The One About Matthew Perry
By Miriam Kramer
“Could you be any more brutally honest?” Matthew Perry got his big break in 1994 when he and his four costars became television superstars with the advent of Friends, one of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history. With the publication of his recent memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing; Perry bares his soul and life-long trauma. This extraordinarily raw memoir recounts not only the story of his life as a Generation X emblem and beloved actor, but also his terrible battle with addiction and the ways in which he has come to terms with it.
Matthew Perry grew up in Canada with his mother until age fifteen, a nationally ranked tennis player who felt a huge hole inside that was partially a result of his parents’ early divorce. His father, John, an American musician, separated from his mother, Suzanne, a beauty queen. His father became an actor who lived in California. His mother, a respected journalist, served as press secretary for Pierre Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada.
Perry marked his childhood and adolescence with a longing for the stability and security that he had never experienced. Known for his tennis prowess, he never found it a means to establishing a sense of identity and self-worth. With his mother’s high profile job traveling with the Canadian prime minister, he often felt abandoned and always on edge. He moved to live with his father in Los Angeles when he was fifteen. In hindsight, as an adult, he views his parents with love and respect for doing the best they could as very young people raising him, and for sticking by him during his stints in rehab and in the hospital.
To get attention and please his mother on the occasions she was at home, Perry became an entertainer who joked, did pratfalls, and made witty remarks. (Chandler Bing!) When she remarried and had more children, he loved his siblings, but felt as if he were on the outside looking in. His arguments with his mother progressed when he was a teenager, so he left to live with his father in Los Angeles.
When Perry first took a drink of alcohol at fourteen, everything changed for him. For the first time in his life, nothing bothered him. He felt whole and peaceful. He had encountered one of the Band-Aids that would initially help him but eventually heed his progress in life, if not in his career. Perry describes himself growing up as someone with an inability to enjoy anything while at the same time an excitement addict, one who was perfectly primed to experience the progression of alcohol and drug dependence. He even says that had he not had substances to alleviate his emptiness and anxiety, he might not have survived his twenties, regardless of how much they have damaged him in the long run.
Acting also allowed him to feel the adrenaline of excitement, of hearing people laugh when he was on stage. In some ways it was another drug, albeit a harmless one. It allowed him to become another person, since he felt inadequate as himself. He thought that if he became rich, famous, and successful, all his problems would be solved, so he worked as hard as he could to get there.
When he auditioned for Friends and got his dream job, he received everything that he had wished for, and then found that it was not enough. At a wonderful workplace with colleagues he cared about and respected, he was still profoundly dissatisfied with his personal life. When he injured himself accidentally while working, doctors prescribed him pain pills, which gave him the kind of bliss that he felt while drinking. Taking the medicine started his on-and-off dependence on opioids. Smoking rounded out his addictions.
In his second season on Friends he was dating Julia Roberts and was on the top-ranked show on TV. He explains that his self-worth was so low that he broke up with her, this “perfect woman” and box-office star, to prevent her from seeing him who he really was and rejecting him. This became a pattern for him with almost all his girlfriends, whom he still praises in his retelling of their histories together.
Matthew Perry speaks relatively little about his acting in this memoir. Obviously acting and drugs both helped him, if you can use that word, from having to look at and solve his own insecurities. He mentions that he stayed sober on the job at Friends, although he often came to work hungover. How did he do this when his addictions were so severe? Was it a tribute to his costars and the support he received from them? The fun he had on set? He was never kicked off the show, so somehow, he functioned. Perhaps this too is a tribute to Friends and the chemistry that prevailed among the actors, who really did become lifelong friends. Or perhaps somewhere he knew that he needed to keep his job to prevent going into a fatal tailspin.
Although a beloved character, Perry notes that the one nomination he received for Friends as Chandler Bing was during one of the few years in which he was sober. I saw that his weight fluctuated dramatically during the series, going down when he was on opioids and up when he shifted to alcohol. Despite his perfect comic timing, Perry has even received more Emmy nominations for dramatic acting than comedic acting, perhaps in part because he finds his demons so accessible. He does cynical, calculating, and negative characters as perfectly as he does the harmless, charming Chandler.
In short, this book is mostly about a horrifying level of addiction to drugs and alcohol. In that way it is very valuable for understanding this phenomenon better, or at least gaining inspiration from his ability to survive.
It is surprising that he never turned to heroin. Yet as a wealthy Hollywood star, he had ample access from hangers-on, dirty doctors, and flunkies to access drugs like Vicodin or Oxycodone, along with the means to buy them. So he did not need to go a cheaper route. Although he is wealthy, when house-hunting, he would go into people’s medicine cabinets and take any painkillers he could find. Such is the overwhelming craving of drug dependance.
The memoir starts and comes back to his account of a recent trip to the hospital from a rehab facility, in which his colon exploded and his family was told that he had a two percent chance of survival. Perry spent two weeks in a coma. He now tells the tale of his prolonged battle with his chemically maladaptive brain, one in which he has fought terrible battles in which his body and mind have suffered greatly.
During his multiple detoxes, Perry has been to Hell, he proclaims, with a capital H. He knows all the twelve steps of AA and NA backwards and forwards. He talks about the auditory and visual hallucinations he has experienced. Subsequently he tends to free-associate at times rather than follow a linear path in recounting his history. He estimates that he has spent about seven million dollars on rehab, counselors, and related cures.
Perry talks, rants, and complains, with free-floating anger, sorrow, and a newfound sense of spirituality coming to the fore. His self-pity and self-centeredness are evident, but in some ways unavoidable. One cannot pay much attention to others when one is fighting for one’s life against an invisible enemy. At least he wants to be a better friend, a better lover. He wants to help other addicts work twelve-step programs and beat their disease. Luckily, he does not make excuses for himself, for the most part, and shows who he wants to be as he figures out how to accept himself and move on.
In the long run, Perry wants simple pleasures: to settle down with a wife and children, to connect to his other family, and to appreciate himself for who he is, along with what he has accomplished in his career and against his demons. He says he would trade places any day with actor friends who have never had success, fame, or money if he could be rid of his addictions. I believe him. I certainly would never want the life I have read about in these pages.
As a twenty-something I became a fan of Chandler Bing on Friends. Perry’s role as the charming, nervous joke meister in the ensemble became an indelible part of TV history. His dramatic appearances on the unfortunately short-running Aaron Sorkin series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the sitcom Go On, and his recurring roles on the Good Wife, for example, have also been exemplary. He rises to the occasion as an actor with range every time I have seen him. Would I would want him, the person acting one of the five “Friends,” as a friend? That is a different story. I might want the sober person with wisdom he desperately strives to be these days.
Addiction and detox are hell. After reading this memoir, I dearly hope that he stays clean and gets what he wants: a simple, happy life, in which he can maintain his hard-won sense of spirituality and cherish the children, wife, and career satisfaction he hopes for in his future.