February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

For the past decade actress Tracey Gold has rarely spoken publicly about surviving anorexia, because she feared sharing details of the eating disorder that plagued her from 1989 to 1993 might backfire and encourage others to starve themselves. “So many people who try to help,” Gold says, “end up doing damage.” But in 2001, as a favor to her brother-in-law, she agreed to speak at Lehigh University—and realized the power of sharing her experience. “It began to feel selfish that I wasn’t talking about it,” Gold says. “I knew I had something good to say.”

She says it all in her new autobiography, Room to Grow: An Appetite for Life. While the book, excerpted exclusively below, avoids specifics about her weight (“Every anorexic looks at numbers to see how low her weight can get,” Gold says), it takes an unflinching look at the pressures—her desire for control, the image Hollywood demanded and her mother’s own eating disorder—that fed Gold’s need to stay thin. Today Gold, 33—mother of sons Sage, 5, and Bailey, 3, with husband Roby Marshall, 37, an aquatics-club swim coach—continues to act (she recently filmed a guest spot for the USA Network’s The Dead Zone). Equally important to her, however, are the lectures she now gives on college campuses. “I want to be remembered,” she says, “as a person who made a difference.”

Gold wishes such a person had been around to talk to when she was 13 and making her movie debut as one of four sisters in Shoot the Moon.

Making this movie and spending time with these girls was the first time I ever heard the word “diet” pertaining to me. The girls’ idea of dieting was not to eat dinner, but have a Kit-Kat instead. My mom said this was nonsense and insisted I come eat dinner with her. She was right, but the idea had made its way into my mind.

[My mom] didn’t always practice what she preached. As a kid I always knew [she] had an eating disorder, though I didn’t think of it in those terms. [My sister] Missy and I knew she threw up a lot. She disappeared during meals or afterwards; she very rarely sat with the rest of us and ate.

In 1981 Gold landed a role in the TV movie A Few Days in Weasel Creek. But as her career picked up, so did her preoccupation with eating.

I particularly noticed that a lot of the actors would go out at night but wouldn’t eat dinner. When I’d ask why they’d say, “Oh, I’m on a diet…it’s not good to eat at night.” I was 12 years old, what did I know? Everyone else in my profession did not eat dinner. That was what I was learning.

I was starting to develop breasts, and it completely threw me off guard. I’m not sure where I’d gotten the irrational, but very powerful, idea that once you got boobs that was kind of it…it was time to go off into the real world on your own. But the concept of being on my own, away from my parents, frightened me terribly. As a result of these feelings I started limiting what I ate. I wanted to stay a child.

I became obsessed with the book The Best Little Girl in the World. [It] was a bible for eating disorders. Though I’m sure it was unintentional, the novel glamorized anorexia and made being too thin enticing.

When I went to the doctor for my physical he said flat out, “It looks like she’s got anorexia nervosa.” I had grown four inches and lost six pounds in the year since he’d last seen me. He referred me to a therapist who I saw a few times. These brief sessions were helpful. I started to look around and realized that you could get older and still stay close to your mother. [It] really helped me over this rough patch; it nipped my eating disorder in the bud. The crisis had passed…for now.

At 16 Gold scored the plum role of middle sibling Carol Seaver on the sitcom Growing Pains. The hit show, which ran for seven seasons, brought Gold her greatest professional success—but took a devastating toll.

The spring that I turned 19 I went to Kansas City to perform in a play. I was living away from home for the first time and I put on some pounds. When I got back to work for the new season of Growing Pains I was quite aware that I had put on weight. Suddenly, it felt like every other page of my weekly script contained a fat joke. The producers assured me that it was just brother/sister banter. But after they reassured me, my father [who is my agent] would inevitably get a phone call. The producers would say flat out, “Tracey really needs to lose some weight.” My self-esteem was shot. I was the fat, ugly little sister.

