Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing

by Matthew Perry, 2022

Brutally honest memoir by Matthew Perry, the actor who played Chandler Bing on Friends. He was an alcoholic and addicted to opiates. I remember laughing hysterically during the episode in which he is trying to quit smoking and is chewing nicotine gum and has nicotine patches all over him and says, “I’m alive with pleasure now.”

Little did I know, he couldn’t get through a day without taking 55 pills, drinking a huge bottle of vodka, and smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day. He started life on barbiturates – he was colicky and his young parents took him to the doctor and the doctor prescribed barbiturates to get him to calm down and fall asleep. His mom was young and beautiful, his dad was young and handsome. The marriage did not last and he stayed with his mom and visited his dad once in a while. He and his mom lived in Canada. Him mom was Suzanne Perry, the “spin-meister” for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. His dad moved to Los Angeles to try and make it as an actor. He is best known as the Old Spice sailor guy. His parents dearly loved him, but he never knew it. He thought he was not good enough. When he is 14, he discovers drinking and loves it. While his buddies are puking their guts out, he is lying on the grass staring at the moon and at peace for the first time. He loves that feeling.

He also loves tennis and has ambitions to be another Jimmy Connors. He moves to LA to live with his Dad and soon discovers top Canadian tennis players are not able to win even one point in a match against players who grow up in sunny Southern California. He turns to acting, and he’s funny and he’s good. The drinking is continuing, though. Soon, he’s drinking every night. A lot, too; the huge bottle of vodka with the handle, every night.

He lands the Friends part of Chandler Bing three weeks after he prays to God to please let him be famous. He believed being famous would fill all the holes in his soul. It is miraculous that he got that part. He tells the story in detail.

For a while, he keeps his life together enough not to mess up the best thing that ever happened to him. But then, he is filming Fools Rush In, and decides to ride a jet ski on Lake Mead. He ends up hurting himself and the doctor gives him some opiates to take away the pain so he can finish the film. That was the start of a 25-year addiction that should have killed him, but didn’t. He describes in detail what his life was like and how he lived day after day, making sure he could score 55 pills a day. He used several doctors at a time and when that didn’t work, he used drug dealers. He had love interests (Julia Roberts, for one) but he was always afraid they would leave him so he left them first. What he describes is tragic and dark and scary and awful. He calls addiction ‘the Big Terrible Thing.’ He went through detox and rehab many times. During a particularly bad detox session, he met God in his kitchen and he describes it so beautifully. He is loved and accepted and connected and safe and secure and it’s beautiful. He knows it was God. That feeling and vision keeps him sober for a few years. He goes back to drinking and drugs as soon as something happens, though. He abuses his body so bad, his colon bursts and he vomits into his breathing tube and shit and bacteria are all through his body. His good friend, Erin, is with him in detox right before she realizes he is in more pain than just the detox and needs to go to the hospital. She calls the hospital or 911 and says, “We have a high-profile coming in with severe abdominal pain.” He is put on an ECMO machine and no one survives that. He does, though.

After 25 years, millions of dollars, lots and lots of heartache, pain, suffering, trapped in an endless cycle, he finally breaks free. He forgives his parents, he is thankful for all he’s been given, and he forgives himself.

The last thing he quits is smoking, because if he doesn’t, he will end up with emphysema and have to carry around an oxygen tank, which he considers worse than the colostomy bag he had to wear for 9 months after his colon burst. It was so hard for him to quit smoking. He smoked three packs a day. He used a famous hypnotist and he thought he finally had it licked, but then he bites into peanut butter on toast and all his teeth come out. The surgery to replace all of his teeth is so painful, he has to smoke. He relapses but only on the smoking thing, and he only relapses for a short time. He is clean now.

Pray for Matthew Perry. May you never have to go back down into that big, dark, terrible thing again. God, give him love and happiness, a wife and children, and let him find meaning and purpose in helping others overcome the terrible disease of addiction. Thank you, God, for Matthew Perry.

