A Terrible Hunger
In a struggle between mind and body, Growing Pains' Tracey Gold is fighting to overcome anorexia
TRACEY GOLD’S MOTHER, BONNIE, VIVIDLY remembers the moment she realized the gravity of her daughter’s illness. That was last Nov. 10, Bonnie’s 45th birthday, when she visited the set of the ABC sitcom Growing Pains, on which Tracey has played wholesome Carol Seaver since 1985. In Tracey’s dressing room Bonnie caught a glimpse of her 5’3″ daughter changing out of her street clothes and was horrified by the skeletal apparition before her. “Although she was very careful to cover her body,” Bonnie recalls, “I saw it and almost fainted.” The once robust Tracey had wasted away to 90 lbs. “We both stood there crying,” says Bonnie. “She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, I’m going to get better.’ I said, ‘Tracey, you’ve got to get better, because I’m not going to lose you.'”
For the past three years, Tracey, 22, has been a prisoner of anorexia, the baffling disease of self-induced starvation that, along with other eating disorders, currently afflicts an estimated 8 million Americans, the majority of them women. (See pages 96—98 for companion stories on anorexia and another eating disorder, bulimia—an abnormal craving for food accompanied by some form of purging.) On the outside Tracey seemed “pleasant and cheerful—a rock,” recalls her TV dad, Alan Thicke. But in private the voting actress’ real-life growing pains were killing her—and those who loved her felt helpless to stop her slide toward physical illness and self-destruction.
“This has been all we’ve been talking about and thinking about since it came into our lives,” says Harry Gold, 39, a Hollywood talent agent who married Bonnie in 1975 and has guided his adopted daughter’s career since Tracey appeared in her first TV commercial at age 4. (The Gold family also includes Missy, 21, who played the governor’s daughter on Benson for seven years, and Brandy, 14, who has some 10 TV and film credits, as well as Jessie, 7, and Cassie, 3.) Because Tracey had been camouflaging her steadily declining weight by dressing in baggy sweaters, even the Golds were unaware of just how emaciated she had become. That’s why, explains Bonnie, “I went full-tilt in the dressing room. I was in total shock and fear.”
Sadly, though, the confrontation did not become a turning point for Tracey, who has been unable to stop dieting since she began a doctor-supervised weight-loss program in 1989. Despite two years of psychotherapy, her condition finally forced her to leave Growing Pains on Jan. 7 and enter a Los Angeles hospital specializing in eating disorders five days later. On Jan. 15, though, Tracey took her health back into her own hands, checking out of the hospital. She is determined to battle anorexia her way, with a private therapist and nutritionist. “I am going to beat this,” she says, talking publicly about her disease for the first time. “But it’s going to take time.”
“Anorexics are very bright and very sneaky,” says Bonnie, squeezing her daughter’s hand as she sits beside her on a cocoa-brown sofa in Harry’s 14th-floor Burbank office. “Tracey was very good at fooling people. She would cut up meat in small little pieces to make it look like she’d eaten more. Or she’d say, ‘I ate before,’ or ‘I ate in my dressing room.'” What she ate followed a ritualistic pattern associated with her disorder. “I would starve myself all day and then eat the same meal for dinner every night,” says Tracey. “Pasta with chicken and broccoli. It was always the same, a certain time, certain place, certain bowl. And I’d reheat it three or four times, just to savour it.
Her obsessive eating habits spilled over onto the Growing Pains set. “Tracey was always carrying her quart of diet Coke,” Thicke says. “That became the staple of her diet. We teased her in a friendly way when she got thin, but then she went over the edge.”
During the show’s Christmas hiatus, Tracey became ill with bronchitis and was thinner than ever when she returned to the set. Frightened for her health, the producers sent her home on an indefinite leave of absence. The season’s remaining four scripts have been written both with and without Tracey’s character, who has been shipped out to London to study rare books at the British Museum as part of a college course. “If I had my wish,” says Tracey, “I would like to be back for the last episode of the season.”
Tracey was first diagnosed with anorexia at 12 by her pediatrician, but she recovered after four months of psychiatric treatment. Her more recent downward spiral from what she describes as “a normal eater” into a compulsive dieter began at 19, when she reached 133 lbs. “I was made fun of by a casting agent,” says the fragile, brown-eyed actress. “If I were a different person, it probably would have rolled off my back. But I have the kind of personality where I will let those kinds of comments affect me. I’ve always wanted to please people.”
On the recommendation of her doctor, Tracey went to a well-known endocrinologist who, she claims, told her that her ideal weight was 113. “He put me on a 500-calorie-a-day diet, and he taught me how to basically starve myself, even knowing I had a past history of anorexia, so I don’t have any respect for him,” Tracey says. She reached her goal in two months. “It was so wonderful,” she says. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t awkward Tracey. People were saying I was pretty. I fell right into the pitfall of ‘I can’t lose this constant praise.'”
Though she started psychotherapy in the spring of 1990, Tracey kept losing weight, getting down to 100 lbs., then 95, and finally 90. “I yelled and screamed.” says Harry. “I begged. I’d say, ‘What are you doing to yourself?’ But she was working with a psychiatrist at the time, so you kind of give up. You feel at such a loss. You want to say, ‘Eat, just eat.'”
What most perplexed her parents was that Tracey seemed to have every thing going for her. Growing Pains remained a solid hit, and she had a boyfriend, freelance production assistant Roby Marshall, 26. The couple met on the set of the 1990 TV movie Wind Faith, where Marshall was a consultant to the producers of the drama based on his father’s arranged murder of his mother. (The mother was played by Tracey’s Growing Pains mom, Joanna Kerns.) “Roby is my first love, a truly wonderful person who has been supportive throughout this,” says Tracey. “This has nothing to do with him.”
Nor, believes Thicke, did it have anything to do with the Golds. “The Gold family has always been a role model,” he says. “Harry and Bonnie Gold make the Seavers look like the Manson family.”
In fact, Harry and Bonnie, a former New York City advertising account executive, always wanted a normal life for their daughters. “I knew all the traps,” says Bonnie, who once said of her kids, “We’re letting them act for two reasons: One, they love it, and two, financially they’ll be set.” Benson, it turns out, is paying for Missy’s education at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she is a senior pre-med student. Tracey, who lives in a guest house on the grounds of her parents’ North Hollywood home, “is quite wealthy,” says her mother.
Tracey’s television family, which is just as close as her real one, also intervened after her latest setback. Kerns sat Tracey down for numerous TV-mother-daughter talks. “I urged her to get help,” she says. “I told her it looked like she was going too far with the weight thing.”
Tracey won’t say what went wrong last month after she was hospitalized. “Everybody wanted me to stay there,” she says, “but that hospital was not the right place for me.” After checking herself out, she look a cab to her parents’ house. “She came into my arms and just held me,” says Bonnie. “It frightened me that she was back home, and yet it relieved me too.”
Tracey is now working with a nutritionist and a leading UCLA therapist who specializes in eating disorders. “They’ve stabilized my weight now,” she says, “and I’m healthy enough to know that I don’t want to lose any more. I am fighting it, but it’s hard. It consumes my every thought.”
The Golds know that Tracey’s recovery has barely begun. “I go over to her house, and I check on her every single night to make sure she’s still breathing,” says Bonnie. “That’s how scared I am. I check her pulse. And I just thank God that we’ve gotten through another day.”
JOYCE WAGNER and CRAIG TOMASHOFF Los Angeles