Authors: Matthew Perry
Early next morning, in what must have been a very difficult drive for her, my mother was kind enough to take me to the airport and watch me fly away from her for the rest of her life. How I had the cour
age to actually make this voyage is beyond me. I still question whether or not it was the right thing to do.
Still an unaccompanied minorâbut a pro by nowâI flew to LA to get to know my father. I was so terrified that even the hoopla of Hollywood might not to be able to soothe me. But soon I would see the lights of the city and have a parent once more.
The first thing I did when I got home from those five months in the hospital was light up a cigarette. After all that time, the inhale, the smoke billowing into my lungs, was like the first cigarette I had ever had in my entire life. It felt like a second homecoming.
I was no longer in Painâthe massive surgery on my stomach had caused scar tissue, which in turn caused my stomach to feel like I was doing a sit-up at full stretch 24/7, but it wasn't actually pain. It was more of an annoyance.
But no one needed to know that, so I told everyone I was in pain so I could get OxyContin. Pretty soon the 80 milligrams a day of OxyContin I had conned them into giving me wasn't working anymore, and I needed more. When I asked the doctors for more, they said no; when I called a drug dealer, he said yes. Now all I had to do was figure out a way to get down forty floors from my $20 million penthouse apartment without Erin spotting me. (I bought the placeâI swear to Godâbecause Bruce Wayne lived in just such an apartment in
The Dark Knight.
Over the next month I attempted to do this four times. I was caughtâyou guessed itâfour times. I was horrible at it. Naturally, the
call came down from above that this man needs to go to rehab again. Soâ
After the explosion of my bowel, I'd been through a first surgery and needed to wear a rather attractive colostomy bagâa look even I couldn't pull off. There was a second surgery pending, to remove the bag, but in between the two surgeries, I was banned from smoking (smokers tend to have much uglier scars, hence the stricture). Not to mention I was missing my two front teethâa bite into a piece of toast with peanut butter had cracked them and I hadn't had time to fix them yet.
So let me get this straight: you're asking me to quit doing drugs and quit smoking at the same time? I didn't give a fuck about the scars; I am a big smoker; this was too much to ask. What this meant was that I had to go to a rehab in New York, quit OxyContin, and quit smoking, simultaneously, and I was scared.
Once I got to rehab, they gave me Subutex for the detox, so that wasn't that bad. I checked into my room, and the clock started. By day four I was going out of my mind, this had always been the hardest day. I realized how serious they were going to be about this smoking thing, too. It was decided that I could smoke while in detox, but once I moved up to the third floor the smokes had to go.
They insisted, so much so that I was locked in the building so I could not get out. I was on the third floor; all around, New York purred in the distance, going about its business, living life while their favorite sarcastic sitcom star was in hell one more time. If I listened hard enough, I could just hear the subwayâthe F train, the R train, the 4, 5, 6âdeep below me, or maybe it was the rattle of something else, something unbidden and terrifying and unstoppable.
This rehab was prison, I was convinced of it. A real prison, not like the one I had made up before. Red bricks, black iron bars. Somehow, I'd found my way to jail. I'd never broken the lawâwell, I'd never been caughtânevertheless, here I was, in lockup, pokey, the House of D.
Missing my two front teeth, I even looked like a convict, and every counselor was a guard. They may as well have fed me through a slot in a bolted door.
I hated the whole placeâthey didn't have anything to teach me. I've been in therapy since I was eighteen years old, and honestly, by this point, I didn't need any more therapyâwhat I needed was two front teeth and a colostomy bag that didn't break. When I say that I woke up covered in my own shit, I'm talking fifty to sixty times. On the mornings when the bag did not break, I noticed another new phenomenon: when I woke up, I enjoyed about thirty seconds of freedom as I slowly wiped the sleep from my eyes and then the reality of my situation would hit me, and I would burst into tears at a rate that would even make Meryl Streep jealous.
Oh, and I needed a cigarette. Did I mention that?
I was sitting in my room doing God knows what on day four when something hit me, I don't know what. It was like something was punching me from the inside. But even though I had been in therapy for more than thirty years and it had nothing new to teach me, I had to do something to get my mind off nicotine, so I left my cell and headed down the hallway. Aimless, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going.
I think I was trying to walk outside of my own body.