I read a really good review by someone who loved Friends and Chandler Bing. She pointed out some things: Near the end of the book, he is listing the people he is thankful for and he says “dentists” and then takes it back and curses his dentist in a sentence full of F words. It wasn’t his dentist’s fault that all his teeth fell out. And the fact that he slept with so many women, just using them, for so many years, is shocking and troubling. But, this book is brutally honest. He tells all and he has many regrets about his life.

Right away at the start of the book, when he is telling about his parents putting him on barbiturates when he is colicky, and then making him fly by himself from Canada to Los Angeles and back at the age of 5, he uses the F word: “Why was that little kid on a plane on his own? Maybe fly to Canada and fucking pick him up?”

He spent a lot of years blaming his parents for the mess he was in, but he finally comes around. They were doing the best they could and he sees now how much they love him.

Here are some quotes:

“Nobody ever thinks that something really bad is going to happen to them. Until it does. And nobody comes back from a perforated bowel, aspiration pneumonia, and an ECMO machine. Until somebody did.

“Me.”

“I can’t help but ask myself the overwhelming question: Why? Why am I alive? I have a hint to the answer, but it is not fully formed yet. It’s in the vicinity of helping people, I know that, but I don’t know how…The answer to “Why am I alive?” I believe lives somewhere in there. After all, it’s the only thing I’ve found that truly feels good. It is undeniable that there is God there.”

He had his first drink at fourteen. A whole bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer with his friends, the Murray brothers. They were puking but he was lying in his backyard looking at the moon. “I was lying back in the grass and the mud, looking at the moon, surrounded by fresh Murray puke, and I realized that for the first time in my life, nothing bothered me. The world made sense; it wasn’t bent and crazy. I was complete, at peace. I had never been happier than in that moment. This is the answer, I thought; this is what I’ve been missing. This must be how normal people feel all the time. I don’t have any problems. It is all gone. I don’t need attention. I am taken care of, I am fine.”

He doesn’t start drinking every night, but the seed was sown then.

“The key to the problem, I would come to understand, was this: I lacked both spiritual guidelines, and an ability to enjoy anything. But at the same time, I was also an excitement addict. This is such a toxic combination I can’t even.”

He honed his comedic skills and got really good at entertaining people. In that way, he got the attention he desperately needed. His Dad was a regular drinker and his favorite drink was a vodka tonic. He’d come home and say, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day.” “Dad was the epitome of a functional drinker. I, on the other hand, was already struggling to wake up and causing whispers with those who drank around me.”

His first movie was A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, with River Phoenix, who he says, “personified beauty in every way.”

This is one of the lines the reviewer I mentioned above wishes had been edited out: “Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us?”

When he was a young teenager, he thought he was impotent and he carried that secret for years. Finally, Tricia Fisher cured him of his impotency. Here’s what he writes:

“And how, pray tell, did you manage to pay such a debt, Mr. Perry, such an onerous debt to the woman who saved your life in one of the most meaningful ways imaginable?

“Why, good reader, I paid that debt to Tricia by sleeping with almost every woman in Southern California.”

When Friends was casting, he knew the part of Chandler Bing backwards and forwards and helped a lot of people read for it. One of his good friends, Craig Bierko, was offered the part, but he turned it down for a starring role in another show. One of the producers, Jamie Tarses:

“…oh, sweet, magical much-missed Jamie Tarses–who was helping to develop Friends Like Us [the original title of Friends], at NBC–apparently turned to her then-husband, Dan McDermott, a Fox TV producer, one night in bed.

“Hey, is the show L.A.X. 2194 going to get picked up? Jamie reportedly said.

“Dan said, “No, it’s awful–for a start, it’s about baggage handlers in the year 2194. They wear futuristic vests. . . . “

“So, is Matthew Perry available? A safe second position?” Jamie said. (That’s Hollywood-speak for “available.”) (Ironically, Jamie and I dated for several years much later, after she got divorced.)

“A couple of days later I got the phone call that would change my life.

“You’re meeting Marta Kauffman about Friends Like Us tomorrow.”

“And this is no lie: I knew right then and there just how huge it was all going to be.”

…”I nailed it. Thursday, I read for the production company, and nailed it, and Friday I read for the network. Nailed it again. I read the words in an unexpected fashion, hitting emphases that no one else had hit….

