In Matthew Perry’s memoir, a need for fame leads to 65 rehab stints

Matthew Perry. File picture: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Matthew Perry. File picture: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Published Nov 6, 2022


By Allison Stewart

The first time Matthew Perry went through detox, he was already as famous as a Beatle, thanks to his role as Chandler Bing on the culture-shifting 1990s sitcom “Friends”.

He was also an addict, tormented by a long list of demons that eventually included the painkiller Vicodin (55 pills a day, at his low point), alcohol, cocaine, the tranquiliser Xanax, and Suboxone, which used to treat opioid addiction.

He went on to detox 65 more times, he estimates, spending millions of dollars and half of his ruined life in treatment facilities.

“Friends” lasted 10 seasons, and Perry was spiralling for most of them, according to his new memoir, the grimly funny, mostly unvarnished and frequently proctological “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing”.

His struggles played out in front of millions of viewers every week. He writes, “You can track the trajectory of my addiction if you gauge my weight from season to season – when I'm carrying weight, it's alcohol; when I'm skinny, it's pills. When I have a goatee, it's lots of pills.”

The book arrives at a strange time, as our understanding of addiction grows and our tolerance for the problems of rich white men shrinks.

It's both a conventional memoir and an account of the dire events of 2018, when Perry's colon exploded, a presumed side effect of his opiate use. He slipped into a coma; his family was told he had a 2% chance of survival.

He spent five months in hospital, and nine months with a colostomy bag and endured countless surgeries, a harrowing ordeal recounted in minute detail.

By page 11, readers will become intimately familiar with the contents of Perry's gastrointestinal tract.

In alternating chapters, the 53-year-old recalls his childhood in Canada as the son of a beauty queen and an American folk singer-turned-actor. His parents were young, ridiculously attractive and outmatched.

At 2 months old, Perry was given barbiturates to stop him from crying. At the age of 5, he was sent as an unaccompanied minor to visit his father, who had left when Perry was 9 months old.

“Not having a parent on that flight is one of the many things that led to a lifelong feeling of abandonment,” Perry writes.

He was a bottomless hole of neediness, desperate for his mother's approval.

The cast of ‘Friends’, from left, Courtney Cox Arquette, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc arrive at NBC studios in Manhattan, New York, for the 75th Anniversary show for the network on May 5, 2002. File picture: REUTERS/Chip East

He vied for her attention against rivals that included his stepfather, local newscaster-turned-“Dateline” journalist Keith Morrison, and glamorous Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, for whom she worked long hours as a press secretary. (At school, Perry writes, he beat up Trudeau's son, future prime minister Justin Trudeau, in retaliation.)

Perry treats his stepfather with a distant affection, often referring to him as “Keith Morrison”, as if, like us, he was merely watching Keith Morrison on TV.

When an adult Perry wakes from a disorienting bender to find a worried Keith Morrison at the foot of his bed, he wonders at first if he's in a “Dateline” episode.

As a teenager, Perry moved to Los Angeles to live with his father, a functioning alcoholic who starred in Old Spice commercials.

Perry soon followed in his father's footsteps, simultaneously pursuing an acting career, alcoholism – he had his first drink at 14 – and, once his erectile dysfunction cleared up, an endless assortment of available women.

In a pattern that continues to this day, Perry, who longs for a family, falls for a series of perfectly suitable potential wives, but rejects them before they can reject him.

He even dated Julia Roberts, who would appear in a season 2 post-Super Bowl episode, after courting her by fax. When he broke up with her two months later, she stared at him uncomprehendingly, as if such a thing had never happened before.

Desperate for the fame he was certain would cure his feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, Perry recalls kneeling on the floor of his tiny flat and praying for the first time. “God, you can do whatever you want to me,” he writes. “Just please make me famous.”

Three weeks later, he landed the role of Chandler after his close friend, fellow actor Craig Bierko, turned it down.

Perry, of course, became rich and famous, while Bierko – poor Craig Bierko! –became a trivia question. In one of the book's most wince-inducing passages, the men, estranged for years, reunite.

Bierko admits to feeling jealous of Perry, who explains that fame doesn't fix a person anyway, which Perry treats as a major revelation even though any reader of even one celebrity memoir has figured this out.

Bierko does not appear to find this helpful.

“Friends” was the best job in the world, writes Perry. The co-stars genuinely adored each other, and everyone got rich thanks to an early suggestion from co-star David Schwimmer that the cast negotiate their salaries as a team.

By their 10th season, they were working an easy schedule. “We were making $1 100 040 an episode, and we were asking to do fewer episodes,” Perry recalls mournfully. “Morons, all of us.”

Perry plunged deeper into his addictions, which reached warp speed when he was introduced to painkillers after a jet skiing accident on a movie set.

It's here that a familiar pattern emerges: Though he is occasionally, precariously sober, Perry spends most of the rest of the book shuttling between a series of increasingly posh rehab centres.

He is sometimes better, but never well. Everyone is always vaguely worried about him, but until a celebrity poses a direct threat to someone else's livelihood, people tend to leave them to their own devices.

Jennifer Aniston once attempted an awkward mini-intervention, but it didn't take.

Aniston, like Keith Morrison and Perry's eventual co-star Bruce Willis, appears here as a warm, if half-sketched character. The more Perry likes a celebrity, the less he mentions them, as if out of professional courtesy.

‘Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir’ by Matthew Perry. Picture: Flatiron

Others bring out a latent sharpness that always seems to be simmering below Perry's Nice Guy surface. He is (understandably) upset when a stoned Cameron Diaz accidentally hits him in the face.

He repeatedly expresses unhappiness that Keanu Reeves, surely the most inoffensive person imaginable, is still alive.

He is unhappy to report that former co-star Salma Hayek “always had a very elaborate and lengthy idea about how to do a scene, but her long-winded ideas weren't always helpful”.

To normies this may seem like mild criticism, but in the exaggeratedly polite way of famous people, it's a WWE-style smackdown.

Perry's wryly conversational, self-deprecating style will seem familiar to “Friends” viewers; it's as if a more intelligent version of Chandler wrote a book.

He is easy to like, if prickly, and as easy to relate to as someone with multiple Banksy artworks and a talent for repeatedly blowing up their own life could be.

Years of Olympic-level addiction have blown out his pleasure receptors – even if he wanted to relapse, the drugs probably wouldn't work.

He would change places with any of his poorer, less famous friends – even that one guy who has diabetes and lives in a flat – if it meant his brain was no longer trying to kill him.

“I would give it all up to not have that,” Perry writes. “No one believes this, but it's true.”