“Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster” (Gallery Books), by Kristen Johnston:
By MAE ANDERSON
May 31, 2012
Kristen Johnston is best known as the brash, tough-talking alien in “3rd Rock From the Sun,” which aired on NBC from 1996 to 2001. But that character’s toughness has nothing on Johnston, who discusses her lonely childhood, rise as an actress and battles with addiction in a candid new memoir.
In “Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster,” Johnston reveals that she grew up mortified by her height (she was almost 6 feet tall by the time she was 12), which made her feel like a “freak,” spent years in denial about an escalating addiction to booze and pills, and finally survived a near-fatal eruption of her intestines while working on a play in London.
Serious stuff, but Johnston, now sober, recounts it all with brassy, almost defiant, humor, poking fun at herself while at the same time revealing how she used drugs and alcohol to mask how raw and painfully alone she felt while she was growing up and rising to fame.
“I’m sure that there were many, many signs that I was killing myself, and I was probably given thousands of opportunities to change my life and make it wonderful, but once you’ve washed down a handful of Vicodin with a bottle or two of a full-bodied cabernet, even reading stop signs while driving a car becomes a tad tricky,” she writes. While she admits that an actress with addiction problems is about as unique as a “manila envelope,” part of what sets Johnston apart, besides her wit and frankness in dealing with the topic of addiction, is the harrowing brush with death that finally sets her on the path to sobriety.
In 2006, right after a play she was doing in London opened, a peptic ulcer in her stomach burst, aggravated by the 30 to 40 codeine pills a day she was taking in England to replace her stateside Vicodin habit. Johnston found herself alone in her apartment in crippling pain, covered in vomit and blood and barely able to move. The moment, recounted in unsparing detail, is harrowing. As is her account of spending several weeks in a London hospital where indifferent doctors and nurses, along with her own nearly superhuman drive to pretend everything was still OK (she told her mother not to visit and her best friend the burst ulcer was probably caused by cigarettes), exacerbated her loneliness and isolation.
Still, the near-death experience brings Johnston the revelation that, “Despite years of slowly killing myself, all I wanted, with more passion and ferocity than I’d ever wanted anything else in my entire life, was to live.”
It takes some time for her to put that thought into action. She leaves the hospital too early in order to get back to her play, determined to carry on through sheer willpower, and then nearly dies due to an infection. Even after that scare, she briefly continues to drink and take Vicodin until a blunt email from a friend worried about her alcoholism and addiction serves as a wake-up call and sets her on the path to rehab.
The book has a breezy, letter-to-a-friend air to it, and it can easily be read in an evening. But Johnston doesn’t shy away from the ugly and painful realities of addiction and her own denial that led to her hospital stint — all in an effort to help others who might be battling their own demons. Now that takes guts.