Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (24 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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“Honey,” I said, “if you knew what I'd been through, you would
be mad at me.”

With that we hugged, and I got the work done. I married Monica and got driven back to the treatment center—at the height of my highest point in
the highest point in my career, the iconic moment on the iconic show—in a pickup truck helmed by a sober technician.

Not all the lights were green on Sunset that night, let me tell ya.

I can't be useful in a relationship because I'm both trying to hang on and in so much fear that I'll be left. And that fear is not even real, because in my fifty-three years, and with all the wonderful girlfriends I've had, I've only been left once, many years back. You would think this would be outweighed by all the others I left … yet she was everything to me. The smart man in me sees it clearly, though: she was only twenty-five, just trying to have a good time; we dated for a few months, but I let all my walls down. I decided once and for all to just be myself.

And then she dumped me.

She had never promised me anything. I was drinking like a maniac, too, and I don't blame her.

I had to see her at a play reading a couple of years ago—she played my wife.

“How are you?” she said before the reading, and I pretended I was
fine, but I was in hell.
Get out of there, do not engage,
I thought,
just pretend everything's OK.

“I have a couple of kids with my partner now,” she said, “and life is good. Are you with anybody?”

“No,” I said, “I'm still looking.”

I wish I hadn't said that because it made it sound like I was still looking ever since she dumped me. But it's true. I'm still looking.

Then the play reading ended, and she was no longer my wife, and I got the hell out of there, and she still looked exactly the same.

These days, I have faith in God, but too often that faith seems, well,
But then, everything is blocked by the medication I'm on.

These days, too, I ask this question: Am I blocking my relationship with a higher power by taking Suboxone?

One of my big problems, and the reason that I've had so much trouble getting sober over the years, is I've never let myself feel uncomfortable long enough to have a spiritual connection. So, I fix it with pills and alcohol before God can jump in and fix

I did a breath work class recently. For half an hour you breathe in this very intense, very uncomfortable way. You cry, you see things, you kinda feel high. For me it's a freebie high, the best kind. But the Suboxone even blocks
feeling.… Half the doctors I speak to say I should be on Suboxone for at least a year, but probably the rest of my life. Other doctors tell me I'm not technically sober while I'm still on it. (It's very difficult to get all the way off it either way, which is ironic because it's a drug used to get you off
drugs. Recently, when I was hooked up to an IV of it, the dosage I was receiving was 0.5 lower than it was supposed to be, and it got me so sick and scared I had to bump it back up. You feel terrible when you stop taking it.)

When you take heroin, the drug hits your opiate receptors, and
then you are high, and then it fades and you're not hitting the opiate receptors anymore, then you're sober for a while, and then maybe the next day you hit your opiate receptors again, and then you're high, and on and on. But Suboxone works differently, wrapping itself around the receptor, and it doesn't go away, which means it's basically damaging your receptors 24/7.

So, one of the theories that I have about my struggle with
is that I've damaged these receptors. My dopamine gets replaced by the Suboxone. The dopamine hit is what you get when you enjoy something, like looking at a sunset, or playing tennis and you make a good shot, or you hear a song you love. But I'm pretty sure my opiate receptors are very seriously damaged, possibly to the point of no return. That's why I'm always a little bummed.

Just like pancreatitis, maybe if I left my opioid receptors alone for an extended period they'd fix themselves and I'd be happy again.

I've seen God in my kitchen, of all places, so I know there's something bigger than me. (I know I can't make a plant, for a start.) I know it's an omnipresent love and acceptance that means that everything's going to be OK. I know something happens when you die. I know you move on to something wonderful.

Alcoholics and addicts like myself want to drink for the sole purpose of feeling better. Well, that's at least true for me: all I ever wanted was to feel better. I didn't feel good—I had a couple of drinks and I felt better. But as the disease progresses it takes more and more and more and more and more and more and more to feel better. If you puncture the membrane of sobriety, alcoholism kicks in and goes, “Hey, remember me? Nice to see you again. Now, give me just as much as you did last time or I'll kill you or make you crazy.” And then the obsession of my mind kicks in, and I can't stop thinking about feeling better,
matched with a phenomenon of craving, and what you're left with is a bruise that starts off one way and it never gets better. Nobody has a drinking problem and then stops and then drinks socially and it's fine. The disease just picks up.

The Big Book says that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful … but I would also add that it's
As soon as you raise your hand and say, “I'm having a problem,” it's as though addiction says, “Well, if you're going to be so
as to say something about it, I'll go away for a while.…” I'll be in a rehab for three months and think,
Well, I'm going to use when I get out of here, but I can wait for nine more to days to do it.
The disease is just drumming its fingers. In AA it's often said that when you're in a meeting, your disease is doing one-armed push-ups outside, just waiting for you to leave.

I've almost died several times, and the lower you get down the scale (death is as low as it goes, FYI), the more people you can help. So, when my life is firing on all cylinders, I have folks I sponsor, people calling me to help them with their lives. The two years from 2001 to 2003 were two of the happiest of my life—I was helping people, sober, strong.

There were other good side effects of sobriety. I was also single for some of it. So I'd go to clubs, but I didn't want to drink—the miracle had happened for me. And let me tell you, no one is more popular at 2:00
in a club than a sober guy who says, “Hi, how are you?” to a woman. I don't think I've ever gotten laid more than those two years.

But the disease is patient. You slowly stop going to all the meetings you're supposed to go to.
I don't really need to go to the one on a Friday
night…! And then, by the time you're deep into that kind of thinking, alcoholism is coming for you, baffling and powerful and patient. Suddenly, you're not going to any meetings anymore. And you've convinced yourself that you understand it all.
Now I don't need to do this anymore. I

Addicts are not bad people. We're just people who are trying to
feel better, but we have this disease. When I feel bad, I think,
Give me something that makes me feel better.
It's as simple as that. I would still love to drink and take drugs, but because of the consequences, I don't, because I'm so late stage that it would kill me.

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?”

forgive you,” I said. “I

I wonder if she can forgive me for everything I've put her through.…

If a selfish, lazy fuck like myself can change, then anyone can. No secret gets worse just because it has been told. At this point in my life, the words of gratitude pour out of me because I should be dead, and yet somehow I am not. There must be a reason for that. It's simply too hard for me to understand if there isn't.

I don't believe in half-assing things anymore. The path of least resistance is boring, and scars are interesting—they tell an honest story, and they are proof that a battle was fought, and in my case, hard-won.

I have many scars now.

The first time I took my shirt off in my bathroom after returning from the hospital after my first surgery I burst into tears. I was so disturbed by it. I thought my life was over. After about half an hour I got my shit together enough to call my drug dealer, who proceeded to ask me what was wrong, like he was a social worker or a priest, not a drug dealer.

Three days ago, I had my fourteenth surgery—it's four years later. I cried again. I should learn to get used to it, though, because there will always be more surgeries—I will never be done. I will always have the
bowels of a man in his nineties. In fact, I have never not cried after a surgery. Not once.

I've stopped calling the drug dealers, though.

There are so many scars on my stomach that all I need to do is look down to know that I've been through a war, a self-inflicted war. Once, at some Hollywood function—shirts allowed, nay,
on, in fact, thank God—Martin Sheen turned to me and said, “Do you know what Saint Peter says to everyone who tries to get into heaven?” When I looked blankly, the man who once was president said, “Peter says, ‘Don't you have any scars?' And when most would respond proudly, ‘Well no, no I don't,' Peter says, ‘Why not? Was there nothing worth fighting for?'”

(Martin Sheen, like Pacino, Sean Penn, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Bacon, Chevy Chase, Robert De Niro—these are all fellow members of the “Famous Club” I've encountered, an informal little thing you join when you're in an airport or at a function and someone also famous comes up and says hi like we know each other.)

The scars, though, the scars … my stomach looks like a topographical map of China. And they fucking
. Sadly, these days my body just laughs at 30 milligrams of OxyContin. Oral meds don't work at all; the only thing that helps a little bit is IV medication, and I obviously can't take that at home, so off I go, back to the hospital.

In January 2022, I'd had a six-inch incision with metal staples. This is the life of someone who's been blessed with the big terrible thing. And they aren't letting me smoke. It'll be a good day if I get through it not smoking and nothing crazy happens. When I don't smoke, I gain weight, too—in fact, recently I'd gained so much weight that when I looked in a mirror, I thought someone was following me.

When you get sober, you gain weight. When you quit smoking, you gain weight. Those are the rules.

As for me, 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.

My life is no longer on fire, though. Dare I say it throughout all this turmoil. I have grown up. I am more real, more genuine. I don't need to leave the people in a room screaming in laughter. I just need to stand up straight and leave the room.

And hopefully not walk directly into the closet.

It's a calmer me now. A more genuine me. A more capable me. Sure, there is a chance that if I want a good role in a movie, I'd have to write it now. But I can do that, too. I am enough. I am more than enough. And I don't need to put on a show anymore. I have made my mark. Now it's time to sit back and enjoy it. And find true love. And a real life. Not one that is run on fear.

I am me. And that should be enough, it always has been enough. I was the one who didn't get that. And now I do. I'm an actor, I'm a writer. I'm a person. And a good one at that. I want good things for myself, and others, and I can continue to work for these things. There is a reason I'm still here. And figuring out why is the task that has been put in front of me.

And it will be revealed. There is no rush, no desperation. Just the fact that I am here, and I care about people, is the answer. Now when I wake up, I wake up curious, wondering what the world has in store for me, and I for it. And that's enough to go on.

I want to keep learning. I want to keep teaching. Those are the grand hopes I have for myself, but in the meantime, I want to laugh and have a good time with my friends. I want to make love to a woman I am madly in love with. I want to become a father and make my mother and my father proud.

I love art now, too, and have started collecting. I got my Banksy
painting at an auction in New York. I bought it via the phone. I've never met him, but I want him to know that if there was ever a fire, my Banksy would be the thing I'd save. I wonder if he'd care. (Actually, he'd probably set fire to it himself.)

I have accomplished a lot in my life, but there is still so much left to do, which daily excites me. I was a kid from Canada who had all his dreams come true—they were just the
dreams. And instead of giving up, I changed and found new dreams.

I keep finding them all the time. They're right there in the view, in the Valley, on the edgings and flashes that bounce off the ocean when the sun hits … just so.

When someone does something nice for someone else, I see God. But you can't give away something you don't have. So, I try to improve myself daily. When those moments come and I am needed, I've worked out my shit, and do what we are all here for, which is simply to help other people.


The Smoking Section

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.

So, since heroin was a no-go and OxyContin had been the only
drug I had ever wanted to take, it was safe to say that my desire to take drugs had vanished—couldn't find it if I tried, and I was not trying. I felt lighter on my feet. I felt a freedom. The monkey was off my back. The part of my brain that was out to kill me had vanished. Well, not so fast.

I had recently had my fourteenth stomach surgery, this one to remove a hernia that was protruding through my abdominal wall. It had been very painful, and I had been given OxyContin. We addicts are not martyrs—if we are in serious pain, we are allowed to have pain medication, it just has to be done carefully. This means the bottle of pills is never in my hand, and the medication is always administered by someone else, and as prescribed. It also meant I had a brand-new scar on my stomach, this time a six-inch incision. Really, guys? My colon burst, you opened me up to the point where you could get a bowling ball in there, but now I get the biggest scar?

After the surgery, the moment I took the drug my pain dissipated, but something else happened: I could feel my digestive tract freezing up once again. PTSD, anyone? And when that happened it was straight to the emergency room, where I knew they would either give me something to help me go to the bathroom or tell me that I needed surgery right away. And any time I had a surgery there was a chance I would wake up with a colostomy bag. It had happened twice already, it could so easily happen again.

You know what could ensure that I would never wake up from a surgery with an irreversible colostomy bag? Quitting doing OxyContin. Which I had already done. I was free. There are no words to describe how humongous this news was. I have not been interested in taking a drug since. So, I will steal Al Michaels's immortal words when a bunch of college kids beat the fucking Russians in ice hockey in 1980 in Lake Placid.

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!!!!!!!”

I still can't watch that game without shivers running up my spine. Well, this was my time, my miracle.

I have always believed in the theory that God doesn't put in front of you that which you can't handle. In this case, God gave me three weeks. Three weeks of freedom. And then, he placed a new and gigantic challenge in front of me.

I had been ignoring it. Pretending that it wasn't really happening, or that it would suddenly disappear.

At that time, when I lay down to go to sleep, I started to hear a wheezing. Sometimes it was loud enough that I couldn't sleep, sometimes it was softer and lasted longer. But when I decided to look into it, because God thought I was ready, I was worried. My hope was that it was bronchitis or something that could be treated with an antibiotic, but I feared the worst.

My pulmonary doctor had a one-week waiting list, so I had seven days of lying down and hearing this awful sound during my most vulnerable and loneliest time of night. That week went by so slowly. Sometimes, I would sit up, and smoke a cigarette, and hope that would make the wheezing disappear. I am no rocket scientist.

Eventually, the morning of the appointment arrived, and along with the ever-present Erin, I showed up for a breathing test. I breathed as hard as I could into a tube for a couple of minutes and was then told to wait in the doctor's office for my results. I made Erin wait with me; I was afraid it was terrible news. Remember, folks, we are wanting to hear bronchial infection here. And because of the miracle three weeks earlier, I had no place to hide if it was bad news.

After a very long while, the doctor waltzed into his office, took a seat, and announced (rather nonchalantly, I thought, given the stakes) that my years of smoking had taken a great toll on my lungs and if I didn't quit smoking now—today—I was going to die when I was sixty. In other words, it didn't fucking matter if I had a bronchial infection.

“No, something much much worse,” he said. “But we caught it early enough that if you did quit smoking, you could well live into your eighties.”

Stunned, frozen in fear, grateful that we had caught it in time—these were the thoughts that swirled in my head as we left to get in the car. We just sat there for a while, me wishing the car was a DeLorean so we could go back to 1988 and I could never pick up one of these poisonous, life-engulfing things in the first place.

I somehow managed to be upbeat.

“Well,” I said eventually, “we have a no-brainer on our hands here. I'm going to smoke for the rest of the day. And tomorrow morning at seven
I'm going to quit smoking for the rest of my life.”

I had quit smoking before, for nine months, but the process then had been disastrous. Erin—because she remains the single nicest person in the world—said she would quit with me.

I was initially allowed to vape, but eventually that would have to go, too.

And 7:00
the following day came around far too quickly. My home was cleared of all cigarettes, and I clung to the vape for dear life. I remembered from previous attempts to quit that days three and four were the worst, but if I could make it to day seven, I would be home free.

It was as awful as you might imagine. I basically stayed in my room and vaped and waited for the horrible feelings to go away. But I was brave. I could do this.

But day seven came and went, and I still felt terrible. I was craving a cigarette to such a degree that I didn't think possible. By day nine, I couldn't take it anymore—I walked out of my room at home and said, “I want a cigarette.” The nursing staff was there to make sure I didn't do drugs, not to stop me smoking a cigarette, so they gave me one. When I tell you that I got high off it, I mean very high—the drive-home-in-the-red-Mustang-in-Vegas high.

The remaining eight cigarettes that I smoked that night did not feel that way. They just made me feel like shit while also scaring the shit out of me. (“Shit” used twice, although bad writing, is intentional.)

I was a fifty-two-year-old man, and unless this is the first page you've read in this book, you already know that my plan was to have the rest of my life be both the long, and the good, part. So, I tried! I lay in my bed not smoking for nine days.

I could quit every drug in the history of drugs, but cigarettes were going to be the toughest? Is everybody kidding?

It was decided that going from sixty cigarettes a day to zero had been too much for me to take and I would cut my smoking down until a better plan could be worked out. For the following few days, I managed to drop from sixty to ten. Though this was something, let's not forget: my life was on the line and I needed that number to go down to zero and fast. Any efforts to bring the number under ten were exercises in futility.

Enter Kerry Gaynor, hypnotist extraordinaire. I had tried quitting smoking with him before, but it hadn't worked. This time around proved to be a much different situation. Sitting in front of Kerry Gaynor that day was a desperate man who wanted to quit. I really wanted to quit—fuck, I needed to. I don't know real love, I've never looked into my children's baby blues. Plus, emphysema was a horrible way to go, its oxygen tanks and breathing tubes: “Hi, this is Matthew Perry, you've of course met my breathing tube.”

But could a mind like mine be hypnotized? I had constant racing thoughts and auditory hallucinations.… So, if I can't control my mind, how is some hypnotist going to do it? I loved smoking—some days it was my only reason for living—in fact, I would stay up late just so I could keep smoking cigarettes. Plus, it was the last thing I had left. Without it there would be nothing separating me from me. I had quit drinking forever when God visited me in my kitchen. I had recently
quit drugs for the rest of my life when a colostomy bag scared the shit out of me. Did I actually just say that? How could I possibly do it? What's the point of doing anything if you can't smoke?

Things did not start out well. I got to the place, rang the doorbell, a perfectly nice person opened the door, and I said, “Hi, is Kerry here, I'm supposed to meet with him?”

Kerry was not there, as it was the wrong house. I wondered how that person had felt having Chandler Bing ring his doorbell.…

Five houses down I saw Kerry standing in front of his house, waiting for my arrival. I was terrified—my last crutch, not to mention my life, hung in the balance.

