Turning a Disease Into a Sideshow

UnknownThis great article appeared in this Sunday’s New York Times. Thanks from the ‘recovery world’ for writing this Kristen and for all your work in promoting the rights of people suffering from a drug and/or alcohol addiction.

‘“Kristen Johnston admits to being a total drug addict and alcoholic for years!”

After 20 years of being a famous person, I’m happy to say I have pretty thick skin when it comes to press. However, when I saw that headline, which ran recently on a major entertainment Web site, I stopped in my tracks. The entire article was based on two quotations from an interview I had given to a completely different publication to promote my TV Land series, “The Exes.“

At the end of the interview, I had been asked a few questions about a book I wrote, “Guts,” which is mostly about the time my guts blew up in response to my lengthy love affair with booze and pills; this part is what the Web site used. “Guts” was released a year and a half ago, and in that time I’ve been very open about my disease, discussing it on countless talk shows and in hundreds of articles, so it wasn’t exactly breaking news.

But I knew what this naughty Web site was doing; I’ve been around the block about 70 million times. It was trying to sensationalize my addiction by implying that it’s something I’ve only recently come clean about. It wanted people to gasp, click on the story, then smear it all over the Internet like a fine Velveeta. Which it was — that’s how I saw it.

That’s not the first time something like this has happened, either. And I mean this month.

A few weeks ago, a respected television magazine promoted Season 3 of “The Exes” with this enticing nugget: “Real-life recovering addict Kristen Johnston’s wine-guzzling attorney returns for a third round!”

There’s only one little problem: my character, Holly, isn’t an alcoholic. Not that I’d mind if she was. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for playing a gal with an addiction problem, even more so since I got sober more than six years ago.

However, the show’s creator, Mark Reisman, has always been adamant that of Holly’s many, many issues, alcoholism is not one of them. She drinks like a normal person. Whatever that means. All I know is, it’s grape juice, and it’s gross.

I was expecting to be labeled after “Guts” was released. I knew many people would think, “Oh, boo hoo hoo, another celebrity pill-popping lush.” But not once did it occur to me that my character would be labeled as well. I kind of felt bad for Holly. Here she is, a single, childless, driven, lonely, funny, sassy lawyer in her 40s, and now she has to be a lush, too — simply because the actress playing her is?

Just last week, I gave a live video interview for a popular news Web site. I was in Washington to speak at a conference about giving addicts rehab as opposed to jail time. The site asked me about the “Glee” star Cory Monteith’s tragic death. I said it was “terribly, terribly, terribly sad,” but that if it was drug related, it wasn’t shocking. An hour later, I was getting death threats on Twitter. That’s when I saw that the site had tweeted “Actress: Cory Monteith’s death ‘completely not shocking to me.’ ”

The depth with which addiction is misunderstood and misrepresented in this country amazes me. It’s not just the press, either. For example, Dr. Phil did an interview with Dina Lohan last year that still haunts me. Now, why on earth Ms. Lohan (Lindsay’s mother and her occasional party pal) would even agree to let that pompous windbag grill her about her rather interesting parental choices is beyond me — but she did. There she sat, terrified, defensive and clearly having a really bad day.

She later told TMZ that she wasn’t drunk, and that the interview was heavily edited. I think maybe she was just trying to turn his frown upside down and failed miserably.

The point is, it was clear Dr. Phil thought she’d taken a few “mother’s little helpers” before the interview; what followed was an interaction so painfully awkward and wildly uncomfortable that any human being still in possession of a soul, especially that of a trained psychologist, would have instantly yelled, “Cut!,” kicked the crew out and had some quality one-on-one time this gal to find out just what was going on with her.

But I guess you don’t become Dr. Phil by being a softy. So instead of showing compassion, he was mocking, condescending and vicious.

Not that Dina was all that charming herself, mind you. But while I saw a human being who was clearly lost, the good doctor looked at her as if she’d had the audacity to poop on his couch.

It bothered me for a long time. A few weeks later I realized why: “Oh my God. This is what the entire country thinks of addicts. They think we’re all silly, spineless, spoiled nimrods who don’t have the guts to face real life.”

How could anyone believe otherwise when this is what they’re told over and over in television shows, the press and elsewhere. Most people believe addicts are selfish, delusional jerks who have no qualms about destroying themselves and everyone who loves them.

Even the reality shows focused on addiction, like “Intervention,” “Rehab With Dr. Drew” (thankfully canceled) or that show where people have bizarre addictions like eating chalk or scouring powder, have done almost nothing to educate Americans.

All they’ve really achieved is keeping addiction an oddity, a sideshow. It’s entertainment for the “nonaddicted” who happily watch from the couch while cramming down two large pizzas and a case of light beer, thinking, “Thank the good Lord that’s not me.”

These shows depict the struggles of your average addict, but most people still believe that addiction is something only the famous get, like colonics and swag bags. I’m constantly asked why so many in Hollywood are addicts. And now that OWN plans to work with Lindsay Lohan on a reality show about her “life after rehab,” I fear this myth will be perpetuated.

But this is far from true. This isn’t just Hollywood’s issue. Since “Guts” was released, I’ve traveled all across the country to speak at rehab centers and recovery events and to fight for addiction advocacy on Capitol Hill, and I can say that of the hundreds of thousands of addicts I’ve spoken to at all those events or through social media, not a single one of them is famous.

This is an epidemic that now claims more lives per year than car accidents. It kills more people per year than guns. Drugs are now the No. 1 cause of deaths in emergency rooms. Yet there is zero government financing for research. There are no swanky benefits to raise funds to eradicate it.

A minuscule percentage of those who suffer can afford to get help, because most insurers refuse to cover treatment. We imprison those whose only crime is being an addict, and I can’t even get the New York City schools to let my organization, SLAM, NYC, build a sober high school.

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 salacious entertainment, yet another addict is shamed into silence.

The actress and author Kristen Johnston is the founder of SLAM, NYC (slamnyc.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to starting New York City’s first recovery high school.