updated 02/26/2014 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 02/26/2014 AT 3:05 PM ET
Michelle Duggar battled bulimia as a teen, PEOPLE has learned.
The mom of 19 shared her struggle with her daughters for their upcoming book. The oldest daughters of the Duggar clan and TLC’s hit reality show 19 Kids & Counting share their insights on their family and beliefs in their new book Growing Up Duggar hitting stores on March 4.
“On the outside, Marie had what everyone else wanted, but on the inside, she felt sad and empty,” Jana, 24, Jill, 22, Jessa, 21, and Jinger, 20, write initially disguising their mother as a teenager named Marie before revealing her identity.
“She began to envy the girl who tried to control her weight through what turned out to be a destructive eating disorder. Not realizing how dangerous it was, Marie thought it might work for her, and soon her obsession to stay thin started controlling her life.”
Teenage Struggle for Self-Acceptance
The sisters go on to write about how their mother’s “teenage struggle for self-acceptance led her into some difficult emotional times and a very destructive habit that could have destroyed her health.”
“I have been open with my struggles with the kids before,” Michelle, 47, who is married to Jim Bob, 48, tells PEOPLE. “We talk about how God has brought us out of different things along life’s way. When the girls were writing their book, they brought this up and I thought, if my sharing it is going to help another young lady, then I want to share it.”
Michelle, who attended public school, says that both cheerleading and gymnastics would take up at least three hours or more of her day, but she still found it hard to keep the weight off.
“I found out that genetically I could put on weight easily, but with my activities, gymnastics and cheerleading, it was important for me not to,” she says. “I would look around and compare myself to my friends, saying, ‘oh my, she’s so small,’ or ‘she has such skinny legs.’ ”
She says the idea that she had to look a certain way and be a certain size to feel worthy created a terrible internal struggle for her. She began to force herself to throw up whenever she’d eaten more calories than she thought she should, or indulged in sweets.
“I didn’t tell any of my friends what I was going through,” she says of the habit that began when she was 14 years old. “I was doing it sometimes on a daily basis, or sometimes I would go a week. I felt this was the answer to my problems.”
Told Jim Bob Her Secret
But when she met Jim Bob and they began dating when she was 16, she felt she had to tell him her secret.
“The freedom came when I talked about it,” she says. “I met Jim Bob and he and I were in a dating relationship and I loved this guy and wanted to marry him. We were talking future together and I remember that I felt like I had to tell him everything, everything about myself. You can’t keep secrets from the man you want to share your life with. I shared this struggle with him and he said he would help me and help keep me accountable.”
The couple went on a sweets-fast together and Michelle would call Jim Bob whenever she felt the urge to make herself throw up. The two married on July 21, 1984, when she was 17 and he was 19.
“Every time I was struggling, I would tell him,” she says. “It was a hard time for me. But it was at that point in our relationship, it built a solid foundation for us. There are tough things in life you walk through together. I began to tell him, ‘I have to have strong accountability for this.’ I was set free.”
Though the first six months were the hardest, Michelle says the thoughts would come and go through the years.
“I would call him,” she says. “He told me to call him anytime. I just know that I would be tempted and I would have the crazy thought that I wanted to throw up, not hold onto the calories. Thank God it didn’t go on longer than it did or I could have done horrible damage to my body.”
Michelle says that today she is healthy and often points to Weight Watchers, and their methods of accountability, to maintaining weight in a healthy way.
“That solid accountability with another human being, a deep love and strong focus, was where I found freedom,” she says. “I was willing to be accountable before God and man. But the struggle was still there. That accountability was powerful.”
The Duggars, of Tonitown, Ark. also are parents to Josh, 25 – who is married to Anna, 25, and has daughter Mackynzie, 4, and sons Michael, 2, and Marcus, 8 months – John-David, 24; Joseph, 19; Josiah, 17; Joy-Anna, 16; twins Jedidiah and Jeremiah, 15; Jason, 13; James, 12; Justin, 11; Jackson, 9; Johanna, 8; Jennifer, 6; and Jordyn, 5, and Josie, 4, (who was born prematurely.) The new season of TLC’s 19 Kids & Counting premieres on April 1 at 9 p.m.