How did her mother jumpstart her disordered eating? In what ways did she struggle? How did McCurdy recover?
Just as Debra McCurdy controlled her daughter’s acting career, she also controlled Jennette McCurdy’s eating. This steers McCurdy into anorexia and later, bulimia.
Find out more about McCurdy’s eating disorders and how she recovered from them.
McCurdy’s Eating Disorders and Drinking
What caused Jennette McCurdy’s eating disorder? According to I’m Glad My Mom Died, as a child, McCurdy is afraid to grow older because her mom wants her to stay young and small, in part because Debra thinks McCurdy can book more roles if she looks young for her age. When McCurdy is 11 and starts puberty, she asks her mom what she can do to stop developing, and her mom introduces her to what she calls “calorie restriction,” a form of extremely strict dieting.
McCurdy and her mom bond over their careful calorie counting and weekly weighing sessions (during which Debra also measures McCurdy’s thighs with a measuring tape). In six months, McCurdy drops three clothing sizes. Her doctor and others become concerned that she has anorexia. Debra lies to the doctor and says she hasn’t noticed any changes in McCurdy’s eating habits.
(Shortform note: Studies show that adolescents whose parents encourage them to diet are at a higher risk of being overweight or obese 15 years later; they also have a higher risk of binge eating, unhealthy weight control behavior, and poor body satisfaction. Restricting what or how much kids are allowed to eat can disrupt their natural hunger and fullness cues, making them more likely to engage in disordered eating later in life.)
McCurdy starts a music career as a teenager because her manager says that’s what all the child actors are doing. Right before she goes on a tour of American malls to promote her music, her mom’s cancer comes back, so Debra is unable to go with her. It’s the first time in McCurdy’s life that she experiences what it’s like to be away from her mom for more than a few hours. She notices that a lot of her anxiety disappears. Although she’s still nervous about her performances, she’s enjoying herself. She feels free and she starts eating a lot more. She realizes how exhausting it is to constantly monitor her mom and be exactly the way her mom wants her to be.
After the experience of being able to eat whatever she wants without worrying about what her mom will think, McCurdy starts binge eating frequently. She feels like her body is making up for having starved itself for so long.
(Shortform note: In Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman says that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia develop primarily due to an inability to tell the difference between negative emotions (sadness, anxiety, anger) and bodily impulses (hunger or lack of appetite). Children with eating disorders often have parents who ignore or dismiss their feelings. In addition, people are more likely to have eating disorders if their parents also had eating disorders. In McCurdy’s case, her mother appears to have had an eating disorder herself, and also to have directly introduced McCurdy to disordered eating. Eating disorders can cause serious health problems, depression and anxiety, and substance use disorders, among other life-threatening complications.)
McCurdy tries alcohol for the first time when she’s 21. She loves it because when she’s drunk, her inner critic—which is mostly the voice of her mom criticizing and judging her—is silenced. She proceeds to get very drunk every night for three weeks after she first tries alcohol.
On the day her mom dies, McCurdy binges on food and alcohol then forces herself to throw up. This is the beginning of McCurdy’s long battle with bulimia.
(Shortform note: Disordered drinking can stem in part from childhood pain and trauma. While alcoholism is sometimes seen as a lack of self-control or a genetic disorder, in reality, it’s a complex condition that can be influenced by a variety of factors including social, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors. In Quit Like a Woman, Holly Whitaker focuses on psychological pain as a cause of alcohol use disorder. She contends that alcoholism is caused by inner suffering that can arise when a person experiences trauma, has a difficult upbringing, is societally oppressed or marginalized, has mental health issues, or lacks a strong support network. This inner pain can cause a person to turn to an outside source like alcohol for the comfort and validation they’re unable to provide themselves.)
Therapy and Treatment for Eating Disorders
Following her tailspin, McCurdy begins going to a therapist and life coach, Laura. They start by taking stock of McCurdy’s life, determining that she’s binging and purging 5-10 times a day and drinking 8-9 shots of hard alcohol a night. Laura helps McCurdy understand that she’s binging and purging as a way to relieve anxiety caused by pent-up emotions. McCurdy is so spent and exhausted after she purges that she has no energy left for anxiety. In this way, the act serves as self-medication. She learns that one method of addressing her bulimia is by journaling constantly to get her feelings on paper so they aren’t unconsciously propelling her actions.
In response to Laura’s questions, McCurdy reveals that her mom showed her how to restrict calories when she was 11. Laura says that McCurdy’s mom taught her how to be anorexic and encouraged her anorexia; she says this was abuse. McCurdy has always told herself that her mom wanted what was best for her, and she can’t stomach hearing her mom be called abusive. She quits therapy and returns to her disordered eating with a vengeance.
Soon after McCurdy leaves therapy, her dad tells her that he’s not her biological father. Then, her boyfriend, who’s suddenly become religious despite previously showing no interest in religion, declares that he’s Jesus Christ reincarnated. McCurdy feels as if nothing in her life is certain or under her control. On a flight to Australia for a press junket, she binges and purges the entire time, and the last time, she loses a tooth in the process—her stomach acids had worn down the enamel. When she lands, she finds out her boyfriend is in a mental health facility and may be schizophrenic.
Things have gotten so bad that she decides to see an eating disorder specialist, Jeff. He starts by having her eliminate any “dieting” behavior: She must get rid of all diet foods in her house and stop exercising, except for walking and stretching. Then she needs to track her eating and purging. Next, he has her attempt to eat three meals a day, with snacks in between. She starts making gradual progress.
One lesson she learns that hits home for her is the difference between a “slip” and a “slide.” A slip is when you slip up on your road to recovery and return to the behavior you’re trying to quit. You may feel guilt or frustration, which is normal and can even motivate you to change. A slide is when you add shame to those feelings of guilt and frustration, beating yourself up or telling yourself you’re a terrible person because you made a mistake. The problem with shame is it tends to spiral, often leading you to slip up more and more. Accepting that you’ll make mistakes on the road to recovery, without going into a “shame spiral” every time you do, can in fact make recovery more likely.
McCurdy struggles for years to recover from her eating disorder and has frequent relapses. However, using the techniques she’s learned, McCurdy eventually reaches a point where she’s able to go a year without purging, and she begins to enjoy eating.
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Here's what you'll find in our full I'm Glad My Mom Died summary:
- Former child star Jennette McCurdy's autobiography
- McCurdy's difficult, often traumatic, relationship with her controlling mother
- What it's like to grow up as a child in the spotlight