In her new book, Guts, Kristen Johnston maps her journey from Emmy-winning fame on 3rd Rock from the Sun to a hair-raising brush with death in the throes of addiction – and back.
By John Bolster
Photographs by David Khinda
As Kristen Johnston writes in the introduction to her sardonic, literally gut-wrenching memoir, “An actress addicted to booze and pills who then writes a book about it is relatively unheard of—and when I say ‘unheard of,’ I mean, ‘disturbingly commonplace.’ ” But Johnston’s book stands out for its unvarnished presentation and high, frequently bitter irony. While recounting the hazardous central episode of the story—her stomach lining ripped open, admitting “intestinal content” into her abdominal cavity and nearly causing her to bleed to death—Johnston takes time out to publish an Onion-style British-tabloid obituary for herself. In the “fauxbituary,” as she calls it, she details the emergency in sensationalistic—and sensationally insensitive—broad strokes. (“Hollywood Tragedy Right Here in U.K.! Kirstine Johnson [sic], 37, found dead on her ’loo.”) It’s outrageous and blackly comic, like much of the memoir, which ranges from her childhood in Wisconsin to sudden fame in her twenties to her dissolution while forging a successful stage career in New York and London—and, finally, to her current state of recovery. But for all its humor, the book works best when Johnston sets aside the irony armor and risks an honest, straightforward account of her ordeal.
Johnston, who recently wrapped up the first season of the TV Land sitcom The Exes with Wayne Knight (Seinfeld) and Donald Faison (Scrubs), spoke to us about her memoir, the multilayered meaning of its title, and the irritating prevalence of dream catchers in Arizona.
Hey Kristen, thanks for your time.
You’re welcome. I’ve never talked to Penthouse before. I’m excited. I gotta get my wax, and I’ll be ready for the shoot.
Congrats on the book. It’s very—
Thank you. Are you an addict?
I’m not, no.
But yes you are. C’mon, what are you addicted to?
Maybe work. Possibly soccer.
There you go. No. That’s not addiction. That’s fun.
It’s a healthy addiction—mostly. But I’ve had friends who were addicts and in recovery, so I know a little about it.
Oh, yeah. You don’t have to be in it to know it. As I said to the publisher, if everyone who has been touched by addiction buys this book, it’ll be the biggest best-seller of all time. I mean, look at A Million Little Pieces. Even after it was debunked as a fraud, it was still selling. I think it’s a really good book, and I think his explanation—which was that it sort of became this monster—I think that’s probably true.
Also, when it comes to memoirs, the line between fact and fiction is not as clear as you might think.
I agree, and I think a lot of the book was true. That’s why it still sells. I think people can smell it. If my book had been written by a ghostwriter, you would be able to tell on the first page. I mean, I read some of these books, and they’re like, “Fame was hard….”
[Laughs] You kept the extent of your drug and alcohol use fairly well hidden, but you weren’t fooling every one, were you? Some people knew.
People started to know. Some people knew there was something going on, for sure. But for so many years, I set up this persona of: I’m fine—that people just were scared of me. And I’m scary. I guess. I can be … intimidating.
You were mixing alcohol and prescription narcotics like Vicodin. Seems like every other day you hear about somebody dying from combinations like that—
Yeah, but they’re not me! That would never happen to me! No, yeah—I can’t believe I’m alive. I can’t believe it. It’s ridiculous. I should be dead, for sure.
Was it the kind of thing you researched? Were you like, Oh, I can take X amount of this and—
No, no. I felt it. I was my own doctor. As I say in the book, I was the Nancy Drew of painkillers. But by the time you become the nonfunctioning addict, you’re too fucked-up to realize you’re not functioning anymore. So you lose your ability to assess situations, friendships. You could lose a job or a friend—I mean, real consequences—and you just don’t bat an eye.
Your judgment goes out the window.
That’s why I tried to make the addiction a character, almost. Like, this man [“M” or “Him” or “Mr. M” in the book]. Because that’s the only way I could describe the seduction. People who feel sort of pleasant and a little nauseous on painkillers—they don’t un der stand that, for an addict, it’s like taking a pill that makes them feel terrific and makes all their troubles go away and makes them able to do every thing at warp speed and perfectly … that’s what it is! You don’t take it to party.
How hard is it for you, now, to not use?
I’m not a white-knuckler (thank you… Mary, Jesus). Honestly. I see whiteknucklers, but I’m not one. Sometimes I just wish I could be other. But I don’t miss drinking. I don’t miss the taste of it. I thought for sure I would, because I was a wino. The only time I ever miss it is when I walk into a sushi restaurant. I think, Oh, I wish I could have sake. But you could drink in front of me. I have friends who come to dinner parties and bring booze. I do ask them to take it with them, out of respect, when they leave [chuckles].