“And Chandler was born. This was my part now and there was no stopping it.

“The pilot season of 1994 had cast its final actor: Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing.”

“That phone call at Fred Segal’s, and Craig’s desire to be the star of his own show, rather than be part of an ensemble, saved my life. I don’t know what would have happened to me had the call gone the other way. It is not out of the realms of possibility that I may have ended up on the streets of downtown LA shooting heroin in my arm until my untimely death.

“I would have loved heroin–it was my opiate addiction on steroids. I’ve often said that taking OxyContin is like replacing your blood with warm honey. But with heroin, I would imagine, you are the honey. I loved the feeling of opiates, but something about the word “heroin” always scared me. And it is because of that fear that I am still alive today.”

He describes reading about Charlie Sheen’s troubles about three weeks before auditioning for Friends.

“Out of nowhere, I found myself getting to my knees, closing my eyes tightly, and praying. I had never done this before.

“God, you can do whatever you want to me. Just please make me famous.”

“Three weeks later, I got cast in Friends. And God has certainly kept his side of the bargain–but the Almighty, being the Almighty, had not forgotten the first part of that prayer as well.

“Now, all these years later, I’m certain that I got famous so I would not waste my entire life trying to get famous. You have to get famous to know that it’s not the answer. And nobody who is not famous will ever truly believe that.”

While in rehab again, this time in Switzerland, he has lied to the doctors about being in pain and they allow him 1800 milligrams a day of hydrocodone “–as much as I could actually feel—which turned out to be 1,800 milligrams a day. To put that in perspective, if you broke your thumb, and had a kind doctor, he or she would probably prescribe you five 0.5 milligram pills.

“Not enough to put a dent in this guy.”

At age 26, his friend, Craig Bierko, comes back to see him after 2 years of Matthew Perry playing the role of Chandler Bing that he turned down. Matthew says to him: “You know what, Craig? It doesn’t do what we all thought it would. It doesn’t fix anything.” (What a sobering thought for a twenty-six-year-old who had only ever wanted fame and had only just realized that fame hadn’t filled the holes at all. No, what had filled the holes was vodka.)”

During the filming of Fools Rush In, he asked to ride a jet ski on Lake Mead. He was having so much fun and going really fast and turned hard and went air-born. He was hurt. A doctor gave him one pill and told him to take it after they were done filming for the day. He took it as he was driving home to Las Vegas. “As the pill kicked in, something clicked in me. And it’s been that click I’ve been chasing the rest of my life….As I drove that red Mustang convertible to my rented house in Vegas, I remember thinking, If this doesn’t kill me, I’m doing this again. This is a bad memory, of course, because of what followed, but it was also a good memory. I was close to God that morning. I had felt heaven–not many people get that. I shook hands with God that morning.

“Was it God, or someone else?

“My first move when I got home that morning was to get in touch with that doctor and tell him that the pill had worked for the pain (I decided to leave that God part out). I went to sleep, and when I woke up, forty more of those pills had been delivered to my house. Eureka!

…”A year and a half later, I was taking fifty-five of those pills a day. I weighed 128 pounds when I checked into Hazelden rehab in Minnesota, my life in ruins.”

Later on, “I’ve detoxed over sixty-five times in my life–but the first was when I was twenty-six.

“My Vicodin habit had now kicked in badly. If you watch season three of Friends, I hope you’ll be horrified at how thin I am by the end of the season (opioids fuck with your appetite, plus they make you vomit constantly.)”

He talks about falling deeply in love with a woman he was making a movie with in 1999. I think it must be Neve Campbell in Three to Tango, although he never names her or the movie. “I’ve been able to get most people I’ve wanted, but this one still hurts…She had even mentioned that my drinking was a problem–just another thing that addiction has cost me.”

He got pancreatitis when he was thirty years old.

Jamie Tarses was his girlfriend and life-line for a long while as he spiraled downward. She was a messenger from God. One day, she looked at him and said, “It looks like you’re disappearing.” That was the stop everything he needed. He stopped everything and went to rehab for a month and then for several more months because they said he needed more than 30 days. It was March to May 2001. Friends gave him a hiatus, as did the movie he was filming, Serving Sara.

