Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry review – the one with the rich and famous addict

  Reading time 5 minutes

Not long before he won the life-changing role of Chandler Bing in the global sitcom phenomenon Friends, Matthew Perry prayed: “God, you can do whatever you want to me. Just please make me famous.” In this memoir, Perry talks about achieving that mammoth success and fame: at its peak, the series’ cast members were each earning more than a million dollars an episode. But his book is chiefly about the titular “Big Terrible Thing”: Perry’s alcoholism and painkiller/opioid addiction (OxyContin, Vicodin, Dilaudid, to name a few) that led to him spending more than half his life in rehab and treatment centres, detoxing more than 65 times, and paying upwards of $9m trying to get sober.

Famous by his mid-20s, Perry’s compulsions led to him suffering pancreatitis by 30. In 2018, aged 49, his colon exploded, which is where his memoir begins: a vivid near-death hellscape (counsellors try to stop him going to hospital, thinking it’s “drug-seeking behaviour”) involving seven-hour surgery (with a 2% chance of survival), a coma, huge scars and nine months with a colostomy bag that keeps bursting, covering him with faeces. (It’s the threat of a permanent colostomy bag that frightens Perry into quitting.)

Perry also hankered for fame, and he’s candid about the fragility of his ego, his self-hatred and his early cravings for validation. He was mainly raised in Canada, his parents – a young beauty queen and a folk singer/actor who starred in the Old Spice adverts – having split when he was a baby, leaving him with abandonment issues. Going to live with his father in Los Angeles at 15, Perry shelved an aptitude for tennis and focused on his gift for acting.

Although ecstatic about winning the Friends golden ticket (“I was going to be so famous all the pain I carried with me would melt like frost in sunlight”), Perry had an addictive personality. Drinking by the age of 14, he went on to consume huge volumes alone. After taking one painkiller for an injury, he moved on to 55 pills a day within 18 months. He lied to family, friends and medics for drugs and sought out dealers. As the crises pile up, the book starts to resemble a Tripadvisor for upmarket rehab units. Perry’s terror is palpable: “My mind is trying to kill me and I know it.”

Perry has only admiration for his Friends castmates (Jennifer Aniston reaches out to him; Lisa Kudrow provides this book’s foreword). He wryly points to his fluctuating physique over the course of the show: “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.” Friends, Lovers… is also littered with failed relationships: Perry is frank about developing a toxic habit of dumping women, including Julia Roberts, to pre-empt being dumped himself. Later, on dates, he takes to launching into a pre-prepared speech about how he’s emotionally unavailable for anything but sex.

As far as celebrities go, Perry eulogises some, such as Bruce Willis, and takes curious swipes at others. Musing on the death of former co-star River Phoenix (A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon), he ponders: “Why is it that original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die but Keanu Reeves walks among us?” Elsewhere, there’s cringe-inducing griping (poor reviews; award snubs) and barely veiled bragging about his wealth and multimillion-dollar homes. At the same time, he decries fame: “You have to get famous to know that it’s not the answer. And nobody who is not famous will ever truly believe that.”

Perry doesn’t always come across as likable, but maybe that’s the mark of a truthful memoir. This one serves as a stark examination of the myriad costs of addiction (“I have the bowels of a man in his 90s”) and an inventory of the author’s faults (“If a selfish lazy fuck like myself can change, then anyone can”). Now 53, he credits a fear of heroin for still being alive. His goals are to stay sober, perhaps have a family, and write scripts. He interprets a “golden light” seen during a Xanax binge as divine intervention and wants to help people.

Maybe this book could do that. It’s harrowing and revealing about the juncture where extreme compound addiction collides with mega-celebrity. It’s a scream of authentic human pain, albeit one sprinkled with stardust. You end up admiring his honesty.

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