Bulimia: a Woman's Terror
Such are the disturbing memories that suffuse Kate's Secret, co-written by de Garmo. Airing Monday, Nov. 17, the graphic NBC movie features Meredith Baxter Birney as a woman with bulimarexia, the eating disorder that combines anorexia (self-starvation) with bulimia (the binge-purge syndrome). She is seen bending over toilets and leaning into dumpsters and trash cans. Although certain aspects of the disease aren't shown in the movie—such as hair loss and tooth and fingernail deterioration—the movie is a faithful portrayal of de Garmo's torturous life from 24 to 33. "I now know that I was punishing myself for feeling inadequate," says de Garmo, who nearly died of malnutrition before she finally received treatment three years ago. As she began her long recuperation, Denise also began working on Kate's Secret. "Writing the movie," she says, "was a catharsis for me."
For most of the '70s, Denise seemed to lead an enviable life. Married to entertainment lawyer Barry Tyerman, she traveled with his rock star clients. She bred show horses, which were kept on the couple's one-and-a-half-acre Malibu layout. The mother of a young child (Sarah, now 8), Denise sported a figure ostensibly thinned by a low-calorie diet and toned by aerobics, running and swimming. Says Susan Seeger, a friend who wrote Kate's Secret with Denise, "She had so many things to make her popular. She was imaginative and creative and incredibly generous. I always thought she had a lot going for her."
De Garmo, 36, didn't think so. An aspiring writer, she felt torn between being a wife and mother and pursuing her own career—a "classic" dilemma, she says, "for a '50s baby." By attempting everything "I wasn't doing anything to the best of my ability. When you're a bulimic you can't do anything but be bulimic. It's like a Catch-22, because all bulimics have a dream, but they can't accomplish it while they're throwing up." Subsequent confusion plunged her into depression. Trying to deal with the pressure and fill the void, she felt compelled to binge—mostly on high-caloric food, always in secret, at all hours of the day—and then to vomit.
The daughter of a retired junior high school teacher and a horse trainer, Denise was raised in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Having grown up on the beach, she became acutely conscious of weight and appearance at an early age. She began her self-destructive journey when she was 19 years old. "I was teaching exercise classes at the Sanctuary, the chic health club in Hollywood, where all the actresses went. One instructor had a great body and ate like a pig. I said, 'How do you do that?' She said, 'Easy. I throw up.' I thought, 'Great, this is painless.' "
At the time Denise was exercising constantly, trying fad diets and throwing up once or twice a week. She began binging after getting married at 24, and the vomiting increased. "Barry was a brand new lawyer," she says, "but within the first year of marriage he quickly became a powerful entertainment lawyer. And I backed him 100 percent because that's what mattered to me. We were madly in love. We were this ideal couple. But our life became very fast very quickly. We didn't have time to think about it. We went from having no money to lots of money—and power."
Eventually Denise wouldn't keep down even small amounts of food. She would drink a cup of coffee or a glass of water and vomit. When she went with Barry to a business dinner, she would go to the ladies' room and throw up each course before eating the next one. She was found out once—by another bulimic. When they discovered their mutual habit, they nervously joked about it.
As her husband became more successful, Denise experienced more pressure. She felt like an outsider among Barry's clients—who now included successful actors and writers—and she thought she wasn't being taken seriously. "I thought I could go to some of these people for help with writing," says Denise. "But they didn't want to discuss my writing. They wanted to talk about how thin I was. I wore a size 4. They'd say, 'How do you stay in such great shape?' That was the praise I got. It rang in my ears."
Denise tried selling her film treatments and short stories outside her husband's circle, but that turned out to be even more stressful. "When I started going to agents that Barry didn't know, the vomiting increased drastically. I always carried a toothbrush and breath spray. And I couldn't wear white." She became afraid of sleep, fearing that fat would form on her body while she rested. Once, she claims, she stayed awake for 10 weeks—weighing herself every hour, checking and pinching the fat on her body.
De Garmo got a brief reprieve from the disease when she became pregnant. "I didn't want to miscarry or have a deformed child, so I was free to eat because I felt like I was eating for the baby. I must have eaten 10 years' worth of food. I thought I was cured. I was so happy, I cried. Thank God this hell is over." After Sarah was born, Denise breast-fed her baby for 10 months. "But the day I stopped nursing, I vomited. The pattern started again. I was absolutely out of control." De Garmo, 5'11", watched her weight eventually plummet to 108 pounds. She experienced dizzy spells; one episode even caused a minor car accident.
Convinced that she wasn't thin enough, Denise began exercising up to four hours a day. Squeezing in just one more aerobics class, she was often late for appointments, including activities involving her daughter. "To a little child, it seems like you don't care. I was so emotionally disturbed that I missed the first four years of Sarah's life."
Her marriage suffered as well. "I kept wondering, 'Where's the passion? I never see my husband.' The irony is that I was always in the bathroom." In addition, Denise says, "I suffered horrible mood swings, violent depression, wild crying jags, terrible insomnia. I was not a lot of fun to be with."
