RESTRICTED: Kathleen Turner 'I Got to a Place of Utter Despair'

From the moment that actor William Hurt smashed a glass door to get to her in 1981’s Body Heat, Kathleen Turner became one of the world’s sexiest screen sirens. “But I never really thought of myself that way,” she says. Not then, and certainly not for the past 15 years as she battled rheumatoid arthritis and struggled with a drinking problem. Now 53 and living alone in Manhattan (she and husband Jay Weiss split in ’05; their daughter Rachel, 20, is in college), Turner has written a memoir (in collaboration with Gloria Feldt). Entitled Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, it offers a revealing look at those rough years. “When I think of how much people will know me, it’s a little scary,” the actress, now directing Crimes of the Heart Off-Broadway, tells PEOPLE’s Natasha Stoynoff. “But it’s the truth. And if I’m really going to talk about myself, I can’t pick and choose only things that flatter me.”

I was in Baltimore in 1992, filming Serial Mom, when I started to have inexplicable pains and fevers. One day I had to do a famous scene where I’m running in high heels with a knife. I went to put on my high-heeled shoes and I couldn’t get my feet into them. This was strange. My feet seemed to have grown two sizes. Well, being me, I stuffed my feet into the shoes anyway. I spent the day chasing up and down the street in shoes that had become incredibly painful.

When I got home, I started to wear Jay’s sneakers without laces because I couldn’t get into any of my shoes. My doctor recommended a specialist. He took X-rays and said, “Are you sure you’re just not being a little vain? Maybe you should buy bigger shoes.” Thank you, sir. That was certainly helpful.

Then I realized I couldn’t straighten my left arm. I was literally growing a second elbow; it looked as though my elbow had moved to the inside of my arm. Soon I couldn’t turn my head. This was really getting odder. But nobody could tell me what was going on. And nobody had a treatment that could make it better.

By now I was almost a year into the symptoms without a diagnosis that made sense. I decided, I’m clearly dying. I went back to my GP. I said, “Bert, I’m dying and I’m really scared.” So he had a full workup done again. This time he said, “Kathleen, most people have a rheumatoid factor of maybe sixty. Yours is sixteen hundred.” Stunned, I said, “And that means?” He said, “You have a serious case of rheumatoid arthritis. It’s a chronic, incurable disease that destroys the lining of the joints.”

“And what do I do now?” He didn’t have an answer for that.

It was a relief to know the diagnosis. But as we started to learn more about the disease, it got increasingly scary. All the people I’d met with rheumatoid arthritis were disabled and disfigured. Their hands were crippled or their hips were frozen in place. Their feet were gone. It was terrifying to see this as my future.

My body could respond only with excruciating pain whenever I tried to move it. The joints in my hands were so swollen, I couldn’t hold a pen. I couldn’t pick up my child. It was hardest when she’d say, “Come on, Mom, let’s run.” But Rachel [then 6] had the ability to accept what was happening even when she didn’t understand it. When I couldn’t hold a spoon, she fed me without being asked.

The greatest shock to me was how I lost belief in my own desirability. Before, my looks were just a given. It’s a good thing beauty was never central to my sense of self. My mother had always told me, “Don’t pat yourself on the back for something you didn’t earn.” But with my loss of confidence went a loss of sexuality. That is a strain on a marriage. Jay was very, very supportive, but RA made sex difficult because there was no position that didn’t hurt like hell.

Steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs were tried on me first. Later, they tried a form of chemotherapy. These drugs made me feel horribly angry and depressed. And the paparazzi loved to reveal me in the most unflattering photos. You take fifty milligrams of steroids a day, and everything on your body puffs up. They speculated all kinds of things. Turner can’t get jobs anymore, except in the sequel to Body Heat, called Body Fat, and all that. Perhaps they would have treated me more sympathetically if I had disclosed my illness, but I was terrified I’d never work again if people knew.

Many people bought the assumption that I’d turned into a heavy drinker. I soon proved them at least half right. As the pain got worse, I found that vodka killed it quite wonderfully.

One night in 2002, when I was in rehearsal for The Graduate in New York, I met my director, Terry Johnson, at Orso, a restaurant. I left some presents I had just bought in the cloakroom and downed a vodka. Terry and I went to the theater. At intermission I told myself I would just gather my presents from Orso and go home. But I had another vodka. Then another. How many, I don’t remember. I went downstairs and collapsed in the bathroom. Someone told the manager, “There’s a woman in the bathroom, sitting on the floor.” Very discreetly, I must say, the manager got me up to the office and called Jay. Evidently I fought Jay when he got there. He had to call a friend, whom I allowed to help me into the car. This wasn’t the first time I’d been drinking until I passed out. But it was the worst and most public.

The next day, after I apologized to Jay, I said to the cast, “I’m having a drinking problem. I have these pills. If I drink, they will make me desperately ill. So I want you to know, I will not be a problem again.” It was one of the most painful things I ever had to do because I am so self-contained about personal problems. I felt as though I had failed.

I was able to control my drinking once we opened on Broadway. You can’t drink and do eight shows a week. A member of the crew who had been sober for years helped me out. We’d have poker games with the crew and the cast. Everybody would be drinking, and he and I would be having fruit drinks and laughing about it. Because, after a while, we usually won. The others got a little too sloppy playing their hands.

I’d promised myself and my friends that after The Graduate closed, I’d check into a rehab clinic. I learned a great deal there. For about six months after that, I went to Alcoholics Anonymous. And my doctor changed the drugs I was taking for RA. The new regimen gave me so much more relief. Part of the drinking had been caused by the pain or the constant fear that any day I could become acute again. That fear is tough to live with, honey.

A lot of the reason I drank was my relationship with my husband. This is not to blame him at all, because there was nobody pouring that drink but myself. But when we did make the decision to separate in 2005, my need to drink compulsively slowed measurably.

I cannot say it was the marriage alone. There were lots of factors. Maybe I just finally grew up enough. But I don’t feel that pressure to drink anymore. It’s something I have to watch and I’ll always have to watch. But at least now I can enjoy a drink without being afraid that I’m going to abuse it automatically.

I’ve beaten the rheumatoid arthritis into remission, but I have not fully conquered the fear. When I wake up achy or feel some swelling, I immediately think, “Oh, God, please don’t let it be coming back.”

But I have come back to accolades as an actor. I have a kid who is sane, funny, good and smart. I have wonderful friends and so many things that I want to do in the next half of my life. I feel actively happy right now—and it’s a wonderful thing.

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