Celebrity Feature: Kristen Johnston
Ye Olde Elvis Catnap (Chapter 4 of GUTS….abridged)
My life changed forever in London on December 4th, 2006, when I was 39 years old. I was doing a play called “Love Song” by John Kolvenbach on the West End with Cillian Murphy, Michael McKean and Neve Campbell. The director was a lovely and brilliant man named John Crowley, who had dazzled me with his direction of The Pillowman on Broadway a few years before. And since I’m bored by most theatrical productions unless I’m in them, this is saying something.
Now, unlike a lot of actors and actresses, I’ve never understood the whole “I’m too fabulous to audition” thing. If I loved the play and wanted the part, I couldn’t wait I’d get my ass in that room and earn it.
The idea of leaving boring old New York and doing a play in a city I loved sounded thrilling. So, even though it had been a long time since I’d had to audition for a theater role, I couldn’t wait to get in there and nail it. (Lest I give you the wrong impression, the combination of wanting a role, and then actually being cast in that role happens -- Oh, I’m gonna say about eight per cent of the time. Out of a thousand percent. Usually, I’d end up drunk in a bar, throwing darts at Lisa Kudrow’s head shot.)
But somehow I got cast, (clearly Kudrow was busy) and I excitedly began to prepare for six months in London. Only thing is, I had that nasty little pill problem to contend with. “Doesn’t matter!” I thought to myself, “It’s a perfect opportunity to stop, once and for all!” I had stopped before, many times. Withdrawal is no fun, and if you feel the need for a bit more detail, just watch that scene in ‘Trainspotting’ when Ewan McGregor’s mother locks him in his room while he detoxes from heroin. I never saw dead babies crawling on my ceiling, but other than that, Vicodin withdrawal is pretty damn close.
It’s awful, horrific, but it’s survivable. What I was most terrified of was the tsunami of depression that would crash into me, and would continue to crash, over and over for months after. Which is why I couldn’t ever really stop, once and for all.
But I decided I’d worry about that later.
Later came (she always do, don’t she?), and immediately upon landing I solved my quandry. I was thrilled and deeply relieved to discover that one can buy codeine over the counter in London. Codeine is a less intense opiate which 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 thirty or forty pills a day, I’d be just fine. I was almost proud of myself. “I’m like the Nancy Drew of painkillers!”
The truth was, I had long ago stopped getting high or feeling great or even halfway decent from painkillers. For the past few years, the sole purpose of taking any derivative of codeine or vicodin was simply to feel okay. Whatever the hell that meant. Or I should say, I took them simply to avoid the dreaded Tsunami of Tsorrow.
The only problem with my self-prescribed RX was that the codeine was mixed in with a bunch of aspirin. Unbeknownst to me, by this time I was suffering from a gnarly peptic ulcer, and ingesting 40 or 50 aspirin pills wasn’t the wisest move. Taken by the fistful, for a long time, and combined with alky-hol, aspirin eats away at the lining of your stomach and intestinal wall. Somehow, all throughout the heartburn, difficulty urinating, bloat, exhaustion, depression, anxiety and generally feeling awful, never once did it cross my mind that I had an ULCER. Ulcers were for stressed-out caffeine-addicts, not stressed out painkiller and red wine-addicts. As rehearsals began, I was starting to feel much worse than I ever did in the states. But doctors had become people to lie to for painkillers, it never occurred to me to go to one because I felt ill.
Opening night, and we were a smash hit. The place was packed, and the reviews glowing. We stayed up into the wee hours getting trashed and celebrating our awesomeness. The next night, my intestines ripped open.
I Swear. I remember feeling a terrifying rip in my stomach area, and I’m convinced I actually heard a horrible ripping sound. This rip was immediately followed by a hurt so powerful, so all-consuming, that, to escape its clutches, I did what any sane person would do and passed out. I had, of course, been endlessly peeing right before said moment, and I barely had time for this quite heroic thought before I plowed head-first into the white tile: “Uh oh I must’ve really pulled a stomach muscle or someth...