Do you still go to a daily meeting?
No, not anymore. And what I really want for this book is that it’s not [pigeonholed as] an addiction book. Because while addiction is certainly the story, in a major way, what I was going for was a story about, How do you change your life? Not like, Oh, let’s get self-help tapes and work out. I mean, How do you change your DNA? How do you forgive yourself for your flaws? Do you have to listen to tapes? Do you go to conferences? The fact is, you don’t have to do any of that crap. You just have to fucking look at yourself in the mirror and get real. I know that sounds, in itself, horrifying, but [the book is] about a woman who ripped off her mask. Just stopped bull shitting. I think people can relate to that, and I hope it’s not just an addiction book.
Has your mom read Guts?
My mom has read parts of it. It’s very difficult for her because she feels responsible. I think all parents do. She also doesn’t quite understand the need to share it with everybody. I’m from a very private family. But she understands it’s my journey, and I gotta do what I gotta do. And certainly there was a lot of stuff—like the flaws of a family—that I didn’t share because it’s not my right.
I enjoyed this line about rehab in Arizona: “Even if your counselor has a dream catcher above her desk, I don’t care, listen anyway.”
[Laughs, hard] I’m so glad you liked that. Well, there are dream catchers all over Arizona. I kept saying, “What are those fucking nets with beads and the feathers?” Horrifying. Did you like that I got all that turquoise jewelry, and the bracelet that said IT WORKS IF YOU WORK IT, SO WORK IT, YOU’RE WORTH IT?
I did. I also thought it was uniquely awful that Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” got stuck in your head as you lay near death in the hospital.
I’m glad you appreciated that, too. Because, you know, I’m not a writer. I don’t write journals. I’m just a reader. And I think you can tell as you read the book that I learn how to really write during the book. By the third or fourth chapter you start going, She can actually string a couple of sentences together, this girl. I mean, I hope.
It definitely picks up substance and momentum as it moves along.
Exactly. And I kept it that way on purpose, because it’s about the journey. I didn’t go back and slick it up, because I kind of like the rawness of it [in the beginning]. I like that it’s just me. It’s how I talk. That’s also why I designed the cover. I was just fucking around one day, and I got this picture that my old boyfriend took of me smoking. I came up with a fun title, I tossed it on there—and then [the publisher] saw it and freaked out. Now it’s the cover.
Well, speaking of the title and the cover, they work on several levels, obviously: It takes “guts” to expose yourself and be vulnerable, you’re “spilling your guts” in this memoir, and of course your guts blew up.
It’s kind of the only title it could have.
I think there’s another element, though: You kind of look like a badass on the cover.
I’ve talked to some friends who’ve gone to meetings, and they say that there are a lot of veteran addicts who will talk about their war stories. Glorify them, like, I was a badass. I did this, and that—and I could take it. Do you think there’s an element of that in the process?
Not at all. I’m sure I do that at some point in the book, but I don’t think there’s bravado [generally]. I’m actually really proud of myself for telling this story, but I don’t glorify it. Hopefully you can see that in the book.
In the book, you certainly do not glorify it, but I’m wondering if in the culture of recovery, there is that element. Do you see that in meetings?
Of course. Everybody’s sick! It’s a bunch of fucked-up people in a room. You’re going to get all kinds of stuff. [But] it’s a really important part of my personal recovery, and it made a huge impact on me. Even if I only go to meetings now when I need to go.
Your show The Exes had a good first season.
Yes! And you can go to TVLand.com and watch full episodes. Don’t watch the first one, because it’s terrible, but the rest are really funny. For real.
You’re also working locally in addiction. Can you tell our readers about that?
I’m trying to build a sober high school here in New York City. Because even though it’s so not written about in the press, the problem is epidemic. One in three teenagers in the U.S. meets the medical cri teria for addiction. And if a kid is lucky enough to go to rehab, but then goes back to his high school, the relapse rate is 80 percent. For kids who go to a sober high school—which is basically the same as a regular high school but there are AA meetings offered, and a range of support—70 percent of them graduate drug- and alcohol-free. I formed a board called SLAM, which stands for Sobriety through Learning And Motivation. You can find us on Facebook (SLAM NYC) and at SlamNYC.com.
What should we take away from Guts?
You know when I said that addicts take the drug to be the person they always wanted to be? To be totally honest with you, it kind of works—for a minute. But then it backfires. It’s taking a shortcut to something, you know? Look, if you go on a starvation diet? Great, you lose weight! But then you eat an apple? You’re gonna be obese. There’s no quick route to happiness, to serenity, to —yeah, to joy! You can’t take a pill and be okay. It’s not gonna work. It’s a process. There are no shortcuts.