When Laura Prepon was 15 years old, her mother taught her how to be bulimic.
“It started when I was 15 and lasted until my late twenties,” she reveals in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
Prepon, 40, shares the story of her mom and their shared eating disorder in her new guidebook for moms, You & I, as Mothers. Her candor, she hopes, will help other moms open up about their struggles.
“When I became a mother, I came face to face with a lot of things I wasn’t wanting to look at,” says the Orange Is the New Black actress. “How I was mothered and the dysfunction that was passed down to me. One that took me years and years to find my way out of.”
Prepon, the eldest of five kids in suburban New Jersey, describes her mom as “this eccentric outgoing woman. She looked like she stepped off the set of Dynasty. When she sashayed into a room with her golden fox fur and her jewels, you knew Marjorie was there.”
After Prepon (then a healthy, athletic 15-year-old who stood 5’10”) was told to lose 25 lbs. by a local modeling agency, her mother helped her diet down to 105 lbs. (by weighing her and measuring her food). But the weight was hard to keep off.
“That’s when my mom told me, ‘You can have your cake and eat it too,’ ” says Prepon. “I was taught what to eat and what time limit. ‘Don’t eat Chinese or pizza.’ It’s too hard to get back up.”
“It became a strange bond, a shared secret, which made us closer somehow,” she says. “The longing I had for connection with my mother resulted in this shared ritual.”
But after Marjorie introduced her to purging, Prepon says, “we never spoke about it directly. I knew it was wrong, but she made it acceptable in our house.”
Looking back, she realizes the her mother, a Vassar graduate in the era of Twiggy, believed being thin equaled success. “I think she was trying to help me in her own way,” says Prepon, who struggled with the eating disorder for years.
“When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago, that’s when it really hit,” she says. “She got the diagnosis and continued with her bulimia. I thought, ‘At what point do you stop?’ It was scary and I did not want that to be me.”
“It put me in confrontation with our past and began the path to recovery,” she says. “I began to learn about nutrition and how to practice moderation. Mostly, I had to learn to love myself.”
- For more from Laura Prepon, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Her mother’s deterioration was so rapid that they were unable to ever have a meaningful conversation about what had transpired. “I’ve never confronted her and now that will never happen,” says Prepon. “It’s not a movie. There’s no final scene of confrontation. The other day on a walk she asked me what my name was, and I smiled and said, ‘It’s me, mommy, it’s Laura.’ “
In recent years, Prepon has focused on self acceptance so that she can be a healthy mom to her two kids with husband Ben Foster — daughter Ella, 3, and their newborn son, now 1-month-old.
“I don’t understand how my mother taught me these things, but I try to find understanding,” she says. “When I’m with her, I try to think about the good things she taught me. To follow my dreams. To speak up for myself. How when I wanted to act, we opened up the yellow pages and I pointed to a teacher and she she took me to acting class. I wouldn’t be here without her.”
“She was a wonderful woman, but there’s also dysfunction there,” she says. “But ultimately, I feel empowered having gone through it. I don’t place blame.”
“I don’t want to be angry at her, especially now because I don’t know how much time we have left. I want those moments when she is present to be good,” shares Prepon.
Writing the book has been healing for her, she says. “I hope it does the same for other women. I hope they feel heard, that they laugh and cry and maybe feel less alone.”
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