To Matthew Perry, God Was a Bunch of Drunks in a Room

From a New York Times guest essay by Hank Azaria headlined “To Matthew Perry, God Was a Bunch of Drunks in a Room”:

Matthew Perry said that he wanted to be remembered as someone who helped people get sober, even more than he wanted to be remembered as a very funny, famous Friend. I think he’ll be remembered as both.

I know that I will always think of him that way. We met almost 40 years ago, and he was, by far, the funniest friend I ever had. He also was the person who helped me get sober.

He took me to my first A.A. meeting, in 2005. Matthew quit booze a few years before. He struggled with it, for sure. I didn’t need rehab, but I knew I had a very serious problem, so I called Matthew and asked him to take me to a meeting.

We went to this very big gathering in Brentwood, Calif. We walked in, and I swear it seemed there were a thousand people in there. He knew the look on my face — daunted. Beyond daunted: demoralized. It’s very hard to imagine how going into a room like that is somehow going to make you want to stop drinking or make you feel better. And he looked at me and said in his Matthew, half-joking, very loving way: “It’s something, isn’t it? God is a bunch of drunks together in a room.”

At the time, I didn’t know what he meant. I’ve since learned. He meant that as bad as we feel, as low as we go, we tend to feel we’re alone in it, whether our problem is alcoholism, a bad marriage, illness, depression, strife. We feel that we are the only one who has ever gone through it; in recovery we call it terminal uniqueness.

And it’s by going into a room with a few or a lot of other people and sharing, saying out loud what it is that’s upsetting us and hearing that from others that we feel, well, maybe we’re not alone. In fact, in time, what we become sure of is that the most unfortunate, terrible things we face are actually our greatest strength, as they connect us with others.

And so all that seemingly pointless suffering has a tremendous point.

He was telling me I needed the support of those people in the room. I needed their stories. I needed to lean on them. I needed to tell them, “I don’t think I can make it through the day without drinking.” And hear them say, “We didn’t, either.”

Matthew told me that, too. And, boy, Matthew was a living example. I saw close up how hard he would hit the bottle and pills. And I felt like, “Well, gosh, if he can stop, maybe I can.”

In his memoir, Matthew called addiction “the big terrible thing.” He also thought of alcoholism as a bully. Cunning, baffling and powerful — too powerful to take on alone. But if you have a bunch of guys with you, you can beat up the bully or at least make it a fair fight, one day at a time.

God is a bunch of drunks together in a room.

We talk a lot about a higher power in A.A. Everyone gets to define God as he or she defines God. It can be anything you want. My sponsor would say, “I don’t believe in some sky daddy.” That’s the way he put it. Like Matthew, he’d say his higher power was the wisdom of the group. He’d say, “I believe in the power of people being honest about how they’re struggling, connecting with each other and in loving each other.”

In A.A., I heard stories that were worse than mine — way worse. And yet these people were smiling and calm and connected and happy. I wanted that.

God was a bunch of drunks together in a room. I think of that phrase every single day.

I loved Matthew, and I leaned on him a lot in my early sobriety. I was lucky that Matthew was my guy because humor is a huge part of recovery. And he was a hilarious, hilarious man. As funny as he was on “Friends” — and he was — he was breathtakingly, hysterically unbelievable to be with in person. In any situation, he’d just start finding what was funny about it, beat it into the ground until it wasn’t funny anymore, take that as a challenge and then find a way to bring it back so that it was not just funny but riotous.

Then it would get not funny again, and his attempts to make it so would border on annoying, until he’d somehow unlock it a third time and reduce you to tears of helpless glee. Many times I had to beg him to stop because it was physically painful to laugh that hard for that long.

In recovery you know you’re getting better when you’re able to laugh at the things that before were so serious and shameful you didn’t think they could ever be repeated to anybody else, let alone laughed about. In fact, Step 5 in the program is you admit to God — there’s that word again — and to yourself and another human being the exact nature of your wrongs. Matthew and I did that for each other. We were able to say who we really were. A lot of times we did it through humor.

I was used to laughing with him over — I don’t want to say shallow things, but as the previous examples indicate, they were not exactly weighty, recovery-related items, either. What I was surprised by was the depths that he could go to in his profound understanding of human nature and human flaws — his own flaws and those of others. It gave him a lot of compassion for other people. Tragically, I think he had a lot more compassion for me and for everybody else than he did for himself.

He helped so many people; they got so much out of the fact that he was willing to be honest with them and loving toward them and share with them what he went through. As he ended up doing in his book.

Even writing this piece, talking this way about him, is an example of his legacy: the one that he preferred, about recovery. There’s a tradition in the program that you’re not supposed to speak at the public level about this stuff, and there are good reasons for it. But I have found over the years — and partly it was Matthew’s book that convinced me of this — that speaking publicly about addiction and A.A. does more good than harm.

Because I think it’s really valuable for people to hear that folks like Matthew can struggle and that they can find help. And there’s no shame in asking for that help. There’s no shame in feeling that bad. And there’s no shame in getting help for feeling that bad.

I was unfortunate to have needed his help — or fortunate, depending on how you want to look at it. And certainly fortunate to have received that help and friendship directly from him. I was also a huge fan of his and felt the friendship that we all feel through “Friends.” I consider myself blessed that I got to experience both.

And I do want to say that if you go into recovery, while there will only ever be one of the real thing for me, you will find your own Matthew Perry. You’ll find someone to laugh with and connect with. You’ll find someone who understands your story. You’ll find someone who seems to care about you more than about him- or herself. I think Matthew would want folks to know that more than anything.

Hank Azaria has been an actor for nearly 40 years, appearing onstage and in television and film. He has won multiple Emmy Awards and has been nominated for a Tony Award. He has voiced over 100 characters on “The Simpsons” for 35 seasons and recently starred in HBO’s “The Idol.”

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