Later, it would occur to me that if I had died then and there (and by all accounts, I should have), and assuming of course that not only had it had been a slow news day, but that Gwyneth Paltrow had decided to stay home, the front page of one of the trashier U.K. papers could look a little like the following:
The actress, 58, who’s success began (and unfortunately ended) with the absurd American television comedy 3rd Rock From The Sun, had recently arrived in the U.K. to perform on the West End in an misguided attempt to revive her stalled career. She had just opened in the romantic comedy ‘Love Song’ at The Ambassador’s, and was saying in a rented flat near Kings’ Road.
The cause of her death is still undetermined, but due to her youth, nationality and occupation, it’s clearly either a drug overdose, suicide or murder. Rumour has it that the Forensic examiner is leaning towards homicide. Fingers crossed.
! Whatever the cause, the scene was so troubling that a paramedic was witnessed vomiting as he stumbled from the building. Later, a constable commented that the gruesome scene brought to mind the death of Elvis Presley, another bloated (though obviously FAR more successful) American star, because he also happened to meet his maker whilst on his ʻloo in 1977. “Bless her heart, her poor knickers were still ʻround her ankles.” He said.
The corpse was discovered by a Mister William Sloane, the buildingʼs caretaker. He explained that he was simply responding to neighboursʼ persistent complaints of a terrible odour. He said he expected to find dirty socks or perhaps a rotting plate of bangers and mash. The very last thing he expected to find was a blood and vomit soaked, B-list actress from the U.S. decomposing next to her toilet.
“My god man, she was grotty. Full Stop.” He said, as he shakily lit a cigarette. “Lord forgive me for speaking ill of the dead, but I never liked that Alien programme. The wife always fancied ʻer, but I always thought she was butters. ʻSides, I never could tell ʻer apart from that chubby lass from Cheers.” 
Yet another thing nobody tells you - writing your own faux-bituary is quite enjoyable. I recommend it, especially to those of you with a yen for overdosing.
Now Let’s get back to the stuff that actually happened, like The Rip. 
 I groggily woke up from my Elvis catnap hours later having no clue as to where the hell I was. Who’s red bathroom this is? For the longest time I was just stumped. That's when I was assaulted by an overpowering smell of copper. What the fuck? Blood? Eww, gross.
Since no one else was there, I assumed that the blood was mine. I had clearly puked blood everywhere, as if in a passionate frenzy. That’s when I got an inkling that something very, very bad had happened to me. Uh oh. I tried to sit up.
A venomous pain walloped me with such a supernatural force that I was slammed back into the tile. Oh jesus oh my god. I began to cry the silent wail of a four-year-old who’s just had their hand slammed in the car door. The silent cry that threatens to turn into a scream at any second. A pre-cry, I guess you’d call it. A cry that’s far, far worse than a cry. I’ve felt pain before in my life, real pain, but this was my first introduction to sheer agony. And it did not go well. I immediately wished for death, just to escape it. If I had a gun at that moment, I would’ve used it without hesitation. The only sane thing I could think of was Call someone, maybe they’ll have a gun. Or a machete. I’d even be happy with a butter knife.
For the first time in my entire life, I had no idea what to do. I was lost, deep in a terrifying dark forest of torment, and I hadn’t a clue as to how to get myself out. Never had I felt more totally, utterly alone than I did at that moment, in the early morning hours of that cold December day in my rented flat on Cadogen Square. Well, up until that day, that is. I was about to become very intimate friends with alone.
I began silently praying Get to the phone, just get to the phone, everything will be alright if you can just get to your stupid cell phone.” All while screaming my open- mouthed silent cry. It was almost as if giving my pain a sound would’ve been disrespectful to it. Or awaken it further.
“Ohhhhh” I said softly, as an ice pick rammed into my side. I realized the pain was actually getting worse. It was this pulsating, living thing that seemed to emanate from just under my left ribcage.
Think, you dumb fuck. Where’s your stupid phone?
Just then I remembered my habit of dumping everything on the bed of the tiny guest room when I got home with a carefree “Oh, I’ll deal later, I gotta open the wine to let it “breathe,” which no alcoholic would ever do!”
