Kristen Johnston Describes the Struggles of Overcoming Addiction and Loving Someone with Addiction

    Just as Kristen Johnston started finding success as an actress starring in the Emmy-award winning sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, feelings of self-doubt and panic began overtaking her life. In an unfamiliar city, without her support system nearby, Kristen found comfort in prescription painkillers – initially prescribed to her to treat migraines.

    Over the years her addiction worsened, turning Kristen into the self-described “Nancy Drew of painkillers.” Her persistent substance use ultimately caused an ulcer in her stomach to burst, sending her to the hospital. The events that followed led Kristen to find help, “break-up with her addiction” and even write the best-selling memoir Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster.

    But Kristen also knows what it feels like to love someone suffering from addiction. Just last year, she lost her sister to an accidental overdose. In this episode of Heart of the Matter, Kristen and Elizabeth reflect on the judgment they face as women in recovery, the importance of overcoming shame and the feelings that come with caring for someone struggling with substance use.

    Listen now

    If you’re unable to listen, check out the transcript of Kristen’s conversation with Elizabeth below.

    Explore resources related to topics and themes discussed in this episode.

    Continuing care: Life and recovery after treatment

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    Self-Care: I Know I Need to Take Care of Myself Too, but How?

    Self-care is essential to managing the stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that come with helping a loved one through addiction and substance use.

    Learn more

    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Hello, everyone. Welcome to heart of the matter. I am your host, Elizabeth Vargas. And boy, do we have a treat for you today. We are welcoming to the podcast emmy award-winning actress, Kristen Johnston. She burst into basically public consciousness when she was starring on the hit comedy, 3rd Rock from the Sun. She is now on a hit comedy called Mom on CBS, a groundbreaking comedy about women in recovery. She has been on stage starring in theater productions both on Broadway and at London’s West End, and she came out in 2013 with an unbelievably honest, brilliant, hilarious memoir about getting sober, about being an actress, about dealing with depression, about dealing with family history of addiction, and in a very honest, funny, candid way.

    I met her when the book first came out, so I’ve known her for many, many years. She is now 14 years sober, doing lots of work, especially trying to help young adults and kids, high school kids, who are dealing with addiction. Kristen Johnston is an amazing, amazing role model to so many women in recovery, frankly like myself, and I am so happy to welcome today to our podcast Kristen Johnston. Kristen welcome.

    Kristen Johnston

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I’m so thrilled you’re here.

    Kristen Johnston

    Me too. We’ve been talking about this for a while, so I’m glad it worked out.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I know. I hounded you and bullied you.

    Kristen Johnston

    You kind of did, in the most flattering way.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    We first met, gosh, years ago when you first wrote the book Guts, which was … I re-read it. I just read it for a second time, and this time when I read it, I read it while sober, because I got sober after I read your memoir and after I did your interview. It’s such an amazing story you tell.

    Kristen Johnston

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I love the humor and the unbelievable scorching honesty with which you talk about your journey.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. I think it’s the most honest I’ve ever been in my life, and it really opened the flood gates for me for the rest of my life to just lead a no bullshit life as much as I can. I mean, we can’t do it every second. It really was my first time in my life telling the truth, and it just happened to be to hundreds of thousands of different people. But what inspired me so much was when I was in rehab at The Meadows and-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Great place.

    Kristen Johnston

    A great place and saved my life, but all I really wanted was to read a good book. You’re in therapy all day and you’re constantly talking about all the crap you’ve gone through, and you just want to escape. I went to the bookstore and all it was was these sort of recovery bibles, and I just was like, I want someone to tell me a story that’s funny and interesting and dark that I can connect to.

