Jamie Lee Curtis Opens Up About Being 20 Years Sober, Going Public With Her Addiction
“It is the only disease that is self-diagnosed. No one else can actually tell you you’re an alcoholic.”
Jamie Lee Curtis had just turned 40. She and her husband, director Christopher Guest, had been married for 14 years and had two children, Annie, 12, and 2-year-old Thomas. A two-time Golden Globe winner, Curtis had just landed on the New York Times best-seller list with her second children’s book “Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day.”
One night — it was late 1998 — Curtis was doing what she usually did. She was in the kitchen of her Los Angeles-area home making dinner for the family. She reached into her pants pocket, scooped up five Vicodin and swallowed them all at once with a swig of wine.
Curtis didn’t realize that a friend who was staying at the house was watching her from a doorway. “I heard this voice: ‘You know, Jamie, I see you. I see you with your little pills, and you think you’re so fabulous and so great, but the truth is you’re dead. You’re a dead woman.’”
“The jig was up,” Curtis says. “Now I knew someone knew. I had been nursing a secret Vicodin addiction for a very long time — over 10 years.”
Even so, she wasn’t ready to face her demons. A few weeks later, her actress sister Kelly Curtis, who was staying with the family, was prescribed Vicodin after being injured while performing in a play. Kelly didn’t like the way the medication made her feel, so she tossed the full bottle of pills into her suitcase.
Curtis was soon sneaking in her room and stealing pills. “But then when she was moving out, I knew she was going to find the empty bottle,” Curtis remembers. “So I wrote her a letter and I said, ‘I’ve done a terrible thing, and I’ve stolen your pills from you, and I’m sorry.’ When I came home that night, I was terrified that she was going to be so angry at me, but she just looked at me and put her arms out and hugged me and said, ‘You are an addict and I love you, but I am not going to watch you die.’ That’s it. She didn’t wag her finger at me. She didn’t tell me anything else.”
About two months later, in February 1999, Curtis picked up a copy of Esquire. Flipping through the pages, she stopped at an article titled “Vicodin, My Vicodin.” As she read writer Tom Chiarella’s story about his addiction to painkillers, Curtis felt for the first time that she wasn’t the only one.
The article inspired her to attend her first recovery meeting. That was about 20 years ago. She has been sober ever since.
Here, Curtis opens up about first getting sober and how she’s maintained her recovery for two decades while working in Hollywood.
When did you start taking painkillers?
I had a routine plastic surgery because of a cameraman. I naturally had puffy eyes. If you see photographs of me as a child, I look like I haven’t slept. I’ve just always been that person, and we were shooting a scene in a courtroom with that kind of high, nasty fluorescent light, and it came around to my coverage in the scene, and [the cameraman] said, “I’m not shooting her today. Her eyes are too puffy.” I was so mortified and so embarrassed and had just so much shame about it that after that movie, I went and had routine plastic surgery to remove the puffiness. They gave me Vicodin as a painkiller for something that wasn’t really painful.
Did you ever take pills while you were working?
I was the wildly controlled drug addict and alcoholic. I never did it when I worked. I never took drugs before 5 p.m. I never, ever took painkillers at 10 in the morning. It was that sort of late afternoon and early evening — I like to refer to it as the warm-bath feeling of an opiate. It’s like the way you naturally feel when your body is cool, and you step into a warm bath, and you sink into it. That’s the feeling for me, what an opiate gave me, and I chased that feeling for a long time.
Who knew about your addiction?
No one. No one knew at all. Not one person knew except the people I would get [the painkillers] from.
What did you say to your friend who caught you taking the pills in the kitchen?
I think I sobbed and thanked her, and told her I loved her.
Do you remember standing up for the first time in a recovery meeting and saying, “I’m an addict”?
For me it’s a hybrid because I also drank too much in a very controlled way, in a very Jamie way. It is the only disease that is self-diagnosed. No one else can actually tell you you’re an alcoholic. They can tell you that you drink too much or in their opinion that you drink too much or that when you drink too much, it really makes them angry. But to call yourself an alcoholic or a drug addict is a badge of honor. It is a way of acknowledging something that is a profound statement and can be, for many people, life-changing. Because the secret, the shameful secret, is the reason why it is such a pervasive illness in our industry — in every industry, in every socioeconomic stratum, in every country in the world. It is the secret shame that keeps people locked up in their disease.
“I was just terrified that someone in the recovery community was going to betray my trust. But it is my experience that that doesn’t really happen and that my fear was unfounded.”
Jamie Lee Curtis
When you started going to recovery meetings, were you scared someone was going to recognize you and sell your story to the tabloids?
