Curtis candidly discusses her personal struggle with addiction, her 15 years of sobriety and things that can be done to help others.
Actress-writer Jamie Lee Curtis
Tavis: If you had the opportunity to read Jamie Lee Curtis’ insightful blog, and I hope you did, “Good Morning, Heartache, Good Morning, Life,” on the Huffington Post, you know something of her own successful struggle to overcome addiction.
She has always been honest and outspoken and her message about what leads smart, talented people to seek escape through drugs offers important insights, I think, to the complexity of addiction.
And so, Jamie Lee Curtis, I am always, always delighted to have you on this program.
Jamie Lee Curtis: Thank you for having me, as always.
Tavis: Let me jump right in, because –
Curtis: Of course.
Tavis: – this story of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing has resonated in way that actually kind of shook me. We were honored to have him on the show half a dozen times, we did a tribute to him; a compilation show of all of our conversations a week ago.
That kicked up a lot of conversation on the Internet, but nothing quite like what you wrote on the Huffington Post.
Tavis: I saw – I assume you saw the responses to this.
Curtis: I don’t – I don’t. I’m not –
Tavis: Everybody was talking about this piece that you wrote. It got so much traction in social media, in part, I think, because you were transparent, because you were honest, and because people were looking for a way in to have this conversation.
Curtis: Right. Well that’s exactly what people want – they want the way in. I did not know him. I respected him. I thought he was a tremendous artist. But he was an everyman to me. He represented every man.
He was Willy Loman, he was – it was the death of a salesman. He represented the possibility that everybody could be an actor, because you looked at him and thought, “Oh, he looks like a real guy.”
I think his being an everyman makes his death profoundly affective to people like yourself, who were rocked by it. It does happen. People who are in the public eye die, and if they die in circumstances like he did, it does rock people.
Tavis: Do they die in part because they are in the public eye? I want to just flip your phrase – do they die because they’re in the public eye?
Curtis: Fame can add to an illness, the demands of fame, but that’s not why I’m here, that’s not why I really wrote what I wrote. What I wrote what I wrote is this is a problem that we have all over the world, but particularly in America.
We have 40 million people who are addicted, and I was once on the board of Casa Columbia, which originally was the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, bringing my experience as a sober woman to that board.
Because they’re a think tank and they study the effects that drugs and alcohol have on every area of society – the prison system, women, older women, schools, teenagers. Then they publish reports, and I would strongly suggest that your viewers read up on their studies, because they will be helpful.
But 40 million people are addicted. This is a nationwide epidemic that we have to look at, and if my voicing my own personal, very – by the way, very personal experience – so that others might feel that they can voice their own personal struggles, then I will feel that my “outing” myself in a public way then had some value.
Tavis: See, the flipside of outing yourself in a public way is that because you’ve been clean now for so many years and sober for so many years now, you didn’t have to be that transparent. Once you safely get through that, whatever that means, you don’t have to go back –
Curtis: You mean you just sort of like check the box and move on?
Tavis: You don’t have to put all your business out there.
Curtis: You know what, I have tried, as an adult, to put my business out there, because for me, what is the value of having fame if not to pull this to me and then push it back out there, and hopefully for good, in whatever it is that I’m trying to do.
Help raise awareness, help raise funds, whatever it is, it isn’t just for me. I do believe in the role of a public person and the responsibility of a public person. That being said, his being a public person wasn’t necessarily on any level, really, the reason of his passing.
His passing came because he’s an addict. Aaron Sorkin wrote a wonderful piece saying he didn’t die of a heroin overdose, he died of heroin addiction. That’s why I’m here, really, is to just, again, as I said in the piece, broaden the dialogue.
Tavis: Speaking of the dialogue, I don’t know that this broadens it or whether or not it’s already been shrunk too much, but the conversation that we’re having in this country right now vis-à-vis drugs is a conversation about making it legal.
We’re not – up until Hoffman’s death a few days ago, we weren’t even – the addiction conversation was not really on the docket.
Curtis: I know.
Tavis: We were talking about, in state after state after state, what happens after Colorado, how many other states are going to do this. So the conversation’s been about legalizing. Not heroin, of course, but legalizing drugs –
Tavis: Decriminalizing –
Curtis: Well, it’s –
Tavis: And there’s a distinction, and there are folk who are legalizing it and there are folk who want to decriminalize it, rather, and there are folk who want to outright legalize it.
The point is that that’s the direction the conversation’s going in. It has not focused on addiction. What do you make of that reality?
Curtis: Well, I think the way our government looks at it is that it’s about incarceration. It’s about trying to control it through laws, which is not really understanding the mind of an addict.
It is a disease of the mind. Now there are people who will debate me, and I’m certainly not going to be in some public debate about it. People are entitled to believe what they believe.
But when you look at people, that young man, Cory, who died, you look at me – now I’m a fine, upstanding person. I am trying to live my life with dignity and grace.
I am married a long time, I’m raising two children; almost have raised two children. I’m trying to work within my community to try to help people. Am I just a bad person because in a routine medical situation I was given Vicodin, which was a prescribed narcotic painkiller, and I became addicted to it?
So the question is am I an addict or am I a bad person who was responsible for my own addiction? Obviously, if you have diabetes, you give someone insulin. Do you give someone insulin for a month, or do you give someone insulin for the rest of their lives?
So I believe that we have to look at drug treatment and drug addiction in a much different way in this country, and I have worked with drug courts, I have attended drug court graduations.
It works. It’s proven to work. So I think that we just have to realign the conversation and make addiction an understandable disease that people can help, get help through the myriad ways you can get help.
Tavis: But I think that’s what – let me press on this, because this is one of my problems with this debate about decriminalizing and legalizing, is it seems to me that sometimes we do the right things for the wrong reasons.