    Kristen Johnston

    So a few years later when my book agent said, “You should write about this,” and I thought, “Oh my God.” So I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll just sit down and write … I’ll start with the hospital and then I’ll talk about my life and recovery.” But what it turned into was so much … It was so different than what I set out to write. It ended up being this sort of moment-to-moment story of the darkest night of my soul, with a lot of humor in it if I could. So that was the gist of the book, and I really had no idea that that’s what it was going to end up being.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It’s so funny, when I was in rehab the second time. I went twice. I did that. I went into their bookstore and there was nothing in there, and I remember when I left, I gave him a list of books. I said, “Order these books,” because I read so many books, even before I went to rehab. And you go in there and you’re like, you’re right, you’re trapped in rehab, and nothing is more beneficial, nothing helped me more than reading other people’s journey.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Other people’s story.

    Kristen Johnston

    Something truthful and [crosstalk 00:04:38], and that’s all you want.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. How they got sober, why they got sober, why they had such an issue to begin with.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. I think also, it’s a precursor for a lot of people to getting sober. I mean, for me, it was Million Little Pieces, and this was before … And oh, also-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Before we knew it was fiction?

    Kristen Johnston

    Before we knew it was fiction, but also a huge inspiration for me in recovery as well as the book is Augusten Burroughs. His book, Dry, meant so much to me and I read it kind of like once a month for two years before I got sober.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow.

    Kristen Johnston

    I really did. I kept rereading it because, to me, it seemed like I know he was telling my story without admitting to myself that it was my story.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    The first one I read was Drinking a Love Story by Caroline Knapp.

    Kristen Johnston

    I love that book.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I love that book.

    Kristen Johnston

    It’s such a great book, yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It’s so well-written. And I read Mary Karr’s book, Lit.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yep, me too.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Because I interviewed him on this podcast, I just read Steve Madden’s book, which was fantastic.

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh, I haven’t heard of that. Okay.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah, you should. I know a lot about the shoe business, but-

    Kristen Johnston

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And our listeners will soon be hearing from him.

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh, good.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    But one of the things that I really connected with you on is that you talk about yourself as a functioning alcoholic, addict, because I was a functioning alcoholic, and a lot of people are. That fed into my denial that I had a disease, because I was like, “I can’t be an alcoholic. Alcoholics are men under bridges drinking out of a brown paper bag, they’re not network news anchors.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Hello.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And from your book you write, “We functioning addicts devote so much time and energy toward keeping our addictions alive, happy, and well-fed. By the time we’ve made that, oh so subtle shift to non-functioning addict our brains are so fried that we’re incapable of grasping the concept that things have shifted drastically, and not in our favor. We have absolutely no ability to see the desolate disaster our lives have become.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yep. Yeah. Oh my God, just thinking about that time of my life, it gives me chills.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right?

    Kristen Johnston

    It gives me chills. The thing I’m happiest about in my life is that I’m no longer using. It really is, because that is the … When I see people struggling, and I’m sure you get the same, people reach out to you, there is no greater hell. There just isn’t.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You were starring on a huge sitcom, 3rd Rock from the Sun. You went and opened a play in London that got opening night rave reviews. You were that rare statistic called a successful actor-

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, exactly.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Because there are so many starving, unsuccessful actors.

    Kristen Johnston

    I know.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And yet, during that time you were drinking two bottles of wine a night and popping 10, 20, 30 pills a day.

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh, yeah, and that’s a good day. I mean, the thing is when success happens so young, and I talk about this in the book, there is no greater pain killer than ambition. For me, anyway. Ambition kept me running and starving and excited and I’m going to nail this and I’m going to win that, and then all of a sudden your life beyond your imagining happens, and all it is is scary because I was just too young to be equipped to deal with it.

    Kristen Johnston

    I was here in LA and I didn’t have a support system. They were all in New York and, and it was just a terrify … It really wasn’t fun. The work was fun, but everything that came with it was so terrifying to me, and I didn’t realize until later that I lived in a state of absolute panic for 10 years. Like just, ugh, I’m going to be found out. I’m being chased by paparazzi. They’re going through my garbage. They’re going to write crap about it. My mom’s going to see. It was just crazy. I had no ability that I have today of just putting into perspective, and like, “Oh, get over it. Just move on.” There’s more important things to worry about. I hate to say that I was a cliche, but I really was. I mean, I was an actress who couldn’t handle it. Couldn’t handle the fame. Couldn’t handle it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah, you said you spent all this psychic energy and physical energy and emotional energy pursuing this goal. You got it, against all odds.