I was terrified. I was just terrified that someone in the recovery community was going to betray my trust. But it is my experience that that doesn’t really happen and that my fear was unfounded.
There is no guarantee in the world that someone won’t betray your confidence. There are also ways for people to get recovery help privately. There are ways for people to understand that public figures need privacy in order to be able to disclose and talk about this shameful secret that has dogged and plagued them their whole lives.
You were two years sober when you revealed in a cover story for “Redbook” that you were in recovery. Why then?
It was an interview with my family, with my daughter sitting at the table in my pretty bougie house, with my pretty bougie life, with my pretty bougie dogs and my pretty bougie clothes. And everything is really neat because I’m really neat, and all of the things that make people go like, “Oh, my God, I want that.” I was talking about how whatever was difficult — maybe something with my daughter or my husband — something had gotten so much better. I was talking about growth and metamorphosis and all the beautiful aspects of development as a human being. And the writer said, “What do you attribute it to?” I looked over, and there was my daughter. And I looked back at the writer, and I said, “Well, I think the fact that I’ve been sober for almost two years is a big part of it.” And I knew in that moment that what I was doing is what I’m doing here right now, which is that I was stepping over the line of anonymity and privacy into a public conversation.
Did you find people in the industry treating you differently after you came out as an addict in recovery?
There was no difference at all in the industry. I was a corporate spokesperson for a company called VoiceStream Wireless, which became T-Mobile. So there was a moment after it happened where it was like, “Am I going to be punished for my honesty? Am I going to be punished for my exposure of a personal flaw, a foible, an illness?” And I wasn’t. They were lovely. I’m sure there were a couple moments in some board meeting where somebody probably was quite angry about it, but because it was done in the spirit of positive, transformative life change, I think it was delivered in such a way that made you understand that I was actually better. And if you liked me then, you’re going to love me now. It was all in the positive spirit of recovery, transformation, freedom, liberation, all the beautiful words that are used about any release from prison.
Addiction runs in your family. Your dad, Tony Curtis, struggled with alcohol, cocaine and heroin. When did you know he had a problem?
I knew my dad had an issue because I had an issue and he and I shared drugs. There was a period of time where I was the only child that was talking to him. I had six siblings. I have five. My brother, Nicholas, died of a heroin overdose when he was 21 years old. But I shared drugs with my dad. I did cocaine and freebased once with my dad. But that was the only time I did that, and I did that with him. He did end up getting sober for a short period of time and was very active in recovery for about three years. It didn’t last that long. But he found recovery for a minute.
When did you tell your husband you had a problem?
The day I went to that first recovery meeting. It’s too personal to say what exactly was said, but my entire family has been supportive and very appreciative of the efforts that I have put forth to achieve sobriety and hold on to it. They see how much I try to work it and try to talk to other people and be a part of a community of people who are in recovery. But my husband is a total normie [a person who drinks and doesn’t have a drinking problem]. He was the guy who didn’t go to “Saturday Night Live” along with all those guys from National Lampoon because he didn’t do drugs and he just didn’t want to be in that petri dish with drug addicts and alcoholics.
When you were early in sobriety, what did you do when you were on location? How did you stay sober?
I bring sobriety with me. I have attended recovery meetings all over this world. I was probably about nine months sober when I made “Freaky Friday.” I put a big sign up by the catering truck, and it said, “Recovery meeting in Jamie’s trailer every day.” I left the door open and didn’t know if anybody would show up. We ended up calling it the Mobile Home Recovery Meeting. It was probably my favorite grouping of sobriety that I’ve ever participated in. I’ve participated in groups all over the world, but there was something about the cross section of ages and genders and jobs and races, and it was profound.
Do you ask hotels to remove your minibar before you check in?
Oh yes, I am a very careful sober person. When I work, if there are no recovery meetings available, I make them. I put a sign up by the catering truck saying, “Recovery meeting in my trailer.” When I was in Charleston making “Halloween,” I was in a coffee shop near where I was living, and I met somebody in recovery, who told me, “Oh, those two ladies out on the patio are sober too. There’s a women’s meeting near here.” I went out and introduced myself to the ladies, and a day later I was at a women’s gathering 100 yards from where I was living. Literally 100 yards. When I was making “The Tailor of Panama” with Pierce Brosnan and John Boorman, I was swimming in the Gatun Dam, but on my day off, I found a recovery meeting that only spoke Spanish, didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t understand a word anybody said, but I went and sat down and met people, shook hands and talked.
This interview has been edited and condensed.