I knew that all the therapists were on the floor below me, but I decided to skip the elevator and make for the stairwell. I didn't really know what was happeningâI can't to this day describe what was going on, except that I was in a sort of panic, confusion, a kind of fugue state, and there was that intense pain againânot Pain, but pretty close to it. Total confusion. And I wanted to smoke so badly. So, I stopped, in that stairwell, and thought about all the years of agony, and the fact that the yard never got painted blue, and Pierre fucking Trudeau, and the fact that I was then, and still am, an unaccompanied minor.
It was like the bad parts of my life were appearing to me all at once.
I'll never be able to fully explain what happened next, but all of a sudden, I started slamming my head against the wall, as hard as humanly possible. Fifteenâlove. SLAM! Thirtyâlove. SLAM! Fortyâlove. SLAM! Game. Ace after ace, volley after perfect volley, my head the ball, the wall the cement court, all the pain lobbed up but short, me reaching up, smashing my head against the wall, blood on the cement and on the wall, and all over my face, completing the Grand Slam, the umpire screaming, “GAME, SET, AND MATCH, UNACCOMPANIED MINOR, SIX LOVE, NEEDS LOVE, SIX LOVE. SCARED OF LOVE.”
There was blood everywhere.
After about eight of these mind-numbing slams, somebody must have heard me, and stopped me, and asked the only logical question:
“Why are you doing that?”
I gazed at her, and looking like Rocky Balboa from every one of those last scenes, I said, “Because I couldn't think of anything better to do.”
It seemed like the whole world was walking through the arrivals lounge of LAX that summer.
World-class amateur gymnasts, sprinters, discus throwers, pole vaulters, basketball players, weight lifters, show jumpers and their horses, swimmers, fencers, soccer players, synchronized swimmers, media from all around the globe, officials and sponsors and agentsÂ â¦ oh, and one fifteen-year-old also-amateur tennis player from Canada, they all washed up in Los Angeles during the summer of 1984, though only one was doing a big geographic.
That was the year of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, a golden time of high sun and muscled excellence, of a hundred thousand people packed into the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, where Mary Lou Retton needed a 10 to win the gymnastics all-around and nailed it, and where Carl Lewis won four gold medals by running really fast and jumping really far.
It was also the year I immigrated to the United States, a lost Canadian
kid with a dick that didn't seem to work, heading to Tinseltown to live with his father.
Back in Ottawa, before I'd left, a girl had tried to have sex with me, but I was so nervous that I drank six beers beforehand and couldn't perform. By then I'd been drinking for a few yearsâit began soon after the time I gave my mother away to that lovely man, Keith.
And I do mean lovely. Keith
for my mother. The only thing that is annoying about Keith is that he always takes my mother's side. He is her protector. I can't tell you how many times my mother has done something that I may have taken issue with and I've been told by Keith that it never happened. Some would call this gaslighting, others would call it gaslightingâit's gaslighting. But my family was held together by one man, and that was Keith Morrison.
Anyway, back to my penis.
I failed to make the correlation between the booze and my private parts not working. And no one could know about thisâno one. So, I was walking around the planet thinking sex was something for
people. For a long time; years. Sex sounded awfully fun, but it was not in my arsenal. This meant, in my mind and pants at least, that I was (con)genitally, impotent.
If I just go to Los Angeles, I'll be happy.â¦
That's what I thought. Seriouslyâthat's what I thought a geographic, long before I even knew what a geographic was, would do for me. I fit right in with the muscled, hypertrained athletes also waiting at the baggage carousels. Weren't we all just bringing some kind of crazy dream to this crazy city? If there were a hundred sprinters, and only three medals per discipline, how much saner could you say they were than me? In fact, I probably had a better chance of making it in my profession than they did in theirsâafter all, my dad was an actor, and that's what I wanted to be. All he had to do was help me push on doors already ajar, right? And so what
if I came halfway down the packâI might not get a medal either, but at least I'd get away from Ottawa and a dick that didn't seem to want to work. And a family I wasn't really a part of and on and on.
The initial plan for me had involved sports, too. My tennis had advanced to the point where we seriously considered me enrolling in Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida. Bollettieri was the premier tennis coachâhe helped Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, and Venus and Serena Williams among many othersâbut once in LA, it quickly became apparent that I was going to be a perfectly solid club player, nothing more. I can remember enrolling in a satellite tournament, with my dad and my new family watching (he'd remarried to Debbie, a lovely woman, and the catch of the century, in 1980, and back then they had a very young daughter, Maria), and in my first match I didn't win a
The standard in Southern California was off the chartsâwhen it's seventy-two degrees every day, and there are tennis courts seemingly in every backyard and on every street corner, some kid from the icy wastes of Canadaâwhere it's subzero from December through March, if you're luckyâis going to struggle to make an impact. It was kind of like being a really good hockey player in Burbank. And so it turned out: my dreams of being the next Jimmy Connors quickly faded when faced with whipped 100-mph serves coming from bronzed Californian gods who happened to be eleven years old and called Chad, but spelled with a capital
It was time to look for a new profession.