    Kristen Johnston

    And it turned out to be nothing I could have imagined. And again, you have to separate the actual hours at work, which was great fun and I have nothing but wonderful memories of that moment. But everything else that came with it, the loneliness, the isolation. I was used to New York City, running around, all my friends, doing plays, and all of a sudden I’m in a house by myself, and with a disposable income and just terrible loneliness and fear, and that’s really that time of my life that’s all I can really remember what was going on with me personally. Professionally, it was great, but it’s like one without the other doesn’t really work.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I know you said you started drinking when you were in high school, like most people, I think.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    When did you start taking pills?

    Kristen Johnston

    Pills happened when I was … It was like my third year of 3rd Rock, third or fourth year, and it was legitimate. I was getting migraines, and all of a sudden … I remember the first time I was given a shot of morphine, or maybe it was a pill. I don’t remember. But it was morphine. I was at Cedars. My friends took me there because I just had such a bad migraine. My boyfriend at the time took me there. I remember getting the shot and thinking, “Oh, this is the answer. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.” Everything’s fine. I was signing autographs in the waiting room. I was like, “Yeah!” That’s the problem. We don’t do it because it sucks, we do it because there is an initial benefit. It just doesn’t last very long.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So once you got prescription painkillers and discovered that they did something for you that you really, really, really liked, how did you continue taking them and yet continue performing at the high level you were performing to do the show? And how did your co-stars like John Lithgow not notice?

    Kristen Johnston

    Right. I talk about in the book, as well. For a long time it was like an abusive relationship. You’re not fully committed to this guy who beats you. He comes in, you break up, you go for a couple months without seeing him, then he pulls back up on his motorcycle and you start dating him again, so it was like an on-off relationship for four years, and it only became really bad after 3rd Rock.

    Kristen Johnston

    But, I mean, certainly I struggled with it on that show, but not to the extent where I missed stuff or was high during the show taping. So I was able to keep a lid on it for a couple of years, and then we became married, me and my opiates, a couple of years after 3rd Rock, and it was a very, very abusive relationship.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    How would you manage to get them? Because you always took prescription pills, right?

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. First of all, I had a lot of disposable income which doesn’t hurt and then at the time, they didn’t have the way the pharmacists… Everything’s in triplicate, it’s a government overwatch, oversight now, but they didn’t have that then. You could go to the pharmacist and be like, “I lost my pills yesterday.” They’d be like, “Here’s another,” if you met a friendly pharmacist. And certainly in LA, I would doctor shop. I mean, it was a full-time job. It was like, I remember I had to keep track of who was where. I mean, it was just the saddest thing ever. It’s so embarrassing even now to talk about, but it really… It took a lot of, as you called it, psychic energy.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right.

    Kristen Johnston

    A lot of time, and so much money. I mean, thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. I mean, probably a couple million. I mean, honestly, over the years, the doctors and all the prescriptions, and it was just crazy. I didn’t want to go through insurance because I didn’t want insurance to notice it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. I know. They will.

    Kristen Johnston

    I know. Well, now everything’s … Thank God, everything’s a little more difficult to get, I guess.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right.

    Kristen Johnston

    I mean, I guess thank God for addicts, but not for the people who actually need painkillers. I hear from a lot of those people who are really upset, because we’ve kind of blown it for them.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    No. I heard from a lot of them too, after I interviewed Beth Macy for this podcast, who wrote Dope Sick. [inaudible 00:13:56] epidemic, and a lot of people are like, “We really suffer from real legitimate pain,” and that’s true. There are people out there who really do need actual oxycontin.

