According to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, when Edgar Allan Poe was barely a toddler, his nursemaid regularly gave him bread soaked with gin to keep him quiet in the wings while his mother, a celebrated actress, performed onstage. Thus began Poe’s lifelong addiction to alcohol. I thought of this story while reading Matthew Perry’s funny, raw, and poignant memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, in which he reports that he was prescribed phenobarbital as an infant to help quiet his colicky crying. Perry is quick to absolve his mother of any blame; she was young, he was colicky, and the doctor had prescribed the medication as a solution. Nevertheless, Perry opines that this began his lifelong addiction to narcotics and alcohol.
The ”Friends” in the title refers, of course, to the television show that dominated the ratings from 1994–2004 and made Perry a comedic star. The show has continued in reruns and streaming services for the ensuing 20 years. Perry’s character Chandler Bing, eerily close to Perry’s own past and personality, was and remains a fan favorite. Sadly, Perry died of a heart attack on October 28, almost one year to the day after the book was published. Reading it, one has the sense of an Oedipal tragedy driving the protagonist relentlessly toward his fate, no matter how much time (at least 14 stints in rehab) and how much money (an estimated $9 million) he spent in his quest to overcome his addictions. He had finally escaped the demon when the book was completed, and there was reportedly no evidence of drugs in his home or in his body when he died. In the book, he seems happy at last. I hope he was.
The book is written with two parallel storylines. The first begins with the day in 2018 when his colon exploded. Yes, “exploded.” Opioids are notorious for causing constipation, and the massive dose of Oxycontin he was taking led to a massive backup in his system. That storyline focuses on his final journey to overcome his addictions, and the peace he ultimately found. The other storyline focuses on his personal life and his rise and fall as an actor. Both sections are detailed, witty, intimate, and self-effacing. Could Matthew Perry be any more like Chandler Bing in real life?
One has the sense of an Oedipal tragedy driving the protagonist relentlessly toward his fate, no matter how much time and how much money he spent in his quest to overcome his addictions.
What makes this book stand out is the hell of addiction Perry describes and the contrasting peace in his voice as he narrates the book. His goal is apparent: he wants to help other addicts overcome their addictions. He wants to be a good guy.
After trying numerous programs that involved using other drugs to ease the pain of withdrawal (and then requiring further effort to come off those drugs), Perry finally discovered that the most effective program for him was Bill Wilson’s tried and true 12-Step Program, combined with therapeutic hypnosis. (That, plus his realization that if he took opioids again, his colon would explode again, and he would be wearing a colostomy bag for the rest of his life — if he survived.)
Like many people who have tried AA, Perry resisted the idea of acknowledging a higher power. But eventually he found it — in the ocean, in nature, in the sunrise, and in his kitchen, where he describes an overpowering sensation of talking with God. In an interview with Bill Maher he said, “I had been in the presence of God. I was certain of it. And this time I had prayed for the right thing: help.”
In the book he writes, “When you’ve been as close to the celestial as I have, you don’t really have a choice about gratitude. It sits on your living room table like a coffee table book. You barely notice it, but it’s there. Yet stalking that gratitude, buried deep somewhere . . . there’s a nagging agony: ‘Why? Why am I alive?’ I have a hint of the answer, but it isn’t fully formed yet. It’s in the vicinity of helping people. . . . The best thing about me, bar none, is if a fellow alcoholic comes up to me and asks if I can help him stop drinking, I know I can say yes, and actually follow up and do it. I can help a desperate man get sober.”
He realized that if he took opioids again, his colon would explode again, and he would be wearing a colostomy bag for the rest of his life — if he survived.
This is Perry’s purpose for writing the book: to help a desperate man — or woman — get sober. He does it with raw and poignant honesty, confession, wit, kindness, and forgiveness. He acknowledges the pain of abandonment he felt in his childhood, but immediately follows these painful memories with an equally important acknowledgement: his parents were young. They were doing the best they could. Later, they stood by him through the trials of rehab.
Perry reminds us of the humanity of addiction, and the fact that there is a story inside each person — a story of struggle, loss, and sometimes redemption. Talking about the surgical scars crisscrossing his abdomen, he shares a story he heard from Martin Sheen: “There was a guy who died and went to St. Peter’s office. St. Peter asked him, ‘Do you have any scars?’ The man answers, very proudly, ‘No.’ St. Peter asks, ‘Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”
Matthew Perry had something worth fighting for, and it shows. He wanted to live, he wanted to fall in love, he wanted to marry and have children. He wanted to be a great writer and a great actor. He endured great pain in all of this. In the days following his death, thousands of people (this reviewer among them) purchased his book, moving it back into the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and putting its message of struggle and redemption back into public conversation. In the prologue, Perry writes, “There is light in the darkness. You just have to look hard enough to find it.” The light he shines on the pain of addiction, the struggle to overcome it, and the peace he found when he did, might be exactly the light he sought.
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Review of Friends, Lovers, and the Big, Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry. Macmillan, 2022, 272 pages.