Dear Matthew Perry: My Life Is Not Your Cautionary Tale
I was a huge fan of you in “Friends.” I can’t tell you how many nights I spent watching re-runs of you as the often-goofy-but-still-loveable Chandler Bing (Chanandler Bong, for the real “Friends” fans). I even used to say that my husband was the Chandler to my Monica.
I can’t say I have the same warm feelings over your more recent work. For the past two weeks, pop culture media has been buzzing with sound bites and video snippets of the press tour for your new memoir. Your interviews chronicle your struggle with substance use disorder (SUD). You describe your lowest point—the ordeal that finally made you get sober— was living with an ostomy bag. The choices you made due to SUD had damaged your body to such a point that you required an ileostomy bag to save your life, and you couldn’t say enough terrible things about it.
I won’t get into whether or not your account of your time with a bag was sensationalized for your book sales and press views (“you have to get nurses” and “deal with it 19 times a day” are exaggerated portrayals of what life as an ostomate is like after recovering from surgery). What I will address is the way you used your platform to devalue my life and the lives of 1 million ostomates in America and millions more worldwide.
After describing the “horrors” you experienced with an ostomy bag, you told the press there are a “lot of suicides with an ostomy bag. People can’t take it.” You describe it as “hellish.” You share the cautionary tale your therapist told you: “The next time you think about taking OxyContin, just think about having a colostomy bag for the rest of your life.”
Matthew, my life is not your cautionary tale.
My life is not a worst case scenario. The “horror” that is my life is not your incentive to get sober. My “hellish” reality is not a triumphant tale that you have overcome, and you did not “recover” from having an ostomy. Drugs ruined your body and an ostomy saved your life.
An ostomy saved my life, too. I was 21 and literally dying from ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks your lower digestive tract. I had failed every maintenance medication to keep my disease at bay just one year into my diagnosis, and I was faced with a choice: to live with a bag, or die. At just 21, I had to make the choice to permanently remove my organs, transform my stomach into a scarscape, and have a medical appliance for a lifetime — or not get to see the rest of that lifetime.
I won’t lie; at first, I felt a lot like you did, Matt. I felt like I had been dealt a raw hand, and it felt very unfair to be forced to make impossible choices just to stay alive. Not only was it an incredibly difficult choice to make, but I, like many others, faced a very tough road of complications, hurdles, and lessons ahead. As ostomates, we recover physically from a major surgery only to embark on the long road of recovering mentally. We get to learn to care for our new bodies while also learning to cope with significant stigma, lack of knowledge even among the medical community, and media portrayals of us as subjects of pity— much like in your interviews.
Where we differ is that I, like countless other ostomates, chose to take this new life and run. After I healed and learned how to live with a bag, I blossomed. Not a victim, but a victor, I refused to let the life my bag afforded me go to waste. I graduated college. I landed my dream job. I got married. I created life and became a mother. I’ve traveled, hiked, sang, written, eaten, drank, loved, celebrated, and lived— all because of my bag. Ostomates are everywhere, living with abundant joy and chasing our dreams— not in spite of our bags, but because of them. We are professionals, adventurers, partners, parents, friends, and anything else anyone could ever want to be. We are a million things more than a bag.
And as such, I refuse to let the final say on the lives of ostomates be from you, Matthew Perry. Let this be a counter to anyone living with or considering ostomy surgery; the rest of your life is a limitless expanse ahead of you. You can be, do, say, achieve, and live anything you want, because you made the choice to save your own life. The totality of who you are will not be limited by something so trivial as a bag. Your worth is not determined by a medical appliance, by what you look like underneath your clothes, or by what a ’90s sitcom actor thinks of you. Your life is not over. It is worth so, so much. And you can live it, fully, with a bag.
So, maybe you won’t ever read this. Maybe I’ll send this off into the void and it’ll never be read by anyone. But I can’t let your words about my life — about our lives as ostomates — exist without this rebuttal. I can’t let other ostomates read your words about their bodies and feel shame. I can’t let someone on the precipice of the scariest decision of their life see your words and choose to die in fear of the horror story you’ve told. I can’t chance that the Me from so many years ago stumbles upon your article and it robs her of the insurmountable courage and bold-faced bravery that it took to make that choice. I can’t let that girl in that hospital bed read your words without reading mine. So, maybe this letter isn’t for you after all. Maybe it’s for her.
To her—and to all the ostomates before and after her—your life has meaning. It is rich and beautiful and absolutely limitless because of your bravery. Because of your strength. Because of your courage. Because of your bag.
Getty image by Sheila Alonso