Even though my flat wasn’t big, it sure felt pretty vast when seen from an inch off the floor. Unfortunately, every time I’d try to make even the smallest of movements, a thousand knives instantly plunged into my stomach. I found that there was a tiny bit of relief in “child’s pose,” which I unfortunately discovered is not a speedy form of travel. But what choice did I have? There I was, inching along like an exhausted turtle, covered in blood and vomit, sweat pouring down my face, sobbing like a 4 year-old, completely committed to the fact that if I was gonna die, I was damn well gonna do it next to my goddamn cell phone.
I have no idea how long it took me, but my reasonable estimate is an hour. When I finally reached my coat which I had taken off mere hours before, when I had been a virgin to real pain, blissfully innocent of my coming fate, I yanked it off the bed, found my phone in a pocket and shakily dialed 999. Eerily, just a few days ago, back when I was the old me, someone in rehearsals just happened to mentioned that in the UK, their 911 is 999.
When the operator answered, I found couldn’t speak. I mean, I tried to talk, but I couldn’t. Later, I would learn that during my “Elvis catnap,” my perforated tummy had leaked out my stomach contents which had filled up my body, preventing my diaphragm from being able to move. But at the time, I had no idea why I couldn’t make sound. I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have felt better if I had known, but it was terrifying just the same. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ME???
I must have managed to finally somehow gasp out something because I passed out again and the next thing I knew, my intercom was buzzing. As I slowly inched towards it (thankfully only a few turtle-crawls away), I realized I was wearing a vomit soaked tank top and bloody sweatpants. Not my usual outfit when welcoming the cavalry. With one heroic movement, I used the last of my strength and reached the buzzer agony and pressed.
I unlocked the door and slumped down into a puddle next to it. Thank god, I did it, help is here. Unfortunately, any relief I felt at being rescued turned immediately to disappointment when I clapped eyes on my saviors, two small men radiating frustration and annoyance. Much later, I would find out that my call had come in at the very end of their shift. But at the time, all I knew was that I had clearly done something terrible to them and all I could do was gasp out a pathetic “I’m so sorry.”
I’ll never forget the expression on their faces when caught their breath and really looked down at me. It was total, absolute revulsion.
Wait a second, hold on. Could it be possible I was the grossest thing they’d ever seen? At least in America we have people who’re so obese they haven’t gotten out of bed in 10 years and need a crane to get to the hospital. In America, a sobbing b-list actress stewing in her own juices would at the very least be asked for her autograph. And then she’d be quickly filmed with a cell phone. People would view the shaky footage of the very worst moment of my entire life, and they’d feel just terrible for me while secretly emailing it to their friends to gross them out and eventually I’d get my very own E! True Hollywood Story where I’d alternate between being totally hilarious and weeping with shame and the ratings would be so high I’d get my own reality show and I’d finally be BACK ON TOP!!! USA! USA!
I digress, get over it. Anyways, I guess I convinced them that I wasn’t some crazy suicidal drunk ha ha fooled ya and that something might actually be wrong with me. Even in my pain I marveled at how these curmudgeons did their jobs everyday, when clearly they were far better suited for jobs as meter maids or prison guards. I thought it was terribly rude to judge someone who, even though she looks like she’s an extra from the set of a horror film, is still hotter than either of you.
My flat was on the fifth floor, and I pensively waited for them to give me painkillers and load me on the stretcher. Except they did neither. It soon became clear that they expected me to walk to the exquisitely slow, miniature elevator, which was obviously built at some point during the Elizabethan Era. They then expected me to stand up in this rickety, minuscule contraption for four minutes, the length of time I knew it would take to deliver me to the first floor.
Which was absolutely out of the question. An impossibility. But as I looked up at them from my knees, my face caked with tears and blood, into eyes that showed me no pity I realized that’s precisely what I was going to do. No, no, no, oh my dear god....
