How Matthew Perry’s Childhood Paved His Future

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" by Matthew Perry. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was Matthew Perry’s childhood like? When did the actor have his first experience with drugs?

In Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, actor Matthew Perry recounts his life’s ups and downs, from his childhood to adulthood. His childhood is what shaped many of the struggles he had in later life, and is key to understanding his life’s journey.

Let’s dive into Matthew Perry’s childhood and what led him to drugs.

Matthew Perry as a Child

Matthew Perry’s childhood experiences are suggested to have set the stage for his future struggles. As a child, he often felt lonely and like he had to work hard to get his parents’, particularly his mother’s, attention. These feelings would stay with him into adulthood, leading him to turn to substance abuse, fame, and casual relationships to feel less alone. 

However, Perry doesn’t blame his parents for his addiction. While he did in the past, he now believes that addiction is a disease and that he has a natural predisposition to it. Still, he believes that that predisposition was worsened by the events of his childhood. This section will recount Perry’s earliest experience with drugs and how his family life influenced an unhealthy approach to substance use, fame, and relationships.

(Shortform note: Perry’s nuanced understanding of addiction is in line with current definitions of it. Addiction is considered a chronic disease or disorder that features a compulsion to seek substances or behaviors despite their negative effects. Its causes are complex and include genetics, brain patterns, and a person’s environment and experiences.)

First Experience With Drugs

Perry had his first experience with drugs when he was only a few weeks old. He was a colicky baby, and his parents were desperate to get him to stop crying. His doctor prescribed him barbiturates, a depressant drug class that generates addiction. His father remembers Perry as a baby crying inconsolably and then falling asleep immediately after being given the drug.

While baby Perry didn’t develop an addiction to barbiturates, the experience left a mark. First, he believes it negatively affected his ability to sleep because he was given the drug during a period of intense brain development that shapes a person’s sleep. He implies that this could be the reason he has trouble sleeping as an adult. Second, Perry suggests that this was the first instance of trying to fix a problem with a drug rather than investigating and solving the root cause, establishing a pattern he would later repeat.

(Shortform note: The drowsiness Perry’s father remembers is actually a toxic effect of phenobarbital in small children. Other toxic effects include trouble breathing and even death. More common side effects include irritability, hyperactivity, disordered sleep, and digestive problems. Phenobarbital is still used today to treat seizures in babies younger than a year and to treat neonatal abstinence syndrome.)

A Lonely Child

Perry also traces his struggles in relationships back to his childhood and his relationship with his parents. His mother is a former beauty queen turned high-powered career woman. His father is a former musician turned actor who never achieved much success outside of a famous perfume commercial. (Shortform note: Perry’s father did get a chance to shine in prime time, though, when he made a cameo in season 4 of Friends.) They got married and had him almost immediately, but then divorced when he was nine months old. After the divorce, his father moved to California to pursue a career in show business, leaving Perry and his mother, then only 21 years old, in Canada.

Perry often felt alone and parentless during his childhood. One of his earliest memories is of traveling alone from Canada to LA to visit his father. He was only five years old and he flew as an unaccompanied minor. He remembers being scared and feeling relief when he finally saw LA from the plane, knowing that he would soon be with a parent. He believes that memory is behind him feeling at ease—less lonely—in homes or apartments with a view of the city lights.

Back home in Canada, feeling alone was a constant. His mother worked long hours and, although he was usually under the care of his grandparents or nannies, he was often home alone. Knowing that his father had taken a plane to go to California, every time he saw a plane overhead he worried that his mother was on it, leaving him behind.

How Matthew Perry’s Childhood Paved His Future

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew Perry's "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing summary:

  • Actor Matthew Perry's autobiography about health, loneliness, and addiction
  • Words of hope for those who are currently struggling with substance abuse
  • A look into Perry's childhood, his time on Friends, and his life after Friends

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

One thought on “How Matthew Perry’s Childhood Paved His Future

  • January 29, 2024 at 11:47 am

    In the history of the world, no one has ever been addicted to cigarettes before their first puff.
    No one has ever been an alcoholic before their first sip.
    No one has ever been addicted to cocaine before their first sniff.
    No one has ever been a heroin addict before their first injection. 😉

    A mistake made over and over again is called a decision. There are no reasons to ever experience any forms, kinds or types of drugs only excuses!


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