    Kristen Johnston

    No, it’s true. Yes. Yeah. No, it’s a great drug. It’s a great drug for people who need it, just not hot messes like us.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So you get cast in a play a couple of years after 3rd Rock in London, and you are on your way to London and you’re realizing, “Oh my God, I need to get some pills.” And from your book you write, “Upon landing, I solved my quandary. I was thrilled and deeply relieved to discover that one can buy codeine over-the-counter in London. Pharmacies. Codeine is a less intense opiate that is turned into morphine once in your system, but because it’s much less powerful than Vicodin I discovered after much experimentation that if I took 30 to 40 pills a day, I’d be just fine. I was almost proud of myself. I’m like the Nancy Drew of painkillers.”

    Kristen Johnston

    So sad.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    But then you go on to say, “The truth was I had long ago stopped getting high or feeling great or even halfway decent from painkillers. Now the sole purpose of taking any derivative of codeine or Vicodin was simply to feel okay.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Mm-hmm (affirmative) Simply to not withdrawal.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right.

    Kristen Johnston

    Not to withdrawal, yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    To avoid being dope sick.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yep. That’s it. I mean, I think that that’s probably the last four years of anyone’s addiction to opiates. The last few years. I mean, it stops very quickly having any kind of benefits that it initially had of killing your emotional pain, and it just becomes you just can’t bear the withdrawal so you just keep taking it for that.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. I once heard somebody in the rooms describe her journey through addiction as three phases: magic, medicine, misery.

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh my God, that’s brilliant.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Isn’t that perfect?

    Kristen Johnston

    That’s it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    The magical part is when it works it makes you feel better.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And then it’s medicinal because now you just need it to feel normal, and then of course you slip into the misery part [crosstalk 00:15:59].

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh my God. Yes, I so connect to that. And the misery part unfortunately lasts so much longer than anything else.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Than the magic or medicinal part.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Than the magic or the medicinal.

    Kristen Johnston

    So you get to London. You’re the Nancy Drew of pills. You figure out how to get your pill fix there, and you are in these rehearsals with these amazing actors. Again, nobody notices. Nobody can tell anything?

    Kristen Johnston

    I remember the director said something to me at one point. He just said, “What do you keep going to your purse for?”, and I was so embarrassed. But yeah, I don’t think I looked good. I mean, I think I was really puffy when I see pictures from that time in my life. I have dark circles, and my face is really fat and I felt bad. Something was going on internally, and I didn’t really know that … What it was.

    Kristen Johnston

    I mean, I think the thing about becoming a painkiller addict is, and this continues to this day, is I no longer have a legitimate relationship with pain in my body. I’m like, “Did I break my foot or sprain it?” I don’t know. Can I walk on it or is it shattered? I don’t know. I can’t compute what pain is anymore. I think that happened at the time, and I think what was happening is I was having an ulcer. I had a big ulcer, and I, instead, just sort of just blew it off as a stomach ache or something. So that was, I think, going on for quite a while and I just tried to ignore it until it ripped open one night.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    That happened. You had an opening night at the play.

    Kristen Johnston

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Rave reviews. You must have loved doing it, because it’s … I mean, theater is-

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s my favorite. It’s my favorite.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, and it was a great play and a great cast, and I’m on the West End. It’s so exciting, but I’m an addict so nothing really matters. You can tell yourself all this stuff. Like, “Look, I have a flat in London,” but all that matters is getting the drugs.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So it was the night after opening night?

    Kristen Johnston

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And literally your stomach, for lack of a better word, sort of ripped open or exploded.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes. Yeah. It ripped open and I became septic, so everything in my stomach kind of went everywhere and I was … I mean, it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I mean, I still remember it so well, and I sort of go into it in gory detail in the book, but I eventually made my way to my cell phone and called 999 and got some help. But it was a really horrifying situation to be in, alone in a foreign city, and yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You talk about the fact that when you get to the emergency room of the hospital and the nurses and doctors are asking you questions about, “Do you smoke, do you drink, do you drugs?”, and you lied.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. It could have saved my life, and in that moment I’m like, “No. Nope,” because I was so used to it. It felt like if I admitted my problem to anyone that my life would be over. It just felt so real to me that I had to protect it at all cost.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You spent a lot of time in that hospital in London by yourself. During any of those dark nights did you ever start to think maybe all the alcohol and pills caused this, or were you still in denial?

