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Kristen Johnston: I Ain't No Miss Sobriety

What happens after you write a bestselling memoir about recovery? The author of Guts (and star of The Exes) is discovering it's hard to keep it simple when you're a sober superhero.

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By Kristen Johnston

04/02/12

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Anyone in recovery knows that one of the most effective ways to ensure a relapse is to present yourself as someone who has triumphed over their addictions. Someone who knows more about recovery than those poor souls who’ve gone to 10 rehabs and still can’t figure it out. Someone who’s the opposite of Whitney Houston. Someone who has Won.

Just because I'm an addict doesn't mean I'm an idiot (well, ok. It sorta does). Regardless, I'm well aware of the many little sand traps addiction lovingly lays out for you. For starters, Nic Sheff’s experience of being ‘Oprah-fied’ after he wrote his brilliant memoir, Tweak, was not lost on me: he relapsed on his book tour. I’ve thought of it more than once since the release of GUTS: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster a few weeks ago. Mr. Sheff would probably say it differently, but the main lesson I learned from his travails—other than meth and me would be a match made in hell—is this: Don’t ever give the impression you’re cured, or that life is fabulous now, because then you’ll be fucked and have to write another book talking about how, just as you were being lauded as a "Hero," you were snorting drugs at Harpo Studios.

When I decided to write a book, somewhere along the line I made the insane decision to tell the absolute truth, as I remember it. I knew I had to share things I had yet to tell anyone else. Ever. Some things I never spoke aloud because of my deep shame, but some stuff just never came up. I mean, it’s not like you can be at a dinner party and just whip out a gem like “I ever tell you guys about the time I was punched in the vagina?” and expect to be invited back. Not to mention, I’m fairly certain nuggets like “Did you guys know I once had an infection draining from my stomach that smelled so God-awful a nurse actually dry heaved?” would not be considered appropriate cocktail party small talk. One of the many reasons I don’t go to cocktail parties anymore.

"If all these people are inspired to get sober because of me, what will happen to them if I relapse?"

I knew if I wrote the true story of what happened to me, I would be obliged (no matter how much I didn't want to be) to include the fact that I’m still a hot mess. A hot mess who could relapse at any moment. My shrink Dr. Mary says I’m “a work in progress,” but I secretly refer to myself as “a piece of work in progress.”

After spending a year and a half writing and re-writing GUTS, for some reason, only recently did it occur to me that now people would actually read it.

Oh my God. All of my most intimate thoughts, feelings, failures, just flapping in the wind, out there to be judged by anyone. Complete strangers would now be privy to the most shameful, mortifying, and regrettable moments of my life. Panic set in. But I was stuck. I already spent most of the advance Simon & Schuster gave me a year ago. I actually had the happy (albeit brief) idea of convincing them GUTS would be a stink-bomb, and perhaps I could convince them that I should just whip out a totally different book, real quick, about something else? Maybe a fun fictional romance slash thriller with comedic undertones? Those sell like hotcakes, I hear.

But it was too late. As the release date drew closer and closer, I tried to prepare myself for any and all reactions to GUTS. Maybe critics would skewer it. Maybe it would sell a record-breaking 10 copies. Maybe it would help people who were in recovery. Maybe it would sell more than even one of Tori Spelling’s books (which I recently discovered to my dismay is a lot.)  I imagined reactions like: “honest,” “brave,” “stupid,”“smart,” “poorly written,” “funny,” “offensive,” “helpful,” or simply “one of the worst memoirs of this, or any other century.” I thought of them all, and I began to feel confident that I was emotionally prepared for anything.

Which of course meant I was completely unprepared for what actually did happen. Never, in my wildest imaginings did it occur to me that my warts and all story would actually inspire people to get sober themselves. As in, that very second. People’s reactions have been mind-blowing, to say the least. The hundreds of letters and tweets I've received have been beautiful, heartbreaking, profound. They’ve filled me with overwhelming gratitude and joy that people have heard my story, and really understood what I was trying to say.

A few wrote that they finished Guts and went to their first ever AA meeting. And many have written that they finished the book an hour ago, or four or five days ago, or two weeks ago and haven't had a drink or drug since. Many of them have called me “an inspiration” “an angel” and "their hero.” It kind of feels as if I’ve just been crowned “Miss Sobriety.” Which is wonderful, since I adore winning things.

It's been the proudest, happiest, most fulfilling time of my life. I've spent my days giddily flitting from talk show appearances to photo shoots, to interviews, all the while gratefully enjoying the surprising fruits of all my hard work.