I decided it was time to go on a diet. Given my history with anorexia, [my parents] were worried and wanted me to go to a medical doctor where I would be supervised. The doctor I went to see was an endocrinologist. Knowing full well that I’d had a bout with anorexia at age 12, he told me, “You can go on a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet or a 500-calorie-a-day diet. On the 500-calorie-a-day diet you’ll lose weight in half the time.”

It took only a couple of months to get down to my ideal weight—a loss of 20 pounds. But very gradually I started to slide into a new plan. I would not eat a single bite of food all week from Monday through Thursday—nothing. I would drink Diet Coke and tea—and on the weekends I would binge—eat whatever I wanted.

I would dream about food. Once when I was sick with a cold my mom said, “You need to take some cough syrup.” I said, “Absolutely not. Today’s a not-eating day.” She said to me, “This craziness has to stop.” But it didn’t.

Gold’s TV mother, Joanna Kerns, introduced Gold to her future husband, Roby Marshall, then a television production assistant, in 1989. He was immediately concerned about her eating habits.

In the first year Roby and I were together, I probably lost 5 pounds. Some of this had to do with the fact that this was the first time I was sexually active. It was important to me to be perfect, as it is for so many girls.

But when Roby questioned my behavior, I knew I had to make some adjustments fast. My journal entry from that time spells it out this way: I will eat one meal a day (a light meal) and leave two days—Friday and Saturday—for eating days. Carbs were all I ever ate! Pasta, in particular.

By the beginning of 1991 I was starving myself and throwing up, and I couldn’t hide it any longer. [That] summer I entered my first eating disorder program. I was losing weight rapidly because I was throwing up what little I did eat. I befriended a girl who was very seriously anorexic. She’s the one who taught me to read the labels on the food packages and see how many grams of fat were in everything. The whole experience taught me that a group situation can be very detrimental for people with eating disorders. In those six weeks I became quite an expert anorexic. I learned plenty of new tricks. I wanted to become the “best anorexic.”

Once Gold was out of rehab, nothing could change her behavior—not even the threatened loss of her job.

Once I went under that all-important 100-pound mark I wasn’t about to go back up. I didn’t, in fact, for two years.

Everything came to a head after Christmas break. My dad had gotten a phone call from Warner Bros. They told my dad I couldn’t go back on the show until I got help. They had found what they thought would be a great program for me. It was based on the 12-step program. No one watched me to make sure I was eating. I was not allowed to talk to anyone. Yet right outside my “room” was a pay phone. Roby was the only one who took my calls. It was a cold and scary place. And it didn’t specialize in anorexia.

I said [to the doctors]: “I can’t stand it here; this doesn’t feel right to me.” They said, “We’re telling you if you leave this place you will die.” And I said, “Well, I prefer to die at home.”

Back at home, Gold decided to devote herself to her recovery.

I had taken a year off from acting to concentrate on getting better. Therapy was my full-time job. [Head of the eating-disorders program at UCLA] Dr. [Michael] Strober did family therapy with my parents and Roby. There was a lot of anger, fear and hurt feelings, but there was also healing.

Six months into therapy with Dr. Strober, I hit rock bottom. [One night] in August, at Roby’s apartment, I got up in the middle of the night. I looked at my body in a mirror and I was shocked. I had a moment of seeing myself the way I really was, which was “death.” I was sure I was going to die. I thought to myself, Please, please let me just make it till morning. That was the turning point. I never lost another pound after that terrible night. I’d finally had it with my illness.

One of the final pieces of Gold’s recovery process involved confronting her mother about her bulimia.

In January [of 1993], after almost a year of therapy, I was offered a part in a television movie. My mom came with me on the trip so I wouldn’t be alone.

One night [she] got furious with me because I wouldn’t eat a banana. Then later that very same night I caught her sneaking off to throw up! She was mortified, but I know this scene played a big part in her decision to finally stop. It wasn’t the last time either one of us threw up, but it marked another huge turning point.

I remember when I was sick I would always say that having anorexia felt like I was drowning. I would struggle to reach the surface and stick my hand up, waiting for someone to grab it and pull me out. Somewhere along the way, I realized that the only person who could pull me out was me.

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