Despite this swift reality check, I loved LA instantly. I loved the vastness of it, the possibilities of it, the opportunity to start anewânot to mention that the seventy-two degrees every day made a nice change from Ottawa. Plus, when I realized that tennis wasn't going to be how I would make a living, and someone told me people actually get paid to act, I quickly changed career goals. This wasn't as far-fetched as it seemed; for a start, my dad was in show business, and I had a hunch that the at
tention would light me up like a Christmas tree. I had had a solid training at home; whenever there was tension, or I needed attention, I'd honed my skills at delivering a killer line. If I was performing well, everything was safe, and I was being taken care of. I might have been an unaccompanied minor, but when I got laughs, there was a whole audienceâmy mother, my siblings, the Murray brothers, kids in schoolâwho would stand and applaud me. It also didn't hurt that three weeks into my sophomore year at a very prestigious and expensive (thanks, Dad) new school, I was cast in the lead role of the high school play. That's right ladies and gentlemenâyou are looking at George Gibbs in Thornton Wilder's
. Acting came naturally to me. Why wouldn't I want to pretend to be another person?
Jesus ChristÂ â¦
I think my dad had sensed this was going to happen. After I was cast in
I raced home to share the big news and found a book lying on my bed called
Acting with Style.
The inscription inside read:
Another generation shot to hell. Love, Dad.
Acting was another one of my drugs. And it didn't do the damage that alcohol was already starting to do. In fact, it was getting harder and harder to wake up after a night of drinking. Not on school daysâit hadn't escalated that far yet. But certainly, every weekend.
But first, I had to get a regular education.
I was the pale Canadian kid with a quick mouth, and there's something about an outsider that piques the curiosity of teenagersâwe seem exotic, especially if we have a Canadian accent and can name the entire roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Plus, my dad was the Old Spice guy; for years on their TVs, my schoolmates had seen Dad dressed as a sailor
on shore leaveâreplete with peacoat and black sailor capâslinging that iconic white bottle at clean-shaven bit actors while urging them to “Clean up your life with Old Spice!” It may not have been Shakespeare, but he was famous enough, and he was tall and handsome and very funny, and he was my dad.
Dad was also a drinker. Every evening he'd arrive home from whichever set he'd been on, or
been on, pour himself a healthy slug of vodka tonic, and announce, “This is the best thing that's happened to me all day.”
He said this about a drink. Sitting next to his son on a couch in Los Angeles. Then he'd have four more and take the fifth to bed.
Dad taught me many good things, too. But he certainly taught me how to drink. It's still no accident that my drink of choice was a double vodka tonic, and my thought every time was,
This is the best thing that happened to me all day.
There was a difference, thoughâa big one. Without fail, next morning at seven Dad would be up, bright and breezy; he'd shower and apply his aftershave (never Old Spice), and head out to the bank or his agent or to setâhe never missed a thing. Dad was the epitome of a functional drinker. I, on the other hand, was already struggling to wake up and causing whispers with those who drank around me.
I watched my father drink six vodka tonics and live a perfectly functional life, so, I figured it was possible. I figured I'd be able to do the same thing. But there was something lurking in my shadows and my genes, like a creepy beast in a dark place, something I had that my father did not, and it would be a decade before we knew what it was. Alcoholism, addictionâyou call it what you want, I've chosen to call it a Big Terrible Thing.
But I was George Gibbs, too.
I don't remember what my classmates thought of this newbie showing up with his pale skin and Canadian brogue, but I didn't
care. SparkNotes describes Gibbs as “an archetypal all-American boy. A local baseball star and the president of his senior class in high school, he also possesses innocence and sensitivity. He is a good sonÂ â¦ [but for] George [to] stifle his emotions is difficult, if not impossible.”
So, pretty much dead-on, then.
At home, though, my dad had vodka all over the house. One afternoon, when he and Debbie were gone, I decided to take a big swig of vodka. As the warm spice of it jangled down my throat and innards, I felt that well-being, that ease, that sense that everything was going to be fine, I saw the clouds from my backyard in Ottawa and I figured I'd head out into LA, to walk in this bliss, this seventy-two-degree heaven, the star of the school play wandering like a drunk Odysseus through the star-studded streets. Clancy Sigal, writing for the London
about the 1984 LA Olympics, noted that whenever he visited the city, he sensed that he was “passing through a soft membrane that seals Los Angeles off from the real, painful world.” Here I was, too, slipping through that soft, vodka-softened membrane, into a place where there was no pain, where the world was both real, and notÂ â¦ and yet, as I turned a corner, something else hit me that had never occurred to me beforeâdeath, fear of death, questions like “Why are we all here?” “What's the meaning of all this?” “What's the point?” “How do we all arrive at this?” “What are human beings?” “What is air?” All these questions poured into my brain like a tidal wave.
I was just rounding a fucking corner!
The drink, and that walk, opened a chasm in me that's still there. I was so troubled; I was an extremely screwed up guy. The questions cascaded like alcohol into a glass; all I'd done was what Sigal had doneâI had arrived in Los Angeles, along with gymnasts and sprinters and horses and writers and actors and wannabes and has-beens and Old Spice actors, and now, a great void had opened up beneath me. I was standing at the
edge of great pit of fire, like “The Pit of Hell” in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan. The drink, and that walk, had created a thinker, a seeker, but not some soft-focus, Buddhist crapâone who was on the edge of a deep crater of flames, haunted by the lack of answers, by being
by wanting love but being terrified of abandonment, by wanting excitement, but being unable to appreciate it, by a dick that didn't work. I was face-to-face with the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell, a fifteen-year-old boy brought up close to the face of eschatology, so close he could smell the vodka on its breath.
Years later, my father, too, would take his own meaningful walk: he had had a bad night on the drink where he fell through some bushes or something, and he talked to Debbie about it the following morning and she said, “Is this the way you want to live your life?” And he said, noâthen he went for a walk and quit drinking and hasn't had a drop since.
Excuse me? You went for a walk and quit drinking? I have spent upward of $7 million trying to get sober. I have been to six thousand AA meetings. (Not an exaggeration, more an educated guess.) I've been to rehab fifteen times. I've been in a mental institution, gone to therapy twice a week for thirty years, been to death's door. And you went for a fucking walk?
I'll tell you where you can take a walk.
But my dad can't write a play, star on
help the helpless. And he doesn't have $7 million to spend on anything. Life has its trade-offs, I suppose.
This begs the questionâwould I trade places with him?
Why don't we get to that one later?
On the jukebox, I'd put a few dimes in and play “Don't Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush over and over; sometimes I'd slip in
“Mainstreet” by Bob Seger, or “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles. One of the reasons we loved the 101 Coffee Shop was because they kept the jukebox up-to-date; plus, it felt like old Hollywood in there, with its caramel-colored leather booths and the sense that at any moment someone super famous might walk inâyou know, to pretend that fame didn't change anything.
By 1986, I was pretty sure fame would change everything, and I yearned for it more than any other person on the face of the planet. I
it. It was the only thing that would fix me. I was certain of it. Living in LA you would occasionally bump into a celebrity, or you'd see Billy Crystal at the Improv, make note of Nicolas Cage in the next booth, and I just knew they had no problemsâin fact, all their problems had been washed away. They were famous.
I'd been auditioning steadily and had even gotten a gig or twoâmost notably, in the first season of
Charles in Charge
. I played Ed, a preppy, plaid-sweater-and-tie-wearing square who confidently intoned his one main line: “My father's a Princeton man, and a surgeonâI'd like to follow in his footsteps!” But it was work, and TV, and without much more thought I found that I was already skipping school to hang out in diners with girls who liked my accent and my quick patter and my budding TV career and my ability to listen to them. Thanks to my training back in Canada, I knew I was able to listen to and help women in crisis. (If you're a woman and you are in duress and you sing a song about it, I will listen to it over and over and over.) So there I was, in the 101 Coffee Shop, holding court with a gaggle of young women, quick with a line and a smirk and a willing ear; I'd ditched the preppy,
Charles in Charge
look as soon as I'd left the Universal lot in Studio City and was dressed like any cool teen in the mid-1980s: denim jacket over a plaid shirt, or probably wearing a Kinks T-shirt before going home to listen to Air Supply.