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes. I mean eventually, yes. I mean, I had sort of convinced everyone, including my surgeon, that it was because I smoked. I think it was like a month and a half after I was still in the hospital. It was New Year’s Eve in London, and I remember this one, I call it the dark night of my soul. I saw all these fireworks, and everyone was outside at the Eye and I could see the London Eye from my hospital bed, and it just occurred to me that there are people standing there watching that outside. They’re with their friends and their family, and they are not worried about where their next pills are. They’re not touching the back of their pocket to make sure those six pills are still in there. They’re not worried about when they’re going to drink their next drink. They’re just there enjoying the fireworks, and I was like, “I haven’t done that for 15 years.” I haven’t just been. Just been a person without this monkey on my back.

    Kristen Johnston

    That was the first moment sanity started to seep through. Like, “I’m living my life. I can change this. I can actually do something about this. I don’t have to live like this anymore.” And that started my journey to recovery.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And you say there were two other things that happened. That an email from one … A close friend-

    Kristen Johnston

    Mm-hmm (affirmative), Laura.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And a phone call with another close mutual friend of ours, Marci Klein.

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh, yes. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And that those things, three things in succession, are what led you.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes. That’s why it’s always so important. I mean, I talk to so many people who have loved ones who are addicted, who are like, “What do I do?” And I say, “Look, all I can answer is what happened to me. Is I had people in my life that I could talk to that treated me with kindness and respect, but brutal honesty.” And so these two women at different times within the same few days, I turned to them saying, “I’m struggling. I think I going to get some help.” And one of them just said to me, “You have a big problem. I think you’re a drug addict, and I think you have been a drug addict for a long time.” And I was like, “Ah,” so blown away, because it was the very thing I had been doing everything I could do to prevent people from saying to me.

    Kristen Johnston

    So that happened first, and then I talked to Marci, who knew some people who had gotten sober, and I said, “Well, where did they go?” And she said, “Go to The Meadows. It was great.” I called them five minutes later.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    But the thing about that call with Marci that I was so struck by is that you called her up and you said, “I think I have a problem,” and she said, “Well, just go get it taken care of. Go somewhere.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    As in she did what, and I’m going to get to this in a second, but I think you and I both have worked really hard at by going public with our stories, which is de-stigmatizing this disease.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes. Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    She didn’t say, “Oh my God, you’re a drug addict and an alcoholic.”

    Kristen Johnston

    No. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    She just said, “Oh, well just go get some help.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, exactly. It was like-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    She normalized it.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, like it’s this great hair colorist, and then you can go to The Meadows. She sort of did it like it was so normal, and she was so cool about it that I thought, “Oh, I can do this.”

    Kristen Johnston

    That’s why what we’re doing matters, because now that the dialogue has changed so much. Now we have a president who talks about his son being in recovery and how proud he is, and that to me is like, I couldn’t have imagined that 10 years ago. Somebody being so proud of their kid that he tells the world. So things are changing slowly, I think.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. You write in your book about what it’s like to get out of rehab, and in those first few days and even weeks or months of being sober, and you say, “Slowly, very slowly, the cloak of thick, deep sadness was lifted just enough to navigate that one day. Barely, some days. The relief comes in such tiny doses it’s impossible to feel it, until a month has passed and you laugh at a joke and you realize, ‘Wait, do I feel better?’ But you don’t dare dwell on it for fear that it will mysteriously leave.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. God, I’ve got to reread that book.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You wrote the book, Kristen.

    Kristen Johnston

    I know. One of the great nights of my life was going out with my friends, all my friends that I’d always partied with and had wine with and whatever. And this is like three months, I think, after I got sober, and I went out with my friends and they all drank, and I had my tonic water, whatever, my club soda, and I had a great time. It was a little weird, I was a little nervous, but I stayed there, we laughed, it was so fun, and I thought, “Oh, thank God. Thank God I’m still going to have a life.” Because up until that time, there were so few people in recovery talking about it that all I understood of it was I’m going to be stuck in a church basement talking to junkies for the rest of my life.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Did your career suffer at all by coming … You said that there was a big sort of like, “Oh my God, she’s admitting to the world. She’s written a book about this.”