After he gets clean, he breaks up with Jamie Tarses. “So, to be clear: in order to adequately pay sweet, wonderful Jamie back for two years of giving up huge portions of her own very busy and important life by basically being my nurse, I ended our relationship. Jamie Tarses was one of the most magical, beautiful, smart . . . oh so smart. I loved the way her mind worked. And I broke up with her.”

At the end of the book, he writes in Acknowledgements, the very last sentence: “And Jamie, sweet, magical Jamie, whom I will miss and think about until the day I die.”

She was an executive producer for television until 1999. She died of a cardiac event on February 1, 2021, after being in a coma since the fall of 2020.

He proceeds to make maybe the biggest mistake of his life: breaking up with Jamie and then trying to have sex with all of the women in Southern California. “Because I barely need to point out that the best you could say about all this was that at any point you could exchange my head for a donkey’s ass and no one would see the difference. Not only had I just broken up with the greatest woman on the planet, what I was proposing was just a giant fucking waste of time. Sex is great and everything, but I think I would be a much more fulfilled person now if I had spent those years looking for something more….

“During that time, I met at least five women that I could have married, had children with. Had I done so just once, I would not now be sitting in a huge house, overlooking the ocean, with no one to share it with, save a sober companion, a nurse and a gardener twice a week–a gardener I would often run outside and give a hundred dollars to so he’d turn his fucking leaf blower off.”

He talks about ‘his’ (Chandler’s) season on Friends, Season 9: “(Nine was the only year I was completely sober for a Friends season. Care to hazard a guess as to which was the only year I got nominated for an Emmy for best actor in a comedy? Yup, season nine.)”

For two years, he was fine and stayed sober. But then, one of the women he used had fallen for him and called him up crying and screaming. He goes to see her and while she is in the bathroom, he picks up some of her Vicodin pills that have spilled. Soon, he is back at it – drinking and using again.

“We were five seasons into Friends; Ross and Rachel had just stumbled out of a chapel married, ahead of Chandler and Monica. Friends was a cultural touchstone, a shorthand for the millennium, the number one show on the planet, everyone’s favorite watch.

“And that way of speaking! “Could this be any hotter?” had swept the nation, and now everyone was talking that way…”

Then he makes The Whole Nine Yards with Bruce Willis and Bruce is a partyer. “There are plenty of examples of people in Hollywood who can party and still function–I was not one of them….Once I believe the lie that I can just have one drink, I am no longer responsible for my actions. I need people and treatment centers and hospitals and nurses to help me.”

Here’s what he writes about Bruce Willis: “Sometimes, at the end of the night, when the sun was just about to come up and everyone else had gone, and the party was over, Bruce and I would just sit and talk. That’s when I saw the real Bruce Willis–a good-hearted man, a caring man, selfless. A wonderful parent. And a wonderful actor. And most important, a good guy. And if he wanted me to be, I would be his friend for life. But as is the way with so many of these things, our paths rarely crossed after that.

“I, of course, pray for him every night now.”

This is my favorite part of the book. He is about to die waiting for drugs to help him get through a particularly bad detox. He is at home sitting with his Dad and another person. He can’t stand the scrutiny so moves into his kitchen. He is at the lowest point of his life.

“So, a bottom–the lowest point of my life. This is a classic moment for an addict, a moment after which one seeks lasting help. . . . But hey, what’s this now? As I sat there looking into the kitchen, I noticed a crinkle in the atmosphere. Perhaps someone not at their bottom might have waved it away as nothing, but to me it was so compelling that I couldn’t look away. It resembled a kind of little wave in the air. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. It was real, true, tangible, concrete. Is this what you see at the end? Was I dying? And then . . .

“I frantically began to pray–with the desperation of a drowning man. The last time I’d prayed, right before I’d gotten Friends, I’d managed only to strike a Faustian bargain with a God who had simply drawn a long breath and bided his damn time. Here I was, more than a decade later, chancing my praying arm once again.

“God, please help me,” I whispered. “Show me that you are here. God, please help me.”