Therefore, I was mystified when I recently began having terrible nightmares. I don’t remember them, but every night I’d bolt up, utterly panic-stricken. covered in a cold, clammy sweat. After assuring myself it was just a stupid dream, I’d turn to cuddle with my farting dog Pinky, who, while odorous, has a light snore that never fails to lull me back to sleep. Not any more. For weeks, I lay there in the pre-dawn hours, wide awake. And all because of this one stupid thought that insisted upon cruelly tinkling all over my awesomeness parade:

"If all these people are inspired to get sober because of me, what will happen to them if I relapse?"

All recovering addicts understand the fear of relapse, but now I have the sobriety of all these other people to worry about? You gotta be kidding me. That kind of sucks, if you think about it. I mean, I can’t be alone here, right? What about all those sponsors who've been sober 20 years and have a bunch of sponsees relying on them—are they ever tormented by what would happen if they relapse? Do they ever worry about letting people down? What about addiction therapists? And all those counselors at rehabs? A friend of mind was at rehab and one day his adored counselor showed up for group therapy, smashed out of his noggin. The counselor was fired, but it understandably really messed with his head. And his sobriety. He’s just left for his fourth rehab in as many years.

Intellectually, of course I understand that I'm responsible for no one's sobriety but my own. But as much as I wish that were true, we all know it isn’t. At least, not to some people. In fact, some people feel it is absolutely their right, if not their Bill W.-given duty, to judge, assess and critique other people’s recovery. (If you’d like to see some examples of this behavior, are you ever in luck! You’ll find quite a few of them in the “comments” sections after pretty much every article on this very website.)

I wonder if I should tell them that any time I read a post where somebody passes judgement on someone else's recovery—as opposed to even considering  whether there’s a valid point in there somewhere (there usually isn’t), all I can think is: “Well, looks like another grumpy fuckhead fell into the old ‘I know more about recovery than you do’ sandtrap.” Which sadly means that Mr. grumpy fuckhead will either relapse very soon, or they’ll simply remain a miserable and close-minded whiteknuckler. Probably both. (I look forward to your comments, grumps!)

Back to me. There is one thing I’m even more scared of than relapsing. My greatest fear is that if I ever did (God forbid) relapse, I would lie about it. I’m terrified that I would lie because I can't bear the thought of disappointing people. Even worse, I fear I would lie about it just so you will continue to think I'm a brave, wonderful, heroic, inspirational soul. It’s true. I would lie just so I can keep my stupid fucking tiara.

Which would promptly turn me into the creature I was six years ago: a smiling, joking, lying, self-despising junkie.

It doesn't help matters that I'm also addicted to saving broken people. Or simply saving people. Or saving the day. Or solving the previously unsolvable. I can’t begin to describe the rush I feel when I “give you that one piece of advice you really need," or when I "help you figure out your relationship dilemma" or when I “pay for your gall-bladder surgery.” I've always been this way. I love telling people about the "best facialist" or the "best sushi restaurant." Even giving a tourist directions gets my rocks off. "Excuse me, sir? I notice you're looking at your map and seem lost. May I help? ... No? ... Alright then. Sorry to bother you."

These qualities can be seen as generous & loving. And to some extent, they are. But the real truth is: they’re also part of my sickness. They are as interwoven into my addiction as vicodin or red wine.

So when people write or tweet me proclaiming me "Miss Sobriety," my brain is hard-wired to instinctively respond "Yes! I am Miss Sobriety! I am a warrior who has looked into the jaws of death and survived! A heroine who vanquished addiction with nothing more than her wits and the truth! Of course I can help you stay clean! Certainly, I can tell you the best way to help your grandson! And I absolutely know what's best for you!"

But it’s not true. I don't know dick about recovery. I'm not cured. I can't tell you where your sister should go, or how best to approach your best friend (though God save me, I can't seem to resist telling you anyways. When I do, best to ignore.)

I guess what I’m saying is this: worship me, if you must, for my charm, my looks, my balls, my skill with the funny, or my boobs. But whatever you do, please don’t worship my sobriety. You might as well just shoot me in the head with opiate bullets.

The only thing I did was somehow live long enough to tell my absolute, sober truth, to the best of my recollection. Which is a huge thing for me, and is something I'm very, very proud of. If my story inspired you to tell the truth to yourself, that's amazing, mind-blowing, humbling. Please keep writing me your experiences with Guts. Just keep in mind that while I’m deeply flattered be nominated "Miss Sobriety," to save my own life (as well as yours), I must respectfully decline the title.

But I’ll take the tiara, if you happen to have an extra one.

(Post script: Ever since I wrote this I've slept like a baby.)

Kristen Johnston is an actress ('The Exes'), activist (slamnyc.org) and now, New York Times bestselling author (gutsthebook.com). You can harass her on twitter at @kjothesmartass.

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