Authors: Matthew Perry
I was being needy; I was not the cute smiling baby everyone was hoping for.
I'll just take this and shut the fuck up.
Ironically, barbiturates and I have had a very strange relationship over the years. People would be surprised to know that I have mostly been sober since 2001. Save for about sixty or seventy little mishaps over
the years. When these mishaps occur, if you want to be sober, which I always did, you'd be given drugs to help you along. What drug may you ask? You guessed it:
Barbiturates calm you down as you try to get whatever other shit is in your body out; and hey, I started taking one at thirty days old, so as an adult I just picked up where I'd left off. When I'm at a detox, I'm very needy and uncomfortableâI'm sorry to say I'm the worst patient in the world.
Detox is hell. Detox is lying in bed, watching the seconds go by, knowing you are nowhere near feeling OK. When I'm detoxing, I feel like I'm dying. I feel like it will never end. My insides feel like they're trying to crawl out of my body. I'm shaking and sweating. I'm like that baby who wasn't given a pill to make things better. I have chosen to be high for four hours, knowing I will then be in that hell for seven days. (I told you this part of me is crazy, right?) Sometimes, I have to be locked away for months at a time to break the cycle.
When I'm detoxing, “OK” is a distant memory, or something reserved for Hallmark cards. I'm begging like a child for any kind of medication that will help ease the symptomsâa grown man, who's probably looking great on the cover of
magazine at the very same time,
for relief. I would give up everythingâevery car, every house, all the moneyâjust to make it stop. And when detox is finally over, you are bathed in relief, swearing up and down that you will never put yourself through that again. Until there you are, three weeks later, in the exact same position.
It's crazy. I am crazy.
And like a baby, I didn't want to do the inner work for so long, because if a pill fixes it, well, that's easier, and that's what I was taught.
At around my ninth month, my parents decided they had had enough of each other, stashed me in a car seat in Williamstown, and the three
of us drove to the Canadian borderâfive and a half hours. I can just imagine the silence of that car ride. I didn't speak, of course, and the two former lovebirds in the front seat had had enough of speaking to each other. And yet that silence must have been deafening. Some major shit was going down. There, with the distant thrum of the Niagara Falls as a background, my maternal grandfather, the military-like Warren Langford, was waiting for us, pacing up and down, stamping his feet to keep warm, or in frustration, or both. He would have been waving at us as we pulled up, as though we were about to embark upon some kind of fun holiday. I would have been excited to see him, and then, I'm told, my father took me out of my car seat, handed me into my grandfather's arms, and, with that, he quietly abandoned me and my mother. Then, Mom finally got out of our car, too, and me, my mom, and my grandfather stood listening to the waters hurtle over the Falls and roar into the Niagara Gorge and watched as my father sped away, forever.
Seems we weren't going to live together in
a crooked little house
after all. I imagine back then I was told that my dad would be back soon.
“Don't worry,” my mother probably said, “he's just going to work, Matso. He'll be back.”
“Come on, little chum,” Grampa would have said, “let's go find Nanny. She's made your favorite pasghetti for dinner.”
Every parent goes off to work, and they always come back. That's just the normal way of things. Nothing to worry about. Nothing that would bring on a colic attack, or addiction, or a lifetime of feeling abandoned, or that I am not enough, or a continual lack of comfort, or a desperate need for love, or that I didn't matter.
My father sped away, to God knows where. He didn't come back from work that first day, nor the second. I was hoping he'd be home after three days, then maybe a week, then maybe a month, but after about six weeks I stopped hoping. I was too young to understand where
California was, or what it meant to “go follow his dream of being an actor”âwhat the fuck is an actor? And where the fuck is my dad?
My dad, who later in life became a wonderful father, was leaving his baby alone with a twenty-one-year-old woman who he knew was way too young to parent a child on her own. My mother is wonderful, and emotional, and she was just too young. She, like me, had been abandoned, too, right there in the parking lot of the border crossing between the United States and Canada. My mother had gotten pregnant with me when she was twenty years old, and by the time she was twenty-one, and a new mother, she was single. If
had a baby at twenty-one, I would have tried to drink it. She did her best, and that says a lot about her, but still, she simply wasn't ready for the responsibility, and I wasn't ready to deal with anything, being just born n'all.
Mom and I were both abandoned, in fact, before we'd even gotten to know each other.
With Dad gone, I quickly understood that I had a role to play at home. My job was to entertain, to cajole, to delight, to make others laugh, to soothe, to please, to be the Fool to the entire court.
Even when I lost an entire part of my body. Actually, especially then.
The phenobarbital behind meâits use faded like my memories of my father's faceâI plowed on full pelt into a toddlerdom, in which I learned how to be the caretaker.
When I was in kindergarten, some dim kid slammed a door on my hand, and after the great sparkles of blood stopped arcing up like fireworks, someone thought to bandage me up and take me to a hospital. There, it was clear that I had, in fact, lost the tip of my middle finger. My mother was called and sped to the hospital. She came in sobbing (understandably) and found me standing on a gurney with a
gigantic bandage on my hand. Before she could say anything, I said, “You don't need to cryâI didn't cry.”
There I was already: the performer, the people pleaser. (Who knowsâmaybe I even did a little Chandler Bing startle/double take just to land the line?) Even at three years old I'd learned I'd have to be the man of the house. I had to take care of my mother, even though my finger had just been sliced off. I guess I'd learned at thirty days old that if I cried, I'd get knocked out, so I'd better not cry; or I knew I had to make sure everyone, including my mother, felt safe and OK. Or, it was just a fucking great line for a toddler to say standing on a gurney like a boss.
Not that much has changed. If you give me all the OxyContin I can stand, I feel taken care of, and when I'm taken care of, I can take care of everybody else and look outward and be in service to someone. But
medication, I feel that I would just sputter away into a sea of nothingness. This, of course, means it's pretty much impossible for me to be useful or in service in a relationship because I'm just trying to get to the next minute, next hour, next day. There's that dis-ease of fear, the licorice of inadequacy. A touch of this drug, a drop of that, and I'm OKâyou don't taste anything when you're jacked on something.
(Back in the days before 9/11, kidsâand curious adultsâon planes would sometimes be allowed up to the cockpit to have a look around. When I was about nine, I was brought up to a cockpit and was so mesmerized by the buttons and the captain and all the information that I forgot to put my hand in my pocket for the first time in six years. I had never showed it; I was so ashamed. But the pilot noticed and said, “Let me see your hand.” Embarrassed, I showed him. Then he said, “Here, take a look.” Turns out he was missing the exact same bit of his middle finger on his right hand.
Here was this man, captaining the whole plane and knowing what
all of those buttons did and understanding all the captivating information in a cockpit, and he was missing part of his finger, too. From that day forthâI'm fifty-two nowâI have never hidden my hand. In fact, because I smoked for so many years a lot of people noticed it and people would ask what happened.
At least I got an OK gag out of the incident with the doorâfor years I'd complain that since losing half a finger I could tell people only to “Fuck yâ”)
I may not have had a father, or all ten fingers, but what I did have was a fast mind and a fast mouth, even then. Combine that with a mother who was very busy, and important, and who also had a fast mind and mouthÂ â¦ well, there were times I was happy to lecture my mother about her lack of attention, and let's just say it didn't go that well. It's important to note here that I could never get enough attentionâno matter what she did, it was never enough. And let's not forget that she was doing the work of two people, while dear old dad was busy wrestling with his own demons and desires in LA.
Suzanne Perry (she kept Dad's name professionally) was basically Allison Janney from
The West Wing
âa spinmeister. She was the press secretary for Pierre Trudeau, who was then the Canadian prime minister and a general gallivanter. (The
captioned a picture of the two of them this way: “Press aide Suzanne Perry works for one of Canada's best-known menâPrime Minister Pierre Trudeauâbut she is quickly becoming a celebrity herself; simply by appearing at his side.”) Imagine that: you're a celebrity merely by standing next to Pierre Trudeau. He was the suave, socially connected PM who had once dated Barbra Streisand, Kim Cattrall, Margot KidderÂ â¦ his ambassador to DC once grouched that he'd invited not one but
separate girlfriends to a dinner, so there was a lot of spinning needed for a man
so enamored of women. My mom's job therefore meant that she was away at work a lotâand I was left to compete with the ongoing concerns of a major Western democracy and its charismatic, swordsman leader if I wanted a little attention. (I believe the phrase at the time was “latchkey kid”âa bland term for being left fucking alone.) Accordingly, I learned to be funny (pratfalls, quick one-liners, you know the drill) because I
to beâmy mother was stressed by her stressful job, and already highly emotional (and abandoned), and me being funny tended to calm her down enough that she would cook some food, sit down at the dinner table with me, and hear me out, after I heard
out, of course. But I'm not blaming her for workingâsomeone had to bring home the bacon. It just meant I spent a great deal of time alone. (I would tell people I was a
child, having misheard the phrase “only child.”)
So, I was a kid with a fast mind and an even faster mouth, but as said, she, too, had a fast mind and a fast mouth (I wonder where I got it from). We argued a lot, and I always had to have the last word. One time, I was having an argument with her in a stairwell, and she made me feel the most rage I've ever felt in my life. (I was twelve years old, and you can't hit your mother, so the rage turned inwardâjust like when I was an adult, at least I had the decency to turn into an alcoholic and an addict and not blame other people.)
I've always been abandoned. So much so that I used to ask my grandmother, when a plane went over our house in Ottawa, “Is my mother on that plane?” because I was always worried that she would disappear, just as my father had (she never did). My mother is beautiful; she was a star in every room she entered. And she's certainly the reason I'm funny.
With Dad off in California, Mom, being beautiful and smart and charismatic and the star in every room she entered, would date guys, and they'd date her right back, and sure enough, I'd turn every one of
those men into my dad. Once again, when a plane went over our house, I'd ask my grandmother, “Is that [Michael] [Bill] [John] [insert name of Mom's latest beau] flying away?” I was continually losing my father; I was continually being dropped at the border. The roar of the Niagara River was forever in my ears, and not even a dose of phenobarbital could make it mute. My grandmother would coo at me, crack me open a can of Diet Coke, that faint-anise and distant-licorice filling my taste buds with loss.
As for my
dad, he would call every Sunday, which was nice. After his stint with the Serendipity Singers, he morphed his performing skills into acting, first in New York, then in Hollywood. Though he was what they sometimes call a journeyman, he was working pretty steadily and would eventually become the Old Spice guy. I saw his face more often on TV or in magazines than I did in reality. (Perhaps that's why I became an actor.)
“What kind of man whistles the Old Spice tune? He's my daddy!”
goes the voiceover from one 1986 ad as a little blond boy with a bowl cut puts his arms around my actual father's neck.
“My practically perfect husband,”
the smiling blond wife intones, and though it's sort of a joke, it was never very funny to me.
“You can count on him, he's a friend.â¦”
Then, when enough time had passed that it was unseemly, I had a sign that read
tied around my neck and I was taken to the airport so I could be sent to Los Angeles. Whenever I'd visit him there, I'd realize over again each time that my dad was charismatic, funny, charming, hyperhandsome.
He was perfect, and even at that age, I liked things I could not have.
Bottom line, though, was: my dad was my hero. In fact, he was my
hero: whenever we would go for walks, I would say “you be Superman and I'll be Batman.” (A smart psychologist might say we played roles instead of Dad and Matthew, because our actual roles were too confusing to me. But I couldn't possibly comment on that.)
Back in Canada once again, the image of his face and the smell of his apartment would fade over the months. Then, it would be my birthday once again, and my mother would do what she could to make up for the fact that my dad wasn't there, and when the too-big cake appeared, covered in many dripping candles, each and every year I'd wish for one thing: in my head I'd whisper,
I want my parents to get back together.
Maybe if my home life had been more stable, or if my dad had been around, or if he hadn't been Superman, or if I hadn't had a fast mind and mouth, or if Pierre TrudeauÂ â¦ I wouldn't be so damn uncomfortable all the time.