“As I prayed, the little wave in the air transformed into a small, golden light. As I kneeled, the light slowly began to get bigger, and bigger, until it was so big that it encompassed the entire room. It was like I was standing on the sun. I had stepped on the surface of the sun. What was happening? And why was I starting to feel better? And why was I not terrified? The light engendered a feeling more perfect than the most perfect quantity of drugs I had ever taken. Feeling euphoric now, I did get scared and tried to shake it off. But there was no shaking this off. It was way way bigger than me. My only choice was to surrender to it, which was not hard, because it felt so good. The euphoria had begun at the top of my head and slowly seeped down throughout my entire body–I must have sat there for five, six, seven minutes, filled with it.

“My blood hadn’t been replaced with warm honey. I was warm honey. And for the first time in my life, I was in the presence of love and acceptance and filled with an overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be OK. I knew now that my prayer had been answered. I was in the presence of God.”

WOW! THAT IS SO BEAUTIFUL!!!!

“I started to cry. I mean, I really started to cry–that shoulder-shaking kind of uncontrollable weeping. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I was crying because for the first time in my life, I felt OK. I felt safe, taken care of. Decades of struggling with God, and wresting with life, and sadness, all was being washed away, like a river of pain gone into oblivion.

“I had been in the presence of God. I was certain of it. And this time I had prayed for the right thing: help.

“Eventually the weeping subsided. But everything was different now. I could see color differently, angles were of a different magnitude, the walls were stronger, the ceiling higher, the trees tapping on the windows more perfect than ever, their roots connected via the soil to the planet and back into me–one great connection created by an ever-loving God–and beyond, a sky, which had before been theoretically infinite was now unknowably endless. I was connected to the universe in a way I had never been. Even the plants in my house, which I had never even noticed before, seemed in sharp focus, more lovely than it was possible to be, more perfect, more alive.

“I stayed sober for two years based solely on that moment. God had shown me a sliver of what life could be. He had saved me that day, and for all days, no matter what. He had turned me into a seeker, not only of sobriety, and truth, but also of him. He had opened a window, and closed it, as if to say, “Now go earn this.”

“…Some might write it off as a near-death experience, but I was there, and it was God. And when I am connected, God shows me that it was real, little hints like when the sunlight hits the ocean and turns it into that beautiful golden color. Or the reflection of sunlight on the green leaves of a tree, or when I see the light return to someone’s eyes when they come out of the darkness into sobriety…”

He didn’t really begin to get better, though, until he forgave his parents and stopped being angry with them, and “of not being enough, of being terrified of commitment because I was terrified of the end of commitment.”… “I needed to move on, and up, and realize that there was a whole big world out there and it was not out to get me. In fact, it had no opinion about me. It just was, like the animals and the shiv-sharp air; the universe was neutral, and beautiful, and continued with or without me.”

You can tell he is still struggling, though:
“When a man or woman asks me to help them quit drinking, and I do so, watching as the light slowly comes back into their eyes, that’s all God to me. And even though I have a relationship with God, and I’m so often grateful despite everything, I sometimes do want to tell God to go fuck himself for making my road so hard.”

Here’s what he was on in the years of addiction: “So, I’m in Dallas–I am on methadone, a quart of vodka a day, cocaine, and Xanax. Every day I would show up to set, pass out in my chair, wake up to do a scene, stumble to set, then just basically scream into a camera for two minutes. Then it was back to my chair for further nap time.” (I think this is during the filming of Serving Sara.)

“I was a complete mess of a person–selfish and narcissistic. Everything had to be about me, and I matched that with a really handy inferiority complex, and almost fatal combo.”

AA tells you to list all the people you are mad at and why and how it has affected you. Then you read it to someone. He had 68 people on his list. As he read the list to a loving sponsor, he realized he wasn’t the center of the universe. “(If you’re shaking your head now, go on, have at it. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.)”

He realizes “That I could help people, love them, because of how far down the scale I had gone, I had a story to tell, a story that could really help people. And helping others had become the answer for me.”

Like Wayne said when I told him a bit about this story, “To whom much has been given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48)

When he is in the hospital after his colon exploded, his friend, Erin, is with him all the time. He is never alone. “I often look back on that time and am so grateful that this happened before Covid, because then I would have been alone in that room for five months. As it was, I was never alone in that room once. That was God’s love, in human form, made flesh.”

