On the Big Terrible Thing
Matthew Perry's memoir, and the impossible math of mental illness
Nobody knows whether he’d relapsed before he drowned; regardless, it can be said that the book, despite its heartfelt attempts to convince author and reader alike that better days are ahead, was haunted by the specter of what was coming. Over and over he wrote about his terror of loneliness, the people he’d hired to evade it, the family members that kept vigil during a coma brought on by side effects of opiate abuse. I’m not usually one for celebrity memoirs, not being overly interested in bold-name gossip—if I were, I’d be nose deep in Barbra Streisand’s thousand-page tell-all by now—but the book’s renewed prominence after his untimely death pushed me into morbid curiosity.
I grew up with Friends, even on a strictly religious household’s severe TV diet; the wafer-thin actresses in their ‘90s and early-oughts fashions, the laugh track, the gargantuan apartments gave me a false but reassuring sense of what life in New York could be like. (In the ten years I’ve lived here, working as a journalist, I’ve found it to be a lot grittier and weirder). Chandler Bing—and Perry doesn’t work overly hard to separate himself from the character—was just one more attractive fixture in a world whose half-assed little laughs matched its vision of New York, the streets so clean they seemed power-washed, the women with perfect highlights and eyebrows thinner than sliced red onion. Perry was dying inside the whole time, filmed an iconic wedding scene then got driven back to rehab. You could track his progress as an addict, he wrote, by watching the show: if he was fat he was drinking; thin, on pills; goateed, lots of pills.
It had taken me a while to realize what was happening. At the start, I'd been taking something like twelve a day, and then went cold turkey one day, and felt absolutely terrible. Something's really wrong with me, I thought, but I kept going and kept going. I'll finish the season of Friends and then I'll get treatment for this.
Reading it makes you ashamed to have been morbidly curious in the first place; it’s raw and repetitive, half something that feels like a rehash of thousands of therapy sessions, half startling, braggadocious and painfully optimistic. He never stops hoping for a child and for love, despite recounting all his disasters in the latter area.
But what sounded a gong in me, reading that book, was the math.
After getting hooked on opiates, Perry delves deep into what he terms the mathematics of addiction. He needs a certain amount of pills—55 Vicodin, at one peak—to keep from getting sick, and much of his day was devoted to getting them, whether visiting real-estate open houses and peeking through the medicine cabinet, or making drug deals, scoring on an endless tally. At a certain point it becomes not about being high but about not being sick with withdrawal: the fear of that sickness drives him through the labyrinthine effort it takes to obtain the substance, making deals with himself, and with others, the whole time.
It felt familiar to me, though I’ve never been an addict in the sense Perry was, in the sense that makes you wake up unclear about what happened the day before on a routine basis, in the sense of abusing internal organs to the point of their failure. I am on benzodiazepines, but do not use them except in routine therapeutic contexts, at regular intervals, and taken alongside a multivitamin and an antidepressant. Should I ever write a memoir, it wouldn’t join the blazing Leslie Jamison genre of addiction chronicles. I am just very crazy, and I know the math of fear extremely well. As an agoraphobe my entire life is about avoiding getting sick—not Vicodin-withdrawal sick but sick, brain-sick, sometimes body-sick, because a brain crazed on fear gets the whole gastrointestinal system involved in the process. And I know the math of despair, too.
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Some of that math is precisely about avoiding substances. Alcohol loosens the ever-present rope harness of anxiety, lets me breathe, and I avoid it not out of self-punishment but because the sloppy, loving, spendthrift self I become is someone on temporary reprieve. The hangovers are punishing and bring renewed anxiety, but I crave the freedom a bottle gives me too much to indulge it more than once or twice a year. I can’t stop at one. Or two. Or three. So for the most part I turn away. When I turn toward the bottle it’s once, and it stops. Because I want to be normal, more than anything, not sappy and happy and clumsy and slurry. Because I want to be normal and loved.
The math of addiction is mostly focused on retaining a basal homeostasis, a normalcy. Every day since I was diagnosed with panic disorder in 2010 I have craved that normalcy; moreso as it got worse; harder and harder with a dilithium-core yearning I’ve wanted to be normal, even just for a day, since my horizons have shrunk into agoraphobia. And that yearning expresses itself in perpetual, mephistophelian deals with the inner devils.
Can I walk just a little further?
Can I get to where I need to be, where someone needs me?
Can I meet a friend?
