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The actor, who died on Saturday, spoke with PEOPLE in an October 2022 cover interview
Friends star Matthew Perry has died at age 54. The shocking and sudden loss of the beloved actor comes just under a year after he wrote candidly about his challenging journey with addiction in his 2022 memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing. At the time of its release, Perry spoke with PEOPLE about his years in the public eye — and the demons he fought in private. Here is that 2022 interview.
Matthew Perry can’t get over the view. Standing on the patio of a house in the Hollywood Hills, the actor, 53, gazes at the skyline-to-ocean vista. His eyes are bright, his voice strong. Beloved for his portrayal of Chandler Bing on the hit sitcom Friends, Perry famously made $1 million per episode at the height of the show’s popularity. He also plunged into a three-decade battle with alcohol and drug addiction.
In 2018 he was hospitalized for what was publicly described as a gastrointestinal perforation. In fact, his colon had burst from opioid overuse, leaving him fighting for his life. Only a very few in his inner circle knew just how harrowing his addiction had become. “It was a secret,” he says. “I was hiding it from everybody.”
He’s ready now to tell his story, and he’s written a heartbreakingly beautiful memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, detailing his journey — one filled with incredible highs and shattering lows.
“I wanted to share when I was safe from going into the dark side again,” he says. “I had to wait until I was pretty safely sober—and away from the active disease of alcoholism and addiction—to write it all down. I was pretty certain that it would help people if I did.”
Shuttled as a child between his divorced parents in L.A. and Montreal, Perry grew up with dreams of becoming a pro tennis player before trying his hand at acting. At 24, he nabbed the role of Chandler on a pilot then titled Friends Like Us. His alcohol addiction was just surfacing.
“I could handle it, kind of,” he says. “But by the time I was 34, I was really entrenched in a lot of trouble.”
At one terrifying point, he was taking 55 Vicodin a day and weighed 128 lbs. “I didn’t know how to stop,” he said. “The disease and the addiction is progressive, so it gets worse and worse as you grow older.”
He credits his Friends castmates for rallying