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Kristen Johnston on drugs, recovery, and 'Guts'

In 2006, former ”3rd Rock From the Sun” star Kristen Johnston’s stomach exploded after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Now the 44-year-old actress relives that nightmare in her fascinating memoir, ”Guts”

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In Guts, you detail how years of boozing and drugging caused your stomach to explode shortly after you started the London run of the play Love Song. Here’s a dumb first question: How much did that hurt?
Imagine an overweight woman in stilettos jumping up and down on your stomach. But it was for hours! I’ve never had children, but I think it’s the worst pain a human can experience and not die.

The technical term for what happened to you is ”acute peritonitis.” Could you explain what that means?
It’s an ulcer that burst and basically I became septic, meaning all the contents in my stomach were, like, in my armpit and somewhere in, you know, my legs. I don’t know. But I have really researched what happened to me. I got my records and everything. It was 700 pages, actually. The best was [the nurse’s] notes. ”Patient v. upset.” ”V. difficult.” All this stuff. ”Wants more pain meds,” always.

How close did you come to dying?
I should have died. I think they actually lost me twice on the operating table.

This is what alcohol and drugs can do to your stomach?
Well, that’s what it did! It’s what Vicodin did. I don’t remember exactly [how many I was taking a day] but many more than 20. Somewhere between 20 and 100 a day. It was very hardcore.

You got sober after leaving the hospital, but the illness caused you to lose a great deal of weight — which in turn led to media reports that you were anorexic. Was that a good news/bad news situation in the sense that at least they weren’t accusing you of being a drug addict?
No. By that point I didn’t really care anymore. Certainly I understand why people thought I had an eating disorder, because I’m an actress and I looked like a ghoul. The thing that was so shocking was the viciousness of the attack by the press. [One magazine] called my mother, who’s unlisted in the Midwest, and said, ”If you don’t tell us about your daughter’s eating disorder, you’ll be sorry.” They threatened my mother. That’s when I thought, ”That person is going to hell.” Then I realized they probably already are.

Still, generally speaking, people didn’t think of you as someone with addiction problems. Why did you decide to go public in this fashion?
The shallow initial answer is that I wanted to make some money. But the thing it morphed into was I didn’t have to and that’s why I did it. Because I am so f—ing sick and tired of the shame [that surrounds addiction]. If you want to keep quiet, I don’t give a s—. I just thought, ”Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody [wrote a book about addiction] who wasn’t a mess?” Well, I’m a mess, but I’m not a hot mess.

You said you initially decided to write a book to make money. I assumed someone who was the star of a long-running network sitcom like 3rd Rock From the Sun would be set for life.
No. I certainly did very well, don’t get me wrong. But it had been 10 years. And although I’m not some Prada-shopping-spree girl, I am one of those people that buys dinner for everybody. And also: ”You want to go to France? Let’s go!” I’m that girl.

You write about suffering from depression after 3rd Rock became a hit. What was the problem?
It’s so shocking to realize that you can go into a bait-and-tackle shop in the middle of Vancouver and they know who you are. The whole time it was like a roller coaster. [I was trying to catch up to] the car ahead of me and I just never did. It just felt so overwhelming to me.

I’ve read interviews in which actors with substance-abuse problems have said they can point to scenes where they are ”dead behind the eyes.” Is the same true for you?
That’s what it is! It’s not [that you’re] using or anything. It’s that you’re dead. I had that with 3rd Rock, the last year. I was never high while shooting, but I was dead behind the eyes. My friends have said, ”You can’t tell.” But I can’t watch those shows.

I recently saw you host a benefit show for your charity, SLAM (Sobriety, Learning and Motivation), which is campaigning to establish a high school in New York for students with addiction problems. You were very entertaining but so energized and emotional I kept thinking, ”If this is what she is like sober, what must she have been like on drugs?”
No, [drugs] calmed me down. I also was a very sad person. You’d never know it. But I was.

In one episode of Sex and the City, you played a character who causes a scene at a party and then falls to her death from a high-rise window. In retrospect, it seems like you were playing a version of yourself.
I was never like that. I’m conflicted because I’m loud but I’m shy. One of those things I would never have done was make a scene at a party. And I would never have done blow in front of Sarah Jessica Parker. [Laughs] The weirdest part is that that episode is probably what I’m recognized for almost more than anything else. That really hit a nerve in some people.

You’re now starring on the TV Land show The Exes. What’s it like being back on a sitcom?
I love it. The first time I went back on a sitcom set was doing The New Adventures of Old Christine, and I remember going, ”Oh my God, I know how to do this!” You know, sometimes [I am] a little too big with the faces and all that, but I love doing it. I understand the mathematics. It’s been great to have a little bit of a second moment in television. To come back and to be able to be there sober — you know, still nuts but now I’m sane-ish.

One of the other things you reveal in Guts is a fondness for drummers. As a beat keeper myself, I understand the allure. But could you explain the fascination?
Oh my God, I’m obsessed with drummers! Stewart Copeland, my whole life! It’s because they’re always the ignored ones, so I love that. Also, it’s such a cool skill.

Speaking of rockers, did you know that ex-Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan abused his body so badly his pancreas exploded?
From when he was using? You’re f—ing kidding.

Maybe the two of you should…
Hang out? I don’t like bass players.