In other words, we’re not having this conversation as a matter of, or a consequence of public health, it’s a conversation about controlling crime, it’s a conversation about raising more tax dollars, it’s a conversation about emptying out some of these prisons.
Curtis: That are overloaded.
Tavis: That are overloaded, and now that brings other problems and consequences onto the government because there’s cruel and unusual punishment like we saw here in California so we’ve got to push people out.
We’re not doing it to have a real conversation about public health; we’re doing it for all these other reasons.
Curtis: But mental health, this is a mental health issue. This is a disease of the brain. These opiates fill a part of our brain if we are addicts that we need to fill, and once you’ve had a taste of it, you want it.
I’m telling you, I (unintelligible) want to come on national television, I was addicted to painkillers. I would have done anything, including steal them, because an addict needs to get their drugs. It’s not – I didn’t have a choice.
Tavis: See I’m glad – there’s that word, “choice.” What do you say to people – and I’ve been reading certain blogs and responses.
Curtis: Well of course.
Tavis: And there’s some people who say –
Curtis: And by the way, people have their opinion.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. Some of those opinions are screw Jamie Lee Curtis, screw Philip Seymour Hoffman, screw Hollywood –
Curtis: It’s a choice.
Tavis: – screw Hollywood, it’s a choice.
Curtis: I know.
Tavis: They’re spoiled, they’d didn’t have to do it, they make a ton of money, they’re gifted, and – yeah.
Curtis: And a moral choice, it’s a moral choice and it talks about their lower –
Tavis: What’s the response to the fact that – what’s your response to that argument, that you guys made a bad choice?
Curtis: I think I already made it, which is look at me. I wake up every day trying to make the world better. I don’t mean that in some maudlin way. It’s how I wake up.
So I was – it totally took me by surprise, but then I found myself wanting more and more of it, and then I would do the things you need to do to be able to get it.
So I can’t debate somebody if they don’t believe it’s a disease.
I daresay you peel back the layer of any American family and you will find someone within that immediate family that has some connection, be it alcohol, be it marijuana, be it drugs, be it illegal drugs or be it, as we’ve seen with Mr. Hoffman, heroin, which is on the rise. People are now looking at heroin again as some sort of –
Tavis: Recreational, yeah.
Curtis: Well, but again, if you’re an addict it’s not really a recreation.
Tavis: But people are looking at it as a recreational drug, and it becomes addictive to them.
Curtis: Right, and what I said in my piece was I’m not an expert, I don’t pretend to be an expert. I know that they have reclassified Vicodin, which used to be very easy to get, and now is harder to get.
So certainly they are starting to pay attention that these very addictive drugs were being prescribed very easily and creating addicts out of people who weren’t addicts, who then got these drugs and now have an addiction to them.
Tavis: I think you are an expert. I think anybody who’s endured this and gone through it and survived, that’s what makes you an expert. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to be an expert in this. You are an expert, and I’m glad you wrote what you wrote on Huffington Post.
Curtis: Thank you.
Tavis: Since we seem to be as a nation now engaging in conversation about this, at least for the moment, these things kind of come and go, as you know. But while the attention of the nation is at least focused on a conversation about drug addiction, courtesy, sadly, of the death of Mr. Hoffman –
Tavis: – what’s your advice, what’s your suggestion to everyday people? How do we –
Tavis: Since we’re all talking about it.
Curtis: No, I’m –
Tavis: You’re doing your part, but how do we use our agency as everyday people to advance this conversation?
Curtis: So my real reason for coming here, besides getting to sit opposite you for another eight minutes of my life –
Tavis: You’re very sweet.
Curtis: – is to tell people that help is available, and that I am a living testament to the fact that without fancy rehabs, without all sorts of pharmaceuticals, that I was able to find sobriety, as have millions of other people, in rooms all over this country, all over the world.
That help is available, and that as we destigmatize it and we take it away from being a moral choice and make it an understanding that this is an addiction, this is an illness, and there is help, but the help needs to be longstanding, ongoing, that I wanted to be here today happy.
That’s why I called it “Good Morning, Heartache, Good Morning, Life.” Because “Good Morning, Heartache” of course is the sad reality; “Good morning, Life” is my life. I would be dead. I would be dead today if I didn’t get sober when I did.
Tavis: There are a lot of reasons why I love Jamie Lee Curtis – “True Lies,” “Trading Places.”
Curtis: We know why you love me.
Tavis: There’s a long list of reasons why I love –
Curtis: Everyone in the room knows.
Tavis: The glasses, the hair.
Curtis: He likes my glasses.
Tavis: Those are great.
Curtis: Thank you.
Tavis: That grey just works for you. It’s just beautiful.
Curtis: Thank you very much.
Tavis: A lot of reasons I love Jamie Lee Curtis, but the main reason is what you saw tonight – that she is as open and as transparent and as giving as any person in this town. I thank you for writing the piece and for coming.
Curtis: Thank you.
Tavis: I know you don’t normally do this.
Curtis: I do not.
Tavis: You write your stuff and it’s out there. But thank you for coming on.
Curtis: Well, that’s the idea.
Tavis: Yeah, but I’m glad you came on to talk about it.
Curtis: Thank you very much.
Tavis: By the way, if you have not seen Jamie’s piece, you can go to our website at PBS.org/Tavis –
Curtis: And also go to Casa Columbia, which is going to give you a lot of in.
Tavis: Go there, go to Huff Post. Anyway, you’ve got to read the piece, and I think once you read it, the conversation will continue in your home and in your workplaces; I hope, at least, that’s what happens. Jamie, good to see you.
Curtis: Thank you, nice to see you too.
Tavis: Love you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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