hear, but not too loud as to sound desperate. We had eaten less than a couple of hours before, and it embarrassed me to admit that I still wanted more. I hoped my parents would respond by agreeing to stop and grab a bite of food for me.
Please don’t comment about how much I am eating. Please don’t call me a pig beneath your words.
My grandma turned toward me with her eyebrows raised. “You’re hungry again?” I felt as if my internal organs shriveled at her response. I could only nod and shrug.
Yes. I’m sorry.
I kept my face stoic, kept all emotion subtle.
I wish they could feel this raging hunger, so that they could know.
I wish I could control this hunger.
My dad didn’t look at me, but I knew he heard. I couldn’t tell if he was mad or frustrated.
He must think I should work harder to lose weight.
“You were All-American!” he had told me months before. “Rachael, you were All-American, and no one can ever take that away from you.”
He said it constantly. It was a reminder of who I had been as an athlete. He believed it to be a great feat, an amazing accomplishment. But now it felt like torture. It felt like a curse.
My parents had a difficult time understanding my eating disorder. At my lowest weight and about to embark on a raw food diet, my dad expressed his worry about me “wasting away.” But when everything turned around—when I went from restricting to bingeing—the concern jumped to how much weight I was gaining.
A lower weight seemed to lead to fast performances in running; performances my parents had only dreamed of for their daughter who had trained so hard for so many years. I tied that weight to my success of achieving All-American status in cross country. It was an achievement I had accomplished two years before this trip to New York.
Now, at a higher weight, I felt that all my fears around people watching me eat were coming true.
I didn’t know how to tell my parents that I felt like I had to hide my eating. The more they made occasional comments about my weight, the more the eating disorder was proving itself right.
Over the summer between college semesters, I silently willed and waited for my parents to go out for dinner each night. Because if they left, that meant I could eat whatever I wanted in peace. I could escape the bedroom where I researched nutrition and ways to lose weight all day to finally eat all the “safe” foods I kept in the refrigerator.
I resorted to canned food in emergencies. “Emergencies” meant “hungry-but-can’t-eat-in-front-of-anyone.” I’d slurp down soft, salty green beans in silence, using the plastic spoon I had taken a year ago from a frozen yogurt shop to eat the beans so that no one could hear the clang of metal fork against tin. I ate quickly, shaking, the anxious girl inside of me screaming at my body to feel full, come on, feel full!
My heart would hammer until I felt the calming presence of fullness—calming, that is, until the guilt took over.
My parents weren’t perfect in their approach with me from the start, but they did want to help. It began with having conversations about when I started restricting food, and how it led to binge eating. They attended a support group for parents and asked questions. They read books recommended by the professionals.
I told my mom and dad what comments triggered me. This didn’t mean that my parents had to avoid triggering words or comments for the rest of my life. But while I was healing, I needed more of a focus on who I was outside of running. The more my parents realized how important it was to stress whole health rather than just speed on the cross country course, the more they could support my wellbeing.
Even though I loved the sport of running, my parents could see what it had done to me when the eating disorder took over.
Years later, after I stopped running altogether, they saw a vibrant, energetic, adventurous young woman rejoin the world. No longer locked away in my bedroom, only to be seen for moments of eating or going out for a run, they watched as I applied for a new job, made friends at work, ate dessert after dinner, and even coached a high school team so that the sport of running was never too far out of my grasp.
My body finally had a chance to catch up on all the calories it had missed out on years before, this time with less shame and stress about what other people thought. When I realized that my body wasn’t as broken as I thought it was, in big part thanks to my eating disorder dietitian, I allowed myself to eat without fear or shame.
I could finally admit when I was hungry and be okay with it.