Kristen Johnston, former star of Third Rock From the Sun, current star of The Exes and New York Times-bestselling author of the excellent addiction memoir Guts, is never one to wallflower. And her piece in today’s Times, where she derides the media for spreading misconceptions about addiction, is no exception. She takes a website to task for slapping a story about her with the headline “Kristen Johnston admits to being a total drug addict and alcoholic for years!” in order to, in her words, “infer that I was ashamed about my disease. They wanted people to gasp, click on the story, then smear it all over the Internet like a fine Velveeta.” She mentions a magazine that played up the drinking habits of the character she plays on The Exes by mentioning Johnston’s alcoholism (“Real-life recovering addict Kristen Johnston’s wine-guzzling attorney returns for a 3rd round!”) But the most horrifying example she cites is the most recent one—when, last week, she did a live interview for a site, was asked about Glee star Cory Monteith’s death and her response—that she’d be “terribly, terribly, terribly sad” and that if his death was, in fact, drug-related, she “wouldn’t be surprised. Addiction kills”—was transformed into the following tweet: “Actress says Cory Monteith’s death ‘completely not shocking to me.’”
Johnston hammers her points home by calling out Dr. Phil for continuing to interview/exploit Dina Lohan rather than making sure she was okay during their much-discussed interview last year and stating that shows like My Strange Addiction only continue to perpetuate the idea that addicts are freaks.
Why Johnston’s Right
Her ideas are important and necessary, especially as our culture continues to downward spiral into a nation of short attention span’d, anonymous commenting, hate-tweeting Internet addicts. But I still see hope amidst the TMZ-ness of it all. Sure, people are always going to gravitate toward the freak-show stories more than they are the humanizing ones; we all stop to look at an accident, after all, without ever stopping to smell or even notice the flowers. But in my opinion, the Internet stories and tweets out there also indicate increasing awareness about addiction; in my time focusing almost solely on this topic, I’ve heard from people and read and seen comments and pieces online that have given me hope that the web isn’t just being used to spew misconceptions and negativity about addiction but also to make those suffering feel like they’re not alone and their lives can change. That’s, essentially, the entire purpose of this site. That’s why I love and can’t quite express how much I appreciate the writers who do so much to share their experiences and humanize addiction—people like Nic Sheff, Patty Powers, Nicola O’Hanlon, Sacha Scoblic and many more.
But Johnston’s concerns are valid and addiction is lucky to have such a prominent and, yes, gutsy advocate in its corner. As she writes in her piece, “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 somewhere in America is shamed into silence.” It’s true. And so I say that sober addicts who care about changing the perception of addiction should use this as motivation to try to help lift the shame by showing just how human addicts are.
Humanizing All of Us
To me, addiction or alcoholism (I use the words interchangeably) is just humanism to an exponential degree; in other words, I think that the feelings that drive heroin addicts to shoot up and alcoholics to guzzle Maker’s Mark are the very same feelings that all human beings experience, with the volume turned up to 11. Insecurity and self-obsession aren’t, in other words, defects limited to alcoholics: alcoholics just feel their feelings so intensely that, until they learn to manage and process those feelings, they’ll do anything they possibly can to escape them—even if the thing is something lethal that they’ve sworn off. Until they can realize that, they seem to have trouble finding a solution. And the sooner the so-called normal people making sensationalistic media decisions can understand that we’re really all the same—people coping with complicated feelings in increasingly complicated times—the sooner the shame can dissipate.
As both a member of the media and a realist, I’m not looking for a full, 180-degree reversal from the current sensationalism. I honestly don’t know if it will ever be possible for us to help the general public to see—in Bonnie Fuller-esque tabloid parlance—that addicts are really “just like us.” But I’m going to do whatever I can to try.