“Come on miss, up up up you go. Cheers, yea right, up on your feet, that’s right I’m sure it’s right painful here we go.... Well, you’re doing to have to, no two ways about it. Miss, your screaming isn’t helping matters....keep on, there you are, almost. Right. Yes, yes, a few more steps. And here’s the lift. Just get on the lift, miss. And here we are. Now that wasn’t worth all the fuss, was it?”
Imagine walking completely bent over, like an upside down L. Imagine smelling like what I suppose a decomposing corpse must smell like, and then picture being crammed into a tiny, airless moving closet with two people who are clearly already revolted by you. Imagine all of this, while being in the most pain a human can bear while remaining conscious.
Finally the doors opened, fresh air whooshed in and for one brief and glorious moment the three of us experienced exquisite relief. I learned one new thing on the elevator ride from hell - if you smell so bad that you actually gross yourself out - man, you stink.
Much, much later, when I first recalled these men and their awful carelessness and lack of empathy, thoughts of the elevator ride instantly filled me with an evil glee. I guess Vengeance Via Olfactory is better than nothing.
Eventually, with a crisp yet reluctant manner (which okay, that I get...no one wants to wear someone else’s dinner home to the missus), one of them lifted me up and heaved me into the arms of the other guy in the ambulance. Or lorry or trolly or tippy or proggy or foggy or pram or whatever cloyingly adorable fucking name they use. I wonder what they call a stretcher, because I sure as hell could’ve used one earlier. Then they strapped me into what, in my insanity, looked like a booth at Bob’s Big Boy. It was probably a bed or something, but what are you gonna do, get all James Frey on my ass? It’s my stupid story, I say it was a booth.
After they seat-belted the Big Girl to her Big Boy booth, they then proceeded to DRIVE me, with exquisite care - “to ‘ospital”. (They don’t say the hospital in England. They say ‘ospital. Don’t ask me why, I’m from a country that believes in Dentists and ice cubes.)
As we made our way through the cobblestoned streets of London, my vicious saviors were oh-so-careful not to miss a single pothole or red light. I didn’t even rate that cool WEEE-WAAAAAW, weee-waaaaw, weee-waaaaaaw sound.
Much later I’d have to take a cab to ‘ospital for checkups, and I couldn’t believe it took exactly 6 minutes. I’m convinced that (like a New York Cabbie with an unsuspecting tourist) these fuckers took the scenic route. I hoarsely begged them for something to ease my agony. How odd to actuallymean it, for once. They gave me the gas they told me they give to women about to give birth, which helped not even a little. (But then, my tolerance was so high at this point, I don’t think an elephant tranquilizer would’ve made a dent.)
The next while was a blur, getting to the hospital, being forced to wait endlessly until they decided to help me. I was in a little curtained off area of the emergency room, lying on a cot with my knees up to my chin, beyond freezing and just horrified to realize that the agony was getting far worse with each passing moment. It was the kind of pain none of their occasional shots of morphine seemed capable of wrangling.
Oh the hilarity. Here I am, a gal who’s laid waste to miles and miles of Vicodin, now when I really truly needed it, it was rendered useless? I mean, that’s fucked up, even for you, Satan. I wondered if pain itself could kill. I tried desperately to concentrate on something happy or pretty but some asshole was screaming so loudly in the ER, I couldn’t even think. It was only when a Nurse angrily tossed open my curtain and shouted “Miss, do stop screaming, as you’re disturbing the other patients!” did I understand that the constant, earsplitting screams were my own.
Later, when thinking about those awful hours, and trust me, I do so as rarely as possible, I can’t believe that I was in such terrible
straights and clearly so close to death, yet no one gave a shit about me. Least of all me. Never once did it cross my mind to demand to be treated better. Or to scream at the paramedics to bring up a “stretchie” or to at least drive the speed limit. Or to karate-chop that rude twat of a nurses head off.
Because in the darkest part of my heart, I’d always known this day would come. I was simply reaping what I had sewn, getting exactly what I’d deserved. So there I lay, the ugliest American, imprisoned in the politest ER in all of London, a creature of my own making - a silently screaming, sweating, freezing, smelly, very very lonely turtle.
At some point it dawned on me that I might actually be in big trouble. That thought was immediately followed by the staggering realization 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.