The Friends star, who died at age 54, was remarkably candid about his struggles and said helping others made him happiest
Matthew Perry entered his first rehab in 1997, back when the internet was a novelty and phones plugged into a wall. Friends was the king of prime time and Perry its court jester, a floppy-haired virtuoso of sarcasm and comic timing, but his 28-day stint in Hazelden for Vicodin, splashed across gossip rags, told a darker tale, one that would outlast his TV show’s long run. He went back to rehab in 2001 (booze) and then 2003 (Vicodin). In 2011, when he announced that, yes, Matthew Perry was checking in to rehab again, he knew this was getting old. His statement said, “Please enjoy making fun of me on the World Wide Web.”
Recovery is often told as a simple story of before and after: There is the desperate addict, lost in his worst habits, and the clear-eyed sober person who got out of their own way. Matthew Perry, who died Saturday at age 54, was a poster boy for another kind of recovery, the maddening and often helpless slog of chronic relapse. Over 30-plus years, Perry would try 15 different rehabs and spend upward of $7 million, according to his 2022 memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, a book that captures the agony of wanting to quit, knowing you must quit, having every reason in the world to quit — but not quitting. “Why can’t I get sober?” he pleads with himself. During a bout of frustration at a New York recovery center, he bashes his head against a cement wall so hard he winds up covered in blood.
Of course Perry did get sober, turning this brutal personal saga into an inspiration tale, and though we don’t yet know the cause of his death (a coroner’s report will take at least a few weeks), evidence suggests he stayed that way. LAPD found only prescription pills for anxiety and depression at his home, along with meds for COPD, brought on by a three-pack-a-day Marlboro habit (which he also quit). “It’s weird to live in a world where if you died it would shock people but surprise no one,” he wrote in his memoir, so we should mark it as a success that, for many of us, his death came as both a shock and a surprise. Only a year ago, headlines were celebrating a man who had finally made his way out.
Why he got so lost in the first place — that’s what the memoir tries to puzzle out. As an infant, he was given phenobarbital, a highly addictive barbiturate. Could that be a clue? His parents divorced early, his father heading to L.A. to make it as an actor (he landed an Old Spice commercial), while his mother stayed in Canada, working long hours as the press secretary for Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin. He recalls the lonely flight between those two homes as an “unaccompanied minor,” a phrase he repeats through the book, a refrain for the dislocation he carries through life. Nobody ever really knows the why of addiction, a mystery of genetics and personal history and cultural influence, but opportunity can certainly play a part. Perry wanted fame more than anything, and he got it. But as he laments in his book, “I think you have to have all your dreams come true to realize they are the wrong dreams.”
One of the hardest delusions to disrupt in American culture is that being famous can fix you; it often leaves you more broken. I’m sure a few robust souls make it through intact, but one of the oldest and truest stories of fame is its isolation, its hollow center, and booze and drugs rush in easily to fill the void, while money and success allow you to keep going and going. Perry started drinking at 14, an experience he described as more like getting normal, and by the time he was 18, he was drinking every day. He spent his teen years appearing on TV shows like Growing Pains, where his character crashed his car while driving drunk, and Beverly Hills, 90210, where his character drunkenly pointed a gun at his own head. Gen X used to make fun of these sorts of “very special episodes,” prime time’s clumsy attempt to confront social issues, but it didn’t keep drugs, booze, and guns from stealing our heroes. Perry’s first film was 1988’s A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, starring River Phoenix, who died from a speedball of heroin and cocaine in 1993. Five years later, Perry’s co-star in Almost Heroes, Chris Farley, became another speedball casualty a few months before the movie came out. Perry did the entire press tour high.
His drug by then was Vicodin. He’d found it following a jet-skiing accident on the set of Fools Rush In, a romantic comedy with Salma Hayek. He never did heroin, a line in the sand for him, but the Vicodin kept ramping up. At one point, he was taking 55 a day. After the first rehab stint, he rationalized that drinking was fine (pills were his problem), but he started drinking so much he was diagnosed with pancreatitis at 30. To hear Perry’s story is to be astonished not merely by the stubbornness of his addiction but the resilience of his body: His colon exploded in 2018 from too many opiates, leaving him in a coma for two weeks and requiring at least 14 surgeries and nine months with a colostomy bag; his heart stopped in 2022 for five minutes, and a doctor broke eight ribs trying to resuscitate him. Who could blame his body for breaking down? A few years ago, he bit into a piece of toast, and his top teeth fell out, requiring emergency dental surgery and causing him to speak in a way that sounded (this had to have been painful for a sober person who slipped so often) suspiciously slurry.
It’s a question that haunts many of us who try to wrestle an addiction to the ground: Why did that person die, but I’m alive? Why did that person get sober so easily, while I struggle so much? Why, why?
“A lot of us felt like we lost him to drugs and alcohol a long time ago,” said the actor Hank Azaria on Instagram the day after Perry died, looking distraught and sleep-deprived. Azaria and Perry were tight in their 20s, part of a gang of funny, talented young guns hungry for fame and filling themselves up at the bar. But it was Perry who took Azaria to his first AA meeting 17 years ago. “As a sober person, he was so caring and giving and wise,” said Azaria, who quit that day, while Perry spent years caught in the spin cycle. It’s a question that haunts many of us who try to wrestle an addiction to the ground: Why did that person die, but I’m alive? Why did that person get sober so easily, while I struggle so much? Why, why?
Perry knew he was better when he wasn’t using. “When I’m clean and sober it’s as if a light has been shown to me,” he wrote, “one that I can share with a desperate man who needs help with stopping drinking.” He was tortured by his own mind, but these were the moments he found release. “When I help that one person get sober,” he wrote, “it’s like standing under a Hawaiian waterfall.”
Perry’s memoir is lonely and filled with a commitmentphobic’s regret for lost chances — particularly with the women he loved and left, from Julia Roberts to Lizzy Caplan — but the part that shimmers is the peace he feels being useful. “The years 2001 to 2003 were some of the happiest of my life,” he writes. “I was helping people. Sober, strong.”
He lobbied in D.C. for drug courts, pushing to give drug offenders long-term treatment and court supervision instead of jail time. In 2013, he received a Champion of Recovery award from the Obama White House. That same year, he also opened a sober living facility called Perry House. That move might have been a tad rash: He’d gone into business with his AA sponsor, and when the business faltered, so did their relationship. He relapsed soon after. He wanted so badly to help people, but it remained a mystery (to him, to loved ones, to an adoring public) why he could not help himself.
But he did get sober. By the time his book came out almost exactly a year ago, he’d been clean 18 months. In an interview with the podcaster Tom Powell, Perry said, “When I die, as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people.”
Of course, Perry’s biggest claim to fame will always be Chandler Bing. Could that be any more obvious? But by opening the door to the humiliations of his life, his failures and not-good-enoughs, he gave untold companionship to the lost and lonely, and he showed that change was possible. Fleeting at times, excruciating at others, but: possible.
Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing turns out to be the obituary he did not know he was writing for himself. As sad as that is, consider how few people get to write such an extraordinary obituary. One that doesn’t merely document a life but might save them, too.
Sarah Hepola is the author of the memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. She is the co-host of the culture podcast Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em and a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly.