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 is Matthew Perry’s Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing about? What are the main takeaways from the actor’s memoir?
You’ve seen Matthew Perry play Chandler on the iconic show Friends, which actually hits a lot closer to reality than you might have imagined. In Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, Perry shares his story of battling loneliness, health scares, and the big terrible thing: addiction.
Read below for a brief overview of Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.
Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry
Matthew Perry’s Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing takes readers through his life from childhood to the present day, letting them into his darkest moments of loneliness, health scares, and the big terrible thing he has faced and overcome: addiction. He shares his story with the hope of helping others who are also struggling with substance abuse. He wants to let them know they are not alone in their challenges, and that, if he could get sober, they can, too.
Perry’s memoir puts his decades of struggles with substances into the context of the ups and downs of his career and his relationships. He shares what he’s learned about addiction and recovery, and he reflects on his purpose in life after having survived near-death experiences.
This book explores the major themes of Perry’s life—his addiction, his struggles in establishing relationships, and his search for fame—as they evolved throughout five stages of his life:
- Perry’s childhood
- His teenage years and early adulthood
- The Friends years
- Life after Friends
- Perry’s life today
Perry suggests that his childhood experiences 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.
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.
Teenage Years and Early Twenties
While his childhood was the beginning of Perry’s anxieties regarding love and attention, his teenage years and early adulthood were when his unhealthy coping mechanisms started. This section will explore how, in an effort to heal his inner conflicts, he developed substance abuse issues and a fixation on being the center of attention.
Perry’s Inner Conflicts
Perry felt uncomfortable with himself and with others, and drinking and seeking attention made him feel better. He turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms for three main reasons:
- He felt a gnawing loneliness he thought could only be fixed with outside things, such as substances and people’s laughter.
- He experienced thoughts that made him afraid of his own mind.
- He experienced anhedonia, an inability to feel pleasure. This especially affected his ability to enjoy small, everyday pleasures, like being with friends. He needed experiences to be heightened, such as with drugs, in order to enjoy them.
Using Alcohol to Cope
Perry had his first alcoholic drink at 14, which marked the beginning of his substance use as a way to cope with his inner turmoil. He and his best friends, the Murray brothers, were alone in Perry’s house. As usual, there were no adults in the house and they got hold of beer and wine. They drank together, but although the brothers felt sick and threw up, Perry felt great and found a calm he had never felt before in which the scary thoughts that plagued him dissipated.
A year later, he moved to LA to live with his father and his exposure to alcohol intensified. He claims he learned how to drink from his father, who would get home each day, make himself a drink, and comment on how that drink was the best part of his day. That sense of relaxation and relief made a big impression on Matthew.
However, he soon began drinking alone, too. He began to suspect he had a problem with alcohol when he noticed that he was drinking every day and that other people didn’t get as restless as he did when there was no alcohol available. But instead of trying to reduce his dependence on alcohol, he began drinking alone because he felt ashamed.
Using Attention to Cope
While alcohol helped ease some of his anxieties, Perry still felt profoundly alone, so he used humor to get people’s attention. When he was a teen, he and the Murray brothers invented a funny way of talking that would later become his signature Chandler Bing cadence. (Perry claims that this cadence changed the way America spoke in the nineties.) In high school, he wouldn’t stop talking in class and made everyone laugh. While he got bad grades and frustrated some of his teachers, he was talented and had leading roles in school plays.
In 1986, at sixteen, he landed his first big job in a movie, acting opposite River Phoenix in the movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. He got the role thanks to his “always on” personality. He was in a diner, flirting with a group of girls and making jokes to make them laugh. The movie’s director, William Richert, was watching him and felt he would be perfect for the role of Phoenix’s funny sidekick. Before leaving, he slipped him a note that said, “I want you to be in my next movie.”
After high school, Perry became more and more fixated on the idea of achieving fame, which he hoped would make him feel better and fix the emptiness he felt.
The Friends Years
In 1994, Perry’s life would change forever when he got cast as Chandler in Friends. But being famous didn’t fix his inner turmoil, and his addiction and struggles with love only got worse. This section will discuss Perry’s highest point in his career and the struggles with his health and relationships during that time.
Perry’s Big Break
At 24, Perry was broke and losing hope of making it in Hollywood. When he realized he was out of money, he took the first job he could find: LAX 2194, a TV show about baggage handlers in the LA airport in the year 2194. It was a poorly received show, and it almost kept him from landing Friends.
Shortly after Perry signed onto LAX 2194, Hollywood started buzzing about a new pilot: Friends Like Us (later renamed simply Friends). (Shortform note: Other working titles for the show included Insomnia Café and Six of One.) Everyone wanted to get involved, including Perry, but he had a contract with LAX 2194. All of his actor friends and acquaintances were auditioning for the show, and many of them commented that Chandler was a perfect role for Perry. They even asked him to read Chandler’s lines when they practiced for their own auditions.
His friend, Craig Bierko, was offered the role of Chandler but he rejected it because he wanted to be the star of a show, not part of an ensemble cast. After Craig rejected the role, Perry prayed for the first time in his life. He told God he could do anything to him as long as he made him famous. Soon after, LAX 2194 got canceled and he was free to audition for Friends Like Us. Three weeks after his prayer, he landed the role of Chandler, the last one to get cast.
