Book Article

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''

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.

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