GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — It's estimated that one in every five women in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime. On any given day, more than 30 million Americans, men and women, are dealing with one.
Grandville native Rachael Steil was one of them. A successful high school and college cross-country runner, Steil saw her career peak and then crash under the struggles of an eating disorder.
Five years later, however, the runner has turned author and the sufferer turned healer.
"As I looked into the mirror," Steil read an excerpt from her book, "as I climbed on to that scale every morning, as I crawled into that bed every night, stomach growling, mind racing, heart anxious, I laughed and I cried. I soothed the aching empty belly and I whispered, she is mine. "
They are words of experience, of sadness and shame, of anxiety and fear.
"Do you know how much I want to stop doing this to myself?" Steil read. "Do you know how this tears me apart? … Not just during the races, but every minute of every hour of every day."
The lowest point, she said, came when she struggled with binge eating.
"Not performing well in my running, feeling like I was disappointing my teammates and my coach and feeling like there wasn't going to be happiness," she remembered.
As a high school senior, Steil was the leader of the Grandville cross-country team. Part of that was acting as a mentor to a young team -- a role she had to fill even as she needed some guidance of her own.
"The anorexia actually developed outside of running." Steil said. "My sister was taking a medication that reduced her appetite and I saw her body changing and I thought, 'Oh, maybe exercise isn't the thing that changes your body, it's how you control food.' So I started controlling food, cutting things out. (I) lost a little weight, starting running faster and saw that my running times were improving."
Fueled by competition, she became obsessed with food restriction.
"It wasn't like I was overweight in high school," Steil said. "I was a healthy body shape. But as the times improved and the weight dropped, I made that big connection, started counting calories, thinking about food, researching food. My sleep schedule was arranged around food, I had no flexibility. I started isolating myself from my teammates and friends all in the pursuit of losing weight and running faster."
As a freshman at Aquinas College, she helped lead the Saints to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics nationals, where she finished sixth overall.
"I know a lot of people saw my drastic improvement and I was really happy with that," Steil recalled. "But I knew that the obsession was ruining my life, too. I just didn't know who to tell, or if it was really bad enough to get help."
Suddenly, Steil found herself, running in silence.
"I wasn't talking to anyone about what was going on," Steil said. "And that silence is what kept me hiding it for years and what made me so anxious and fearful and ashamed."
As her weight plunged and muscles weakened, Steil's body began to break down. She sustained a series of strains and pulls and, a severely fractured knee cap. Somewhere in between, she underwent a complete 180 into binge eating.
"It's very common because if you restricting food for so long, your body is going to fight back to get the calories it needs," Steil explained. "Your body overrides your mind and the cravings and the intensity of wanting that food is overwhelming. I could not control it."
That led to a constant cycle of bingeing and restricting.
Finally, Steil found the courage to seek help from her family and eventually a therapist and dietitian.
"I was someone who had all discipline and will power in the world years prior, and suddenly I had none of it," Steil remembered. "And it just felt really shameful."
Regardless, she took her recovery process public through a blog about herself and her struggles.
"I started it mostly because I wanted to explain the intense weight gain I was experiencing and why my times were not as fast as before," Steil said.
The blog soon turned into a website where others were suddenly sharing their stories.
"I remember how scary and how alone I felt and I thought I was the only one in the world dealing with this," Steil recalled. "I was frustrated that no one else was really talking about it."
The response was so overwhelming, with so many asking for help and advice, Steil wrote a book about her experiences, titled "Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It."
"I didn't know how else to explain it," she read from the book, "without feeling more exposed than I already felt."
Steil is now a high school coach at her alma mater. For past three years, she has been taking the message to students, parents and coaches off the course. She has spoken to dozens of groups, working to build awareness and sharing what to look for and how to help.
"So that parents, and coaches and other peers, can see how common this is," Steil said, "and maybe look for the signs."
Once desperate for help, she is now happily trying to provide it for others.
"They started looking to me for hope," an emotional Steil said. "I realized that if I could start giving other people hope and telling my story, and if I can get out of this, they can too."
National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800.931.2237
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