Kristen Johnston Talks to The Fix About Suboxone, Lupus, and Anonymity

By Regina Walker 09/05/16

"I can’t control what other people think of my recovery and I will always be an addict to people, but I know the truth."

Catching Up with Kristen Johnston
Johnston accepting this year's Loop award at Lupus LA's Orange Ball (presented by Joseph Gordon Levitt) Tiffany Rose

Depending upon your age, you may know one of the many Kristen Johnstons. You may know her as the two-time Emmy award winning beautiful blond actor with the comic timing of Lucille Ball, who starred in the TV sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun from 1996 until 2001.

Or perhaps you know her as the author of Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster in which she chronicled her history of addiction to pills and alcohol, and subsequent recovery after a major health crisis.

If you are a longtime reader of The Fix, you may remember Kristen as one of the pioneers of this site during its early days. 

I had the opportunity to catch up with Kristen by phone recently, and we discussed where she’s been, where she is now, and where she is going.

You have been open about the importance of MAT (medication-assisted treatment) in your early recovery process. Suboxone and other addiction medications are considered controversial. What are your thoughts about it?

I knew nothing about recovery when I went to rehab except that I had to go. I had stopped using by myself, like many addicts, countless times. While stopping any addiction is extremely difficult but possible, the opioids make it excessively difficult because of what they do to your brain. The reason I could never stop, and why so many heroin and opioid addicted people can’t, is because of the long-term effects on the brain. The cravings and depression persist for months. Suboxone works to regulate the brain chemistry.

What it did for me was instantaneous. It made me feel normal. It lifted the physical obsession and cravings for me. I still had to deal with all the emotional baggage of being an addict, but the physical part was gone. After a year and a half, I weaned off of it with my addiction psychiatrist. My brain had healed from the depression. It is not easy getting off Suboxone but it was far easier, for me, than the alternative. 

Suboxone is not for everyone. For some people, it becomes its own monster. Even people in the addiction community thought it was “Satan” when I first started using it. It is not a solution, it is a temporary tool for chronic relapsers who cannot stop without it. It is not to be used lightly, but it saved my life. I would be dead without it.

My viewpoint is that whatever helps you not to use is valuable. Some people in AA are told "you are not sober if you are on antidepressants." I believe the judgment of others is really playing with fire. I just don’t think judgment should be part of anyone’s recovery. AA was founded in a different era. I wouldn’t dare suppose what Bill W. would say about the program today, but my personal belief is "what can you do to save your life?" The last thing to do is judge someone else’s recovery. People can disagree with the way I approach my recovery, but it is working for me and that is all I have to go by.

I hadn’t shared about my use of Suboxone until I was on the David Lettermen show and my admission did light a bit of a firestorm. It was understood far less then. 

You appeared in the film The Anonymous People. What are your thoughts about anonymity in the recovery community?

I think anonymity in AA has been misinterpreted. I have the right to share my own story but never to talk about anyone else. AA saves many lives. I think it is time to stop the hiding. If you want to keep it private, that is your right. If you want to talk about it, go for it. I just can’t tell your story and you can’t tell mine.

Approximately a year and a half ago, you were publicly accused of relapsing. Could you share about that experience?

I speak a lot about addiction at various venues. They usually book people months in advance for these events. I had just been diagnosed at the time with lupus myelitis and was appearing on The Exes.

I was exhausted and feeling ill. When I got to the podium to speak, my legs started shaking, which happens with lupus. I perched myself on a nearby chair. A few days later, an article came out by the people who ran the event stating I was high at the event. I couldn’t believe it. My manager contacted these people and asked them why they would write that, and they said “we are worried about her.” I was so freaked out for a while. It was the worst thing ever. It was a great lesson for me though. I can’t control what other people think of my recovery and I will always be an addict to people, but I know the truth. It was a scary moment. And I learned judgment and persecution can even come from people who say they actually care about people in recovery. It felt cruel. There was no compassion. They chose not to contact me or my manager but, instead, make this public accusation. 

You mentioned your diagnosis of lupus myelitis. You have dealt with a few significant medical issues over the last number of years.

A few years ago, I was unable to walk or hold my own head up. I thought I was exhausted. Finally, I went to the doctor. I ended up in a wheelchair. I went to 18 doctors in eight months. I spent two weeks at the Mayo Clinic. I went to every specialist I could find. They could not figure out what was wrong with me. Eventually I was bedridden. I could not move. I told the producer of The Exes that she needed to fire me. I couldn’t do the show anymore. Instead, she recommended a doctor. The doctor was quickly able to diagnose what was going on with me. It is the most difficult form of lupus to diagnose, but the easiest to treat. I had six months of chemo as well as infusions of steroids. After the treatment, I felt great and I was about to go back to work on The Exes. I went on a walk with my dog. I was happy and I felt healthy and I was going back to work. Everything seemed wonderful. It got dark and I started to walk back to my car (I had left my hazard lights on), and fell into air. I fell 40 feet and broke 15 bones including nine broken ribs. I was in the middle of nowhere with no one around. I screamed for hours. Eventually, someone found my dog and I got help. I had multiple operations. I have a huge rod in my arm and massive scars, and I had to take painkillers, which was scary.

Currently, physically I am great. I am in remission from the lupus. I see my doctors regularly and I feel great and I am full of energy. 

How did you handle the painkillers?

I tell everyone I am an addict, including all of my doctors. Everyone knew what I was navigating, and my addiction doctor dealt with my pain doctors. I had to wean off the medication and a friend stayed with me and held them for me. Thank God I did not relapse.

My recovery is in the forefront. Everyone in my life knows who I am and what I struggle with. There are no secret friends I can get wasted with. 

What’s new with your charity SLAM NYC (Sobriety, Learning and Motivation)?

It took us over nine years to get New York to pay any attention at all. The borough president of Staten Island joined with us (Staten Island has a huge drug problem) and with his help, we have instituted a program in one of their schools on Staten Island offering education, support, family services, etc. We started in August 2015. We would like to create a curriculum that could be brought to any high school in the country.

Instead of creating a sober high school, which was the original intent of SLAM, we are focused on creating a curriculum that could be implemented in any high school in the country. I believe we have to deal with the young people. It is an epidemic. We need to do something. It is my life’s work now. 

This may be new to some, but you have always been interested in visual art, including drawing and painting. How is art manifesting in your life now?

When I got sober, I thought "what do people do at 5 p.m.?" I started decoupage.

I had this tray and extra wallpaper, and I made it into this really cool tray. I started finding vintage trays and papers, and gave them to friends as gifts. I shared the trays on Twitter and people showed a lot of interest. Now I make and sell them, and half of the proceeds go to SLAM. It has become a fundraiser for SLAM. People contact me through Twitter to order (Kristen can be reached on Twitter: @kjothesmartass).

Currently, Kristen is working on her second book, which she describes as “a follow-up to Guts but in a different package.”

“There are no rules to staying sober except don’t use.” ~ Kristen Johnston

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.