An Addiction and Recovery Rollercoaster
Getting cast in Friends was a turning point in Perry’s life. On the one hand, he believes it saved his life. He staved off the worst of his addiction (for example, avoiding heroin because he knew it would be impossible to quit) and tried to stay healthy because he loved his job and he knew how lucky he was to have it. On the other hand, Perry feels that God upheld his end of the bargain—made him famous—but also made sure to collect Matthew’s end and put him through challenges that almost broke him.
During Friends’s 10-year run (1994-2004), Perry went to rehab several times. The first time was in 1997, but he went back to drinking soon after. In 2000, he was diagnosed with pancreatitis as a result of heavy drinking. He received treatment but he went back to Vicodin and alcohol when he recovered.
At one point during the filming of Serving Sara, his then-girlfriend told him he needed help. She took him to a detox center where he first read the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Reading the book helped him understand he was being narcissistic and selfish. He tried going back to work on the set of Friends after three weeks, but his father intervened. He called the producers and threatened to pull Matthew off the show if they insisted on having him back before he was well.
After a month in the detox center, he was sent to a long-term care facility because he still needed support. He ended up staying there for three months, but he simultaneously returned to work. In fact, he was living at the center when the highest point of his character’s story arc aired: the wedding of Chandler and Monica.
After that stay in the treatment center, he was sober for two years (2001-2003), which he believes were two of the best years of his life. During that time, he was nominated for an Emmy and he found purpose in helping other people get sober. But Perry’s struggle with addiction wasn’t over. In fact, it would get so intense that he would even have a spiritual experience.
In 2003, a relationship he was in ended badly and he went back to pills. At one point, he was unable to sleep and took eight Xanax pills at once. Standing in his kitchen, he prayed to God for help because he knew that going from eight pills to zero in a matter of hours was dangerous and might even kill him. After praying, he saw a golden light and felt a warmth around him that he attributed to God. After the light and warmth were gone, he cried with relief because he felt he had been in the presence of God.
The End of an Era
In 2004, Friends came to a close. When the show ended, Perry and his castmates were ready to say goodbye to their characters. Still, the finale was emotional and the entire cast and crew—except Perry—were in tears that last day. He claims he didn’t feel anything, probably because he was taking Buprenorphine, an opioid that helps people get over addictions to other opioids but made him feel numb. However, he realized the show’s ending was momentous and he asked the producers to have the honor of delivering the last line.
After the show ended, he continued to feel the impact of Friends in his life. He struggled with being typecast and with people seeing him as Chandler in every role he played. Still, he acknowledges that he is lucky to be typecast into a role that was part of such an impactful show that made him so successful and wealthy.
Life After Friends
After Friends, Perry tried to grow beyond Chandler, the role he had become synonymous with. He focused on dramatic work and even received award nominations for a movie he starred in, The Ron Clark Story. However, none of the TV shows he worked on after Friends were successful.
With no real purpose to keep him sober, Perry’s unhealthy patterns of behavior worsened. In this section, we’ll explore how he continued to abuse substances even after a couple of near-death experiences, and how he pushed away any woman who got close to him.
Relapse, Rehab, Recover, Repeat
After Friends ended, Perry’s addiction accelerated. In 2013 he went into rehab for the third time. During that stay, he found that helping the other residents have fun made him feel useful. However, his counselor questioned why he was having fun at rehab and pointed out that he enjoyed the chaos that addiction created in his life. At first, Perry was offended by this remark, but then he found that there was some truth to it.
During that same rehab stay, he had an epiphany. He didn’t want to invite anyone to family and friends night at the center because he didn’t want to put any of his loved ones through another ordeal related to his addiction. But then he asked himself why he didn’t give himself the same courtesy. He concluded that he needed to permit himself to let go of the inner conflicts that kept him trapped in addiction. But the realization didn’t lead to him applying the lessons learned right away, and he eventually relapsed.
After leaving rehab, he got involved in activism. He advocated for the use of drug courts that would allow drug offenders to be sent to rehab facilities instead of jail. He also got into business with his AA sponsor creating treatment homes in LA. However, that business failed and it ruined his relationship with his sponsor.
At 52, Perry has managed to beat some of his unhealthy patterns. This section will discuss his ongoing recovery from addiction and his current outlook on life and the future.
After decades of struggling, Perry has healed some of his inner conflicts. Despite the ongoing challenges of addiction and recovery, today he is in a good place.
He’s content with his accomplishments. He’s no longer chasing fame because he finally feels that he’s enough. He doesn’t feel the need to prove himself anymore, and he can enjoy the legacy he has already created. He also feels he doesn’t need to be funny all the time to get people to pay attention and like him; he can just be himself.
He’s hopeful about finding love. He regrets not having formed a family and having treated his ex-girlfriends poorly. However, his journey of healing from addiction inspired him to live the rest of his life with love and courage, rather than with fear, which he hopes will help keep him sober and find a woman to love and start a family with.
He’s grateful for having made it this far. Although Perry often questions why he was allowed to live, he is thankful for his renewed chance at life. He describes himself as a seeker of purpose and God’s presence, which he finds whenever he’s helping fellow addicts get better. Writing his memoir is one way to help others who struggle with addiction, as they might learn something from his story and feel less alone in their fights.
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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