Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
*This is an excerpt from the book Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It by Rachael Rose Steil.
With a butter knife in one hand and the numbers on a scale in the other, I pulled the crumbs and rock-hard frosting of the frozen birthday cake up to my tongue.
And I clawed. I clawed deeper into the cake from my squatting position over the chilly kitchen floor, clawed desperately for any morsel I could chip off the solid block of sugar. All the while the hair on the back of my neck stood up for fear that someone would come by and catch me in the act, for fear that someone would walk into this cold, white kitchen and find good, sweet Rachael sitting before the open door of the refrigerator as a food thief.
I could have waited for the cake to thaw. I could have pulled the cover off the dessert to avoid cutting my wrist as my hand scrambled beneath the plastic. In fact, you could say that with proper discipline and control I could have avoided the incident altogether.
Only, I had been the epitome of discipline for the past two years. The girl who snuck into the desolate kitchen that night couldn’t even recognize herself when she frantically opened all the cabinets and drawers only to find them bare, when she pulled at her face with desperation and want. The girl who had been eating cooked food all day when she seemed so adamant about her raw food lifestyle could barely believe she was now putting not just her purity in jeopardy, but also her running success. Nonetheless, she opened that refrigerator door to find the frozen cake sitting before her like a god on its chilly throne.
I slammed the blunt knife into the stiff icing.
Brown cake crumbs scattered everywhere.
Raw. Food. Runner.
I grabbed a chunk of frosting between my shaking fingers, all the while knowing this was not the first time I was putting my newest, greatest running career at stake. I could already imagine the confusion on my parents’ faces when I crossed the finish line of the 5K in over 18 minutes; how my teammates would shake their heads and mutter something about “her raw food diet,” and the skeptical eyes that would trail up and down my growing body; how upsetting it would be to reveal the Rachael I had tried to push down for so long, the Rachael my new college friends and coaches never saw because I entered collegiate cross-country and track with a body shrunken from my high school one—a body now equipped with a dark voice whispering its incantations, its reminders of how different I was, how I needed to exert more control because something was broken inside of me.
And as I continued to reach for the cake that night, as I repeatedly told myself:
This is the last nibble, this is the last piece of frosting.
I could feel the walls of the hallway just outside the kitchen closing in on me, tighter and tighter.
Someone is coming.
They will find you.
You will grow bigger.
You must stop this.
The very air suffocated me, fear electrified my body, and the lights of the small kitchen glared down at me—until the butter knife slipped.
The knife slipped from my frosting-covered fingers and clanked to the floor. And I jumped, my heart pounding wildly as I wondered who could have heard, who would come running in and how I could possibly explain what the hell I was doing.
But the hallway outside the kitchen remained as silent as ever. And deciding this was a good chance to escape before anyone did come, I let the refrigerator door fall shut, slid my foot across the tile floor to remove all evidence of cake-thievery, and dashed back to my room.
The dark voice followed. It swept through the hallway with me, clung to my shoulder as I entered the guest room and realized with horror what I had done. Because the moment I entered the bathroom and looked down at the chocolate cake crumbs peppering my outstretched palms, my mind was screaming.
I struggled to turn on the faucet, my fingers slipping with frosting residue, but not even the rush of cold water could flood out the voice. I tried to reassure myself that this mistake was fine because it meant I had come to a breaking point, and I promised everything would change from here.
But it was a promise I kept breaking that summer. Because even as I washed my hands vigorously, even as I promised again and again that this was the last time, the Rachael deep down burned with a passion, a hunger, a desperation that the raw food diet could not fix.