Will I destroy this friendship, subtract this person, as so many others have been subtracted?
Can I survive another day? Is it worth it, trying to?
The frenetic dealing with yourself—I’ll stop after this one last drink, won’t take pills after this one last pill—echoes for me the self-dealing of mental illness, the countless broken promises that pile up on the inner counter like capsules drained of their powder. The inner gulf between the self desired and the self that is—the broken self whose needs are impossible, whose logic is warped and distorted by terror. And in the grip of panic, the loss of boundaries is complete, and I count the rings on phone calls unanswered to someone, anyone, whose voice will lead me back from the dark.
It feels unsavory to draw such a personal connection to someone who died of an illness, whose life was carved to pieces by it, so soon and perhaps so facilely. But at its core I recognized the math as the same math: the terrible mathematics superimposed on the terrible geography of brokenness. The lost places, the lost people, the lost days—the days I wake up with my blood jangling and know no work will be done today—the hours I lose in the red haze of terror—the decade I’m losing to it, ripe in New York in my thirties.
The last time I saw a play I vomited all over the theater seat—frightened; it was a musical about Joan of Arc in the Public Theater. I haven’t been back. No substances necessary, my brain just does this, goes on the attack when it thinks it’s on the defensive. Carves years away from me, time away from me, until all that’s left is work, and even then that’s sometimes too much. Its companion the black hound of sorrow (I didn’t invent that comparison although I find it often not too apt: dogs are kind and gentle and loyal; dogs don’t tell you to lie under a car) is ever-present too; they tag-team me into submission until all I am is submission, submission and quietude and a big sulking silence and a grand no to the world carved in pure adrenaline. A person-shaped hole in the world, as small as a person and as enormous.
I write this in kinship to anyone who spends their life engaged in terrible mathematics. Who, too, finds themselves navigating this bad map, the one no one tells you how to leave. Matthew Perry said he could see God and a future in helping other people get straight, and he tried when he was straight, which wasn’t often enough for him, wasn’t often enough for his body. The fruit of all that trying was the culmination of the terror he writes about—dying alone, childless. Still: the confessional he wrote, often egoistic, often repetitious, opening with a bowel explosion and closing with a futile hope, is in its way a guide toward something better, even if only by counterexample.
In similar fashion I write about the fear I feel—my mother calls it “airing dirty laundry,” hanging the soiled unmentionables of a diseased mind out to the world—in the hopes that someone who reads it doesn’t feel alone in this bog-world. That impossible marsh in which each step could push you through to drown in murk. Alone in the navigation, the swerves that make no sense to anyone not privy to that inner running calculation. I write to anyone else who craves above all else the homeostasis of normalcy, the desire to not be afraid anymore, the desire to claim back what you were once, what you could be again, you think, some days, the good days. Days when there are sun and leaves and the fear is dull and superseded by other things: love and gratitude and curiosity. They do exist, those days. They figure in the calculation, minutely: an asterisk, a red letter, a curious anomaly.
Mostly they don’t. It isn’t okay, will never be, as long as all of life is a great big game of don’t get sick, an obstacle course of avoidance, a caltrop-strewn world. Still, Perry hoped for more even to the last, and I can’t give up either. If my tale is cautionary, let it be a caution; if it is an inspiration, I urge you towards brighter material; if it is dirty laundry, let it billow and stench up the world and fill your nostrils with the knowledge that some of us are lost and want to be found, to be taken in, taken up into the arms of a day or a month or a year or a lifetime when the bad math is no longer necessary, when the hole is filled, when the logic snaps back into focus, not the red maze that overlays the world invisible to any eyes but yours and mine. When you don’t count out the hours you can live and work in pills or in stillness. When sanity is a given, not a gift.
So many lost: Perry with his smile, and all the authors who put guns in their mouths to make the voices stop, or walked into the sea. I won’t pretend there aren’t days I’ve thought about dressing all in black and lying on the highway, a living speed-bump, an ending. Every time I’ve turned away, cowed not by fear, but by consequences I wouldn’t feel, but those in the rapidly shrinking circle of loved ones would. I hope I find the way out by marsh light—that time when the bog gives way to solid ground—and I’ll stop to mourn those who never made it out. Someday I’ll plant my feet in order; I won’t swerve; I will calculate other things, better ones, word counts and social engagements. I’ll go back to the Public Theater someday. And if I don’t I’ll hang on as long as I can in the humid mud of a bad mind in a bad world, doing the impossible math of survival.