    Kristen Johnston

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Did you suffer any consequences for being so honest and open?

    Kristen Johnston

    The thing that’s always struck me as so weird about addiction is when you’re using or vomiting on someone’s shoes or doing coke in the bathroom, you’re celebrated. You know what I mean? People are like, “Yeah.” And then when you get sober, that’s when all of a sudden you’re punished. It’s just the weirdest thing. All of a sudden that’s when people started calling me junky, or if they disagreed with me politically or whatever, that’s when they’d bring up my past addiction issues.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. They do that to me on Twitter. People who construe something I say or disagree with something I say, and then they’ll say, “Yeah, go have another drink.” They’ll say something nasty, and I’m like, “Really? Seriously, that’s all you can come up with?”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah. That’s what I mean. It’s kind of the only disease I know of that when you actually seek treatment for it, that’s when all of a sudden you get-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And recover.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, it’s crazy. But I think that’s changing a little bit too, but yeah, they’re are still out there. But yeah, then you’ll see someone in the public eye who’s clearly altered and that will be celebrated, so it’s just … It’s weird. It’s nuts. But-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Do you think it’s harder for women in recovery?

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I really struggled with that. I thought that it’s okay to be a drunk guy. It’s not okay to be a drunk girl.

    Kristen Johnston

    No. No. There’s so much misogyny within the recovery community that we don’t really talk about. I mean, even within The Big Book and their sort of 13 steppers, there are men who go and prey on younger, newly sober women because they know how vulnerable they are. I mean, there is a lot of that in that world that you have to navigate. So yes, I do think it’s harder for women to get sober, and definitely you’re judged on a different level than men are.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. I was really struck by … You wrote an editorial for the New York Times about the importance of not shaming people over addiction, and at the end of it you said, “I’ve had it. We’re not a joke anymore. It’s time for addiction to stand up and demand some respect. Because every time someone is ostracized for being an addict, every time there’s a breathless, trumped up sensational headline, every time we giggle at a wasted celebrity, and every time addiction is televised as a salacious entertainment moment, yet another addict is shamed into silence.” I could not agree with you more.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yes. I mean, that’s why when I see people making fun of people for addiction … And look, I do it, too. It’s human nature. It’s a car wreck. My first instinct is [inaudible 00:27:50], and then I remember that’s me. That person’s me and that person’s your loved one. The only way that person you love or yourself is ever going to get better is if they feel that they’ll have a soft place to land when they admit they have a problem, and if you show that you’re not a soft place to land by making fun of this person, judging that person, that person in your life doesn’t feel like they can come to you and they have to stay sick, stay silent.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And there’s still, I think, a part of our society that writes people off once they’re in recovery, by the way.

    Kristen Johnston

    I know. Look at what’s happened to Hunter Biden. I don’t really know his story, other than he used to be a drug addict and he’s in recovery right now.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. There was a big New Yorker story on Hunter Biden, and he was very open in the story. It was one of the few really lengthy interviews he gave about it, and he has definitely struggled. He has been in and out of the rooms for many years, and as a person in recovery myself, as I read the story I felt a great deal of compassion for him and I hope it’s sticking now.

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, I do, too.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    But the point, yeah, the sort of breathless, “Is he on something? Is he on something? Is he still sober? Is he not?” And by the way, three strikes, you’re out. Okay, you only get … Do we do that to people when their cancer comes back? “Oh, I’m sorry. Your cancer came back a second time. We’re not going to pay for-”

    Kristen Johnston

    Yeah, you don’t get any other treatment. No, it’s horrible.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    No more treatment.

    Kristen Johnston

    It’s horrible. And the guy is trying. It is a really hard thing to do to get sober, and it doesn’t work for everyone. My sister died from this disease this year, and she went-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I’m so sorry about that.

