Four decades ago, Kristy McNichol was one of TV’s biggest stars. She won two Emmys for her role in the ABC drama Family, then followed that success with a Golden Globe-nominated turn in the film Only When I Laugh and a long run in the NBC sitcom Empty Nest. She left the latter role midway through the show’s run, however, and never appeared on screen again. So why did this young star walk away from it all?

“I had to choose between continuing the show and not being well,” Kristy told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 when she returned for the Empty Nest series finale. “It was the hardest decision I have ever made.” (At the time, Kristy said she had a chemical imbalance akin to manic-depressive illness. Biography later said she was living with bipolar disorder.)

In 2001, Kristy officially announced she was done acting. “A lot of people have wondered what I’ve been up to,” she said in a statement. “I retired from my career after 24 years. My feeling was that it was time to play my biggest part — myself! I must say that it has been the best thing that ever happened to me. So many fans are disappointed that I’m not currently acting; however, some may not realize that the process I’m in at this time is necessary and vital for my personal happiness and well-being.”

kristy mcnichol getty images

The now-55-year-old did re-enter the public spotlight in 2012, however, to reveal her two-decade relationship with partner Martie Allen — in hopes of inspiring others who were still feeling ostracized for their sexuality. She “is very sad about kids being bullied,” her publicist Jeff Ballard told People. “She hopes that coming out can help kids who need support. She would like to help others who feel different.”

That publicist also revealed Kristy was enjoying travel, tennis, yoga, and the company of her miniature dachshunds. “She is very happy and healthy,” he said. “And she enjoys living a very private life.”