Kerry's office wasn't quite what I was expecting from the highest priced hypnotist in the world—strewn with papers and pictures and antinicotine signs. We sat down and he started into his “smoking is terrible” thing—yeah yeah, I know that. Let's get to the good stuff.

I explained just how dire it was, and he told me we'd need three meetings—I am a special case, apparently. The chat over, I lay back, and for ten minutes he hypnotized me.

I felt nothing, of course.

You are supposed to keep smoking between meetings, which I was grateful for, but to make things easier on my lungs, and for Kerry, I stuck to just ten. (Anyone can smoke three packs a day, like I did, but you really need only about ten cigarettes to get the nicotine your body craves. The other fifty is just the habit.)

During the second session Kerry brought out every scare tactic he could muster. I was naive to think that the next cigarette wouldn't kill me. (I didn't.) I could have a cigarette right now, have a heart attack, and if no one was around to call 911, I was a goner. My next cigarette could make my lungs not function permanently, and I would have to live out the rest of my days carrying oxygen tanks and breathing only through my nose. (I thought,
That's worse than a colostomy bag,
but I
didn't say it out loud.) Would I rather have a cigarette or breathe the next morning? (I knew the answer to this one.)

Before he hypnotized me this second time, I tried to explain my crazy racing mind to him.

“I'm not sure you're going to be able to hypnotize me,” I said.

Kerry just smiled knowingly—he'd probably heard that line a thousand times I suppose—and told me once again to lie down.

I was on his side. I wanted this to work. But I still wasn't sure it was working. I left his office and went back to the ten per day, but something had changed: each one frightened me more than the last. If nothing else, Kerry had done a masterly job of instilling terror in each drag. Something really was different.

And then there we were, at our final meeting. This was it—after this, I was supposed to quit smoking forever. I had explained to him that I had had a horrible time every time I tried to do this—it was harder to quit than drugs. And I have done some pretty insane things (see under: head, wall) while quitting smoking. I'm terrified of the withdrawals.

Kerry listened patiently, then calmly pointed out that he had helped thousands and thousands of people quit smoking, and all his feedback said the same thing: there is a little discomfort on the first two days, and then nothing. But you can't touch nicotine—no vapes anymore.

But this had absolutely not been my previous experience, and I told him so.

“You've never wanted to quit before, and you have never done it the right way, with me,” he said. He was right, I did want to quit. There was no doubting that.

With that, I lay down once again, and he hypnotized me. But this time it felt different—I was very relaxed and sleepy. I realized as Kerry talked directly to my subconscious that my mind was not racing.

Then, it was over.

I stood up, asked if I could give him a hug, and he obliged. Then I walked out of his office a nonsmoker. For good—no matter what. Back at home, the place had been cleared of all nicotine products and vapes (which can kill you just as fast as cigarettes can, according to Kerry).

By now it was about 6:00
., and my job was to make it to 9:30 without having a cigarette.

But something had changed—I didn't want one.

Day one was slightly uncomfortable, as was day two. And then the bad feelings were gone, just as Kerry had told me they would be. I had zero withdrawal symptoms. Nothing. And I didn't want to smoke.

It worked. How he managed to remove my withdrawal symptoms and how that is even possible medically via hypnosis is a mystery to me. But I wasn't going to ask any more questions.

Sure, I reached for a cigarette at least fifty times a day, but that was just habit. I noticed something else, too—the wheezing was gone. Kerry Gaynor had saved my life. I was a nonsmoker.

It was another miracle. In fact, the miracles were flying around fast—duck or you might get hit with one. I don't want to do drugs, and I am a nonsmoker.

I had been off the smokes for fifteen days. I looked brighter, I felt better, I had to take fewer breaks during pickleball games. There was life in my eyes.

But then something happened. I took a bite into a piece of toast with peanut butter smeared on it, and all my top teeth fell out. Yes, all of them. A quick pop to the dentist was in short order—I am, after all, an actor, and should have all my teeth in my mouth, not in a Baggie in the pocket of my jeans. But disaster struck and major work was needed. The dentist had to remove every single one of my teeth—including the implants that were nailed into my jaw—and then replace them all with new ones. I was told this would hurt for one or two days and the pain could be handled with Advil and Tylenol. But these were just fucking
throwbacks from the sadistic dentist played so well by Steve Martin in
Little Shop of Horrors.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
3.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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