Still, Barry didn't realize the severity of Denise's problem. "If he asked me why my gum was bleeding," she says, referring to a side effect of pyorrhea, "I'd tell him I must have cut it. If he woke up in the middle of the night and found I was out jogging, I'd say, 'I ate a chocolate torte last night.' He accepted it. In the crowd he was running with, being thin was a real asset. He was very complimentary on how thin I was. He never saw me vomit, and he had no reason to believe I was sick."
But she was. Blood was filling her stools and urine. She developed erratic menstruation and an irregular heartbeat. Then one day in 1983, she woke up and discovered that her entire skin was wrinkled—the result of repeatedly vomiting muscle tissue. "I looked in the mirror," says Denise, "and I saw cottage cheese everywhere."
Panicked, she checked into Rancho La Puerta, a fancy spa in Tecate, Mexico, hoping to firm her skin by taking off 10 pounds. An instructor noticed how thin she was and turned her over to nutritionist Margaret Edell, who prescribed a minimum of several small meals a day and no more than 60 minutes of walking. "The minute you open your mouth and ask for help you're on your way to recovering," says de Garmo. "They walked me through the food lines and literally put the bread on my plate. I would have chosen a lettuce-and-water diet."
When she returned home, Denise continued to follow Edell's advice while seeing a therapist and a physician. "I was eating. I wasn't throwing up," she says. "But one day I decided that if 60 minutes of aerobics was good for me, three hours must be better. I started training for the Honolulu Marathon." Six weeks later Denise, whose calcium supply was seriously depleted, broke both her feet. "It was a bulimic's nightmare. My feet were bound. I couldn't walk. I couldn't swim. I couldn't even vomit." Feeling she'd hit rock bottom, Denise attended a self-help group that adopts the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. "I had to learn how to live one minute at a time during my withdrawal." Denise began speaking about bulimia at high schools and health fairs, and later in 1983 she began researching her movie treatment. She says she was hesitant to take it to producers because "I was terrified of it becoming another exploitive 'disease-of-the-week' thing. I wanted an honest portrayal of a very dangerous disease that almost killed me." De Garmo believed that simplifying the causes of the disorder would make bulimics even sicker because they would deny having the disease. "I wouldn't allow one single copout, like, 'She got bulimia because her marriage is falling apart,' or, 'She got bulimia because she was raped.' It's a very complex disease. Doctors can't tell you why some people can overcome the cultural pressure to be thin, and why some fall over the line," she says.
While she was completing Kate's Secret, Denise also faced the task of repairing her relationship with Barry. "I needed to learn to say, 'I'm not perfect. I'm scared. I'm insecure. I'm afraid you'll leave me for someone smarter and prettier.' And he needed to learn to hold my hand if we were at a party and I was scared. He needed to learn to physically hold me instead of saying, 'That's disgusting.' "
There were other pressures on the marriage. It became too difficult for Denise to sit down with Barry's clients "and hear them talk about whatever drugs they were using to stay thin. My issue was life and death. I'd bring it out in the open. I think Barry felt torn when I spoke out to clients whom he felt insecure about."
Denise and Barry have since separated, and although they remain on friendly terms, they disagree about the effect of bulimarexia on the relationship. "I'm not sure the disease had anything to do with the breakup of our marriage," says Barry, 39. Neither party will say what specifically caused the final rupture, though perhaps her difficulty in facing her condition, and his involvement in his career, played a part.
Weight is an open subject between de Garmo and her daughter. When Sarah's classmates once teased her about being chubby, Denise explained to her that being big is normal. "I told her that if she exercises and is healthy, she'll turn out the way she is supposed to be," says Denise. "Now when kids tell her she should go on a diet, she says, 'I'm not anorexic. I'm strong. I'm going to be very tall, and I like the way I look.' "
For herself, Denise claims she's learned to laugh at her fears of gaining weight. "Instead of giving in to it, I say, 'Oh, shut up.' " She's still thin (a size 7, up from a 4), but she maintains her several-meals-a-day diet and exercises for less than an hour. "She's not fanatical about exercising and eating," says Gaylene Ray, her friend and trainer. "There might be a day now and then when she doesn't eat enough, but it's not a daily obsession. You can't expect immediate results. It's a long physical, psychological and emotional healing process."
De Garmo attends booster meetings, goes to therapy, keeps a journal and stays in touch with other bulimics. But she doesn't know how much she weighs. "I threw my scale in the ocean," she says. "Part of my treatment is that I'll never step on a scale again."
De Garmo realizes she can control, but never cure, her illness. "Recovery doesn't mean that I'll never wake up and think my pants are too tight. And I do glance at toilets periodically. But I've learned that it's easier to repeat the painful patterns started in childhood than to make your life the way you want it to be. Bulimia is a good way to remain miserable as an adult. When I gave up vomiting, I saw I had a choice. I was making myself miserable. I've learned that I have to accept my disease like an alcoholic. Once a bulimic, always a bulimic' "