A Star is Reborn: Kristen Johnston's Gutsy Comeback

By Joe Schrank 03/08/12

After nearly dying from a Vicodin addiction, the irrepressible Kristen Johnston is back with a blistering new memoir, a hit new show, and a candid interview with The Fix.

Kristen Johnston
Kristen Johnston in 2006: "I was killing myself."

Kristen Johnston was 28 she was cast as John Lithgow's co-star in the runaway hit sitcom, 3rd Rock From the Sun. Suddenly famous, the statuesque beauty was unprepared to handle the pressure. After popping an endless array of pain pills, she almost died in a London hospital when an ulcer in her stomach exploded while she was set to star in a new show on London's West End. Johnston's new book, Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, is a profane, outrageous, tragic, hilarious and often disturbing portrait of an addict who nearly succumbed to her disease. (Read an exclusive excerpt here.) We sat down with the actress at her apartment in Manhattan for the interview. As her drooling pit-bull Pink dozed placidly beside her, Johnston described coming clean about her addiction (on David Letterman, no less), her regrets about a youth lost to drinking in Wisconsin, and her work with a new foundation, SLAM (Sober, Learning and Motivation), that's lobbying New York City to open a sober high school. We recently taped her as she read her book to a rapt audience of recovering addicts at an event hosted by The Fix.

Joe Schrank: Addiction in the media tends to have a pretty familiar story arc: hero falls from grace, hero learns a lesson, hero never does it again and everybody loves hero.

Kristen Johnston: And then hero writes a book about it! [Laughs}

But you make it clear that you’re very much a work in progress, that you haven't really solved your addiction.

God knows, I could relapse in a second. And I just might, after this interview. Kidding! No, really, I think one of the biggest things is that most people write the book after they’ve had the arrest, or the DUI, or the public shame, and it’s the mea culpa moment. People would ask me, why are you exposing yourself? No one knows you’re an addict, you don’t have to tell the story. Or at least my mom says that. But I am sick of that cycle. I am sick of the fact that people think it’s just actors or Whitney Houston. It is your neighbor, it’s your postman, it’s your son, it’s your daughter. It’s not just narcissistic actors.

I had the first sane thought that I’d had in like eight years: I was like, there are people outside who are not thinking, “Oh my God, when is my next prescription?"

I get that question a lot—why are so many actors addicts?

Please. When I go into an AA meeting, there’s like one other actor.

I suppose if people followed accountants around with cameras, they’d say, ”Why are there so many accountants addicts?”

I think actors like me are predisposed to addiction. It’s somebody with low self-esteem and yet a desperate need for approval, and now a little disposable income; it’s a tough combination of things. And actors do become a cliché. You know, I just couldn’t believe it the moment I realized I had become one. I was like, I can’t be a pill-popping actress. That’s so embarrassing. But the bottom line is, so are a lot of people. That’s kind of what the first chapter in Guts is about—I’m not trying to take the piss out of anybody, but you know, everybody is an addict in some way.

So you think of addiction as having a range?

Well, I think everybody is addicted to something. People will say to me, “Oh my god, my brother’s in so much trouble, let me tell you what he did yesterday.” I’m like, “I don’t need to hear it: he’s just an addict.” And they’re like “No, but he’s really bad.” No, he’s just an addict. That’s it.

So there’s a story behind why the book is called Guts, and how you got sober. You were taking a lot of Vicodin and other stuff while acting in a play in London, and your stomach basically exploded. If you didn’t have that traumatic experience, would you still be using?

I would be dead.

So that was your turning point?

Well no. It was a confluence of events. First it was stomach-bursting—and the agony, the true agony, of that, and there was the shame and the loneliness. Then something happened while I was in the hospital—my dark night of the soul. It was New Year’s Eve, and there were fireworks all over the city. I had the first sane thought that I’d had in like eight years: I was like, there are people outside of my hospital bed watching these fireworks who are not thinking, “Oh my God, when is my next prescription? Have I called this doctor or that doctor?” You know the fuckin’ terror of being in that prison of addiction. I just thought there are people that don’t have to do any of that—that thought struck me, and it stuck with me. Then about a week later, my very close, long-time friend Laura wrote me an email saying, “Everyone knows you’re a drug addict.”