    Kristen Johnston

    Thank you. Yes, me too. I miss her a lot. But she tried, she went to like, I don’t know, eight different rehabs. She tried. She just couldn’t do it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Do you have any idea why it didn’t work for your sister, do you think after-

    Kristen Johnston

    I’ve thought a lot about this, obviously. Julie and I, obviously we were very close. We grew up in obviously the same house, so we have the same background. I think for my sister, she just couldn’t get past her own shame. She has three kids. I think she missed a lot of their lives because of it, and I think it just killed her in the end. I just think she just felt … Because it is a vicious cycle of you use because you hate yourself and you hate yourself because you use. So I just don’t think she could get out of that.

    Kristen Johnston

    I think she was sober maybe a full week before it would come back, and it was very hard to be in recovery and love this person who I saw dying in front of me. It was just a very painful thing for my family. So I connect to people who communicate with me, the loved ones of addicts and the addicts, because I’ve been both.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right.

    Kristen Johnston

    I really understand how painful it is to love an addict. I really do. I don’t know which one is a greater hell. Addiction takes so much from so many people, not just the sufferer.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    What advice would you give to somebody who has a child or a spouse or a friend or a sibling who is struggling with addiction?

    Kristen Johnston

    I think the main thing I would say … I mean, obviously it’s a very lengthy answer and very complicated and so different for each person, but the best thing I can give someone is to put themselves first, not the addict, because the addict sucks so much worry, and as you say, psychic energy and drama, that people lose themselves and they become addicted to the addict. So that person’s addiction has harmed them irreparably, as well. All I say to people is, “Look, if you can try to focus on yourself. Create boundaries with that person. Do not let them be around you if they’re using. Do not do this. Set whatever your 10 rules for staying sane are, and stick to that.”

    Elizabeth Vargas

    We know in this country that fewer than 20% of the people who need help are in treatment with addiction get it largely because of the stigma. So, because insurance won’t cover-

    Kristen Johnston

    Oh, it’s a million dollars. It’s crazy, yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And they won’t cover it. I know you really have been out there in trying to raise public awareness with your book, with the editorial at the New York Times and trying to reduce the stigma. What’s the one thing you would like to see change in the next year or so?

    Kristen Johnston

    Well, first and foremost, sober high schools has been a huge passion of mine for a long time, and it makes a major difference in people’s lives. And certainly teenage addicts, there’s something like one out of five meets the medical criteria for addiction. And obviously if a kid is lucky enough to go to rehab and comes back to his or her regular high school, 98% of them relapse within the month. So, the success rates of kids trying to get sober as a teenager are really few and far between, but if they go to a sober high school, a recovery based high school, which I don’t know how many there are now in the United States, but there are quite a few, their chances of staying sober go through the roof, I mean, comparatively.

    Kristen Johnston

    There’s one in Boston that I worked with pretty closely, and just what they do, it’s so incredible. These kids get therapy and they’re learning and they’re keeping each other sober, and so I would love to see more sober high schools. I think if you can get teenagers to understand what addiction is and understand the harm drugs can do, I think you end up solving the problem before it becomes this epidemic. So I think that’s the best way to handle it, but what do I know?

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Well, Kristin, it’s been wonderful to talk to you.

    Kristen Johnston

    Honestly, I could do it for five more hours, but I’d bore you to tears.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Me, too. No, never. Never.

    Kristen Johnston

    It was so fun, and I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s just fantastic, elizabeth. I’m so proud of you and so happy you found recovery.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I am, too. I feel very lucky. We’re a couple of the lucky ones.

    Kristen Johnston

    By the skin of our teeth.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yep. All right. Thank you so much for joining us for this edition of Heart of the Matter. Please take a second to subscribe and rate our podcast if you enjoy the show, because only with your support can we continue to transform the way our country addresses addiction.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Remember, you can find this podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and our website at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who’s struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit drugfree.org. Talk to you soon.

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    Published

    March 2021