Jennette McCurdy knows that the title of her recent successful one-woman dark comedy show, “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” might raise some eyebrows.
“It’s thought-provoking,” the former iCarly star, 29, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue of the show, which details the “intense” physical and emotional abuse she endured at the hands of her mother, Debbie, who died of cancer in 2013. “But even though it may seem black and white, there’s a fullness to my narrative. Life can be dark — and messy. Nobody has a perfect life.”
Indeed, despite her success on television with seven seasons of Nickelodeon’s iCarly and its spinoff Sam and Cat, for McCurdy, who was raised by Debbie and father Mark, life at home was far from perfect. (Mark did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)
“My earliest memories of childhood were of heaviness, and chaos,” says McCurdy, who will also share her story in an upcoming memoir. In particular, “My mom’s emotions were so erratic that it was like walking a tightrope every day. The mood fluctuations were daily.”
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As a young child, McCurdy says she witnessed physical fighting between her parents and recalls Debbie’s outbursts often turning violent.
By the time McCurdy was 6, her mother became fixated on her only daughter. “My mom had always dreamt of being a famous actor and she became obsessed with making me a star,” says McCurdy. So despite the fact that she was “cripplingly shy,” she went on auditions and began working steadily. “I felt like my job was to keep the peace,” she says. “And I wanted to make my mom happy.”
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Gradually, Debbie’s preoccupation with her daughter’s looks went further. McCurdy was 10 when her mother started bleaching her hair and whitening her teeth. When McCurdy was 11, Debbie introduced the young star to calorie counting. By the time McCurdy landed the role of Sam on iCarly, she was suffering from full-fledged anorexia — which later swung to binge eating and then bulimia.
What’s more, until McCurdy was 17 (by then she was three years into a starring role on a hit show), Debbie insisted on performing vaginal and breast exams and never let her daughter shower alone.
“I know if my mom were alive, I’d still have an eating disorder,” says McCurdy, who recovered in 2018 thanks to intense therapy. “It was only distance from her that allowed me to get healthy.”
McCurdy says she was also “so repressed and delayed developmentally” because of her mom’s control. And so it was only after Debbie died that McCurdy rebelled, having sex and experimenting with alcohol for the first time. For years, she struggled with ongoing bulimia and a dependency on alcohol, until finally, she made some drastic changes.
“It’s a risk to change your life, but I made it my mission,” says McCurdy, who left Hollywood behind and, for the first time, began to build a life outside of her mother’s constraints.
“I did not know how to find my identity without my mom,” she says. “And I’m not going to lie. It was very hard to get here. But now, I’m at a place in my life that I never would have thought was possible. And I finally feel free.”
If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to www.childhelp.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or go to NationalEatingDisorders.org.