When Kristen Johnston was 28 years old, she was cast as John Lithgow’s co-star in the runaway hit sitcom, 3rd Rock From the Sun. Suddenly captive to fame, the statuesque beauty found herself unprepared to handle its pressure. Eventually, she succumbed to a crippling addiction and nearly died in a London hospital when an ulcer in her stomach exploded. Her new book,Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, is a profane, outrageous, tragic, at-times-disgusting, vivid and hilarious portrayal of an addict who nearly succumbed to her disease. (Read The Fix‘s exclusive excerpt here.) We sit down with Johnston at her apartment in lower Manhattan. Her dog, a rescue pit bull named Pinky, sleeps beside her as she describes coming clean about her addiction to Vicodin (on Late Night with David Letterman, no less), her nostalgia for a youth lost to drinking in Wisconsin, and her new foundation, SLAM (Sober, Learning and Motivation), with which Johnston is lobbying New York City to open a sober high school. She also dishes about a secret desire to adopt a child in sobriety. Hold on tight. With Johnston, there’s never a dull moment.
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.
But you make it clear that you’re very much a work in progress, that you haven’t solved your addiction.
God knows, I could relapse in a second. I might, after this interview. Kidding! No, but 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 accountant 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.”