You write “This is the main event” on your dressing room mirrors. Is that your mantra?

I have to read a little bit about it because otherwise “this is the main event” could sound really dumb. Listen [reads from her book]: “When you’re in a play and all you care about is where you’re getting loaded afterwards, that’s slightly worrisome. But if you can’t fucking wait for the fucking audience to get over it and stop giving you a standing ovation already, because you’re dying to get to the bar? Well, then—that’s just a whole other kettle o’ crazy. But it was all I knew, really. Plays were simply a conduit, an appetizer to the most important event of the entire day: getting hammered. Endless, sometimes heated arguments between the cast over which place had the best martinis would continue right up until entrances. (And sometimes even beyond.) Nowadays when I’m in a play, the very first thing I do when we move into the theater is to grab a dark red lipstick (frosty pink just doesn’t have the same panache), and scrawl in my dressing room mirror my new mantra: This is the main event.”

So it is a mantra. Does it work offstage as well?

Yes. Because it’s my way of saying, this is the moment. I don’t really have that problem as much anymore. I did when I first got sober. It was always like “Ah, yeah, maybe dinner will be better. Eh, maybe if we walk it’ll be better, maybe if I sleep it’ll be better,” you know what I mean?

Learning to be in the world sober is not easy.

I wouldn’t say I’m an in-the-moment person, but I’m not dying for the next moment. I’m okay in the moment right now. Well, this moment kind of sucks, but yeah... [laughs]

In Guts, you describe a state of being that you call “Shultz-ville”. Please explain.

Well, there was this show called Hogan’s Heroes, and one of the characters was a big fat German guard named Shultz whose motto was, “I hear nothing! I see nothing!” So I say, well, the only sane remaining part of myself was Shultz. So I was living in Shultz-ville. It’s funny if you read it…

So it’s denial?

Yes, it’s denial.

You say you listen to Sarah Palin as a form of torture. I think we can all agree on that. But why do you think politicians avoid an open discussion about the health issue of addiction?

You know, I’ve been trying to get a sober high school built in New York City for a long time. I’ve created SLAM [Sobriety Learning And Motivation], and it’s a great organization. But throughout all of our experiences working on this together—I’ve met dozens of people and have gone to City Hall many times—I’ve learned that politicians just couldn’t be less interested. And I started to realize it wasn’t the lack of funding or anything else like that. It was this: if they say yes to a sober high school, it means they’re admitting there’s a problem. It’s like, I know somebody whose children are addicts, but she has never told one of her friends. Never.

Because it’s real if it’s verbalized?

Exactly. As long as it’s a secret, it’s okay. And I’m sick of that attitude. That’s why I wrote the book.

Now my ambition is more about learning and trying to be a better person, and making enough money to have a kid, because I want to buy one.

You’re the daughter of a senator...

A Wisconsin State senator. And here’s the deal: there are over 35 successful sober high schools all throughout the United States of America, and New York City, the greatest, most influential city in the world, has zero. New York teens actually have to go to Boston to have a sober learning experience. The Boston area has over four. It’s really revolting. Here’s the deal: one out of three teens meets the medical criteria for addiction. One out of every 70 teenagers is going to rehab in the United States. And when they get to New York, it is way higher.

NYC is the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

Yeah, New York! It’s a national health crisis and nobody’s doing anything about it. But there are findings from the National Center of Substance Abuse that say half of all high school students use addictive substances. It starts early and it’s urgent. Anyway, the fact that I’m still fighting to make this fucking school makes me sick.

A lot of people do service as part of staying sober. Is this your service?

It is. But I don’t want to be a public advocate, I just want the school. I don’t even care about those brats. [Laughs]

No me neither. I don’t like them.

I just want to make the school. It’s what’s right. It seems like to me that we are a community and they are our children. Other communities take care of their young people. In five years, that’s who the grownups are going to be. They’re all gonna be messes. They’re all gonna be in jail.

You grew up going to a Catholic school and were the rowdy, loud girl. That was your persona. Do you think that was the impetus of your addiction?

Absolutely. It helped shaped my—I hate to say just addiction—but shaped my fucked-upness. My wrong way of being. My other. I call it “other”.

We know now that kids who start drinking in high school are exponentially more likely to have a lifetime problem than those who delay until 18 or 19. We used to let kids drink in the basement and take their car keys, but the truth is…

Well, again, we’re alcoholics, so for us there is no such thing as a sane glass of wine or a beer at any age. And some kids do just have a beer at a party.

You admitted on the David Letterman show that you took Suboxone to treat your pill addiction. Did you plan that?

Nope. I was nervous and talking for the first time about my addiction. And I was saying that I’m from Wisconsin, so I drank because that’s what you do, and I got a lot of shit for it because I guess it’s offensive to Wisconsin, but it’s the truth. I mean that’s what we do. That’s what we did. That’s all we did. When I came to NYU as a student—you know, in savvy Manhattan—and I got to my dorm on Fifth Avenue, I was like “Let’s party!” It was a school night, and people were like, “ummh...” and I was like, “Come on! Shots!” That’s all I understood. That’s why this is the main event.

So if you had grown up in a less permissive place...

...I’d still be a fucking mess, believe me. But that’s what made me great. My addiction is what has shaped me. I think my addiction has formed all of the things about me that I like. My sense of humor and my joy and my love of people and all of that is kind of intertwined, and so in the last five years of trying to live a sane sober lifestyle I have to kind of weed out the little things that aren’t healthy. I’m still learning, like, the dumbest lessons. For instance, toxic friends. Boundaries. I’m totally still learning that. When you’re newly sober you’re a toddler who has no idea how awful life usually is. Just kidding! Sort of.

Have you regained your burning need to succeed?

Ambition is one of life’s greatest painkillers, because when you are ambitious you are driven. I wasn’t ambitious like, “I want to kill!” I didn’t even want to get famous. I wanted to be an actress and I wanted the lights, and I wanted people to applaud. I wanted it. There was no moment of sitting and thinking and asking myself simple things such as what do I like and who am I? So when 3rd Rock From the Sun happened overnight at age 27, my ambition was ripped away from me. Of course, combined with overnight fame, I felt like I was locked in a dark closet with only myself for years. I had really bad depression. I love 3rd Rock, but it was the around that I couldn’t navigate. I didn’t have that ambition anymore. Now I have a different kind of ambition. It’s more about learning and trying to be a better person, and making enough money to have a kid, because I want to buy one you know. I’d make a great mother. I really would.

You want a baby?

Absolutely. I already went through the adoption procedure seven years ago, right up until the home visit. I got really far into it. When I was hiding all the booze, I was like, I can’t do it until I’m sober. I cancelled the appointment. When I got to rehab I said I’d adopt after a year sober. But at that point I was broke. But I’m there now. It’s the right time. That’s my ambition. I’ve always imagined, since I was really young, having an adopted kid. But there was never a husband or anything. We would learn together. And then I’d start drinking when they were 12. [Laughs]

You have a new show that’s a hit on TV Land called The Exes.

So cool. It’s great. I love making funny. It’s an old-school sitcom, which is cool because it’s sort of a dying art-form. When it’s done bad it’s the worst, but when they're done good it’s the best 22 minutes out there. A good sitcom is true art. And it suits me. And I love the cast.

Do you worry about dealing with fame now that you’re sober? Before, it helped fuel your addiction. Has that changed at all?

I’m happy to say it’s not a problem for me now. When I was in my 20s, a big part of the problem was when people would recognize or stare at me on the street, I would interpret it as them saying, “What a freak! Look at you, freak!” And that was because I played an alien. So I looked at it as malevolence. It never seemed nice or joyful to me. And now it only seems sweet and kind and sometimes a little loud, but I love it! I don’t get off on it, which would be gross, but it’s part of my life. It’s fine.

Click here to buy a copy of Guts. You can also visit gutsthebook.com to ask Kristen questions and join the conversation.

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Joe Schrank is a writer and social worker in NYC. He was one of the founders of TheFix and is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, Gawker, Salon, and Fox News. Intoxicant-free for 18 years, Joe remains a depressed disgruntled alcoholic. You can find Joe on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.