But still, he went back on opiates! “When your colon explodes because of overuse of opiates, the prudent thing to do is to not ask for opiates to solve the situation . . which is, of course, what I did.

“And they gave them to me.

“I was impossibly depressed and as always wanted to feel better…

Just so you are following along, I had come within inches of dying because of opiates and I asked the doctors to solve that problem with . . . opiates!”

“I don’t have another sobriety in me. If I went out, I would never be able to come back. And if I went out, I would go out hard. I would have to go out hard because my tolerance is so high.”

…”It’s time to figure something else out. (As said, the next level is heroin, and I won’t go there.) M quitting drinking and opiates doesn’t have anything to do with strength, by the way–it just doesn’t work anymore. If somebody came into my house right now and said, “Here’s a hundred milligrams of Oxy,” I’d say, “It’s not enough.”

He’s on Suboxone and thinks he probably will be for the rest of his life. The problem is, it might be blocking his relationship with God. “These days, I have faith in God, but too often that faith seems, well, blocked. But then, everything is blocked by the medication I’m on.”

He worries he has damaged his natural opiate receptors and cannot feel happiness ever again. He talks about how he drank to feel better but it took “more and more and more and more and more and more and more to feel better.” And alcohol is patient. You may say you won’t drink now, but it will wait for you.

“Recently my mother told me she was proud of me. I’d written a movie and she’d read it. I’d been wanting her to say that my whole life.

“When I pointed this out, she said, “What about a little forgiveness?”

“I do forgive you,” I said. “I do.”

He says, “I would trade places with each and every one of my friends-Pressman, Bierko, any of them–because none of them had the big terrible thing to deal with. None of them had battled their entire lives with a brain that was built to kill them. I would give it all up to not have that. No one believes this, but it’s true.”

He starts The Smoking Section chapter:

“One fine day, God and my therapist got together and decided to miraculously remove my desire to take drugs. A desire that has been plaguing me since 1996.

“My therapist said to me, “The next time you think about OxyContin, I want you to think about living out the rest of your days with a colostomy bag.”

“God didn’t say anything, but then, he doesn’t have to because he’s God. But he was there.

“Having had a colostomy bag for nine long months, my therapist’s words hit hard. And when this man’s words hit hard, the prudent thing to do is to get into action immediately. What he said caused a very small window to open, and I crawled through it. And on the other side was a life without OxyContin.

“The next move up from OxyContin is heroin. A word that has always frightened me. A fear that has undoubtedly saved my life. My fear, of course, is that I would like that drug so much, I would never stop doing it and it would kill me. I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t want to learn. Even in my darkest days that was never an option.”

In the chapter, Batman:

“Watching the ocean, I find myself most days filled with not just longing, but also peace and gratitude and a deeper understanding of just what I’ve been through, and where I am now.

“For a start, I’ve surrendered, but to the winning side, not the losing. I’m no longer mired in an impossible battle with drugs and alcohol. I no longer feel the need to automatically light up a cigarette to go with my morning coffee. I notice that I feel cleaner. Fresher. My friends and family have all mentioned it–there is a brightness about me that none of them had seen before.”

…”This morning, and every morning out there on the patio, I am as the newcomer. I am filled with, energized by, the “differences”—no drink, no drugs, no cigarettes. . . . As I stand there, coffee in one hand and nothing in the other, and watch the distant waves in the ocean, I realize that I am feeling a wave of my own, inside me.

“Gratitude.”

…”Being in a kitchen always brings to mind God. He showed up to me in a kitchen, of course, and in doing so, saved my life. God is always there for me now, whenever I clear my channel to feel his awesomeness. It’s hard to believe given everything, that he still shows up for us mortals, but he does, and that’s the point: love always wins.

“Love and courage, man–the two most important things. I don’t move forward with fear anymore–I move forward with curiosity. I have an incredible support group around me, and they save me every day, because I have known hell. Hell has definable features, and I want no part of it. But I have the courage to face it, at least.”