Kristen Johnston opens up about past 'abusive relationship' with drugs, says she spent millions on painkillers

WESTWOOD, CA - AUGUST 13:  Actress Kristen Johnston attends the SAMHSA's 2014 Voice Awards held at the Royce Hall, UCLA on August 13, 2014 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)
Kristen Johnston opens up about her past addiction to painkillers and alcohol. (Photo: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)

Kristen Johnston says there's "no greater hell" than struggling with addiction.

The Mom star, who has been sober for 14 years, spoke about her addiction to alcohol and pills on Elizabeth Vargas's Heart of the Matter podcast.

"Just thinking about that time in my life gives me chills," she told Vargas, who is also in recovery. "The thing I'm happiest about in my life is that I'm no longer using. it really is. 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."

While the 53-year-old actress was a professional success — starring on the hit '90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and getting rave reviews for a play on London's West End, she secretly had been an addict for most of her adult life. She was drinking two bottles of wine and taking 20 to 40 pills a day (sometimes more), leading to a stomach ulcer rupture in 2006, caused by the painkillers. It became septic, leaving her very, very ill in the hospital.

Talking about how she got there, Johnston said her early fame played a role in it, explaining, "All of a sudden, your life beyond your imagining happens — and all it is is scary. I was just too young to be equipped to deal with it."

She had moved from NYC to L.A. for 3rd Rock and didn't have a support system in place. While the work was fun, lucrative and she was having success, she felt isolated in her house, versus her social Manhattan lifestyle, and was lonely. Suddenly she found everything terrifying.

"I didn't realize until later that I lived in a state of absolute panic for 10 years," she said. "'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 it in perspective. Like: Oh, get over it. Move on. There's more important things to worry about."

She continued, "I hate to say that I was a cliché but I really was. I was an actress who couldn't handle it — couldn't handle the fame."

Johnston started drinking in high school, but the painkillers began during the third or fourth season of 3rd Rock. She had migraines and will never forget being given morphine for the first time to treat one.

"I remember getting the shot and thinking: This is the answer. This is exactly what I have been looking for," she said.

She compared her addiction to "an abusive relationship." She said it began as an "on-off relationship" during her years on 3rd Rock, blowing up after the show ended in 2001. While on the hit show, starring John Lithgow and Jane Curtin, she was able to manage it and never was high while taping.

"I was able to keep a lid on it for a couple years," she said. "Then we became married, me and my opiates, a couple years after 3rd Rock and it was a very, very abusive relationship."

Johnston had "a lot of disposable income" from the show, for which she won two Emmys, and it didn't help that pills weren't as regulated as they are today. She admits she would "doctor shop," getting multiple prescriptions from different physicians, "'I mean: It was a full-time job!" she admitted and one that was the "saddest thing ever."

She estimates she probably spent "a couple million" dollars visiting doctors and getting prescriptions over the years. "It was just crazy."

When she had her health crisis, which eventually led to her getting sober, she was in London. She recalled being able to buy codeine over the counter there and because it was less powerful than Vicodin, she was taking more — 30 to 40 pills a day. However, at that point, she no longer got high from them, she just took them to not get dope sick. Her body couldn't take anymore and she had the ulcer, which escalated.

While she initially denied to doctors treating her that she was taking so many painkillers, more than a month later — while still in the hospital recovering — she decided she couldn't live like that anymore. At the advice of friends, she went to rehab.

During the interview, Johnston also spoke about losing her sister Julie Herschede to addiction last year.

"She just couldn't get past her own shame," she said of her sibling. "It is a vicious cycle — you use because you hate yourself, you hate yourself because you use. I just don't think she could get out of that."

Johnston admitted it was "very hard to be in recovery and love this person who I saw dying in front of me."

It was announced last month that Johnston's hit show Mom, which focuses on characters who are in recovery, would be ending. A petition has since been started by fans who say the show, starring Allison Janney, has "no doubt saved countless lives" by shining a light on addiction and recovery. So far more than 44,000 people have signed it.

Vargas is also a recovering addict. In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment in October, the former 20/20 co-anchor admitted that "getting sober was the hardest part of my entire life." Her podcast series interviews different addicts sharing their experiences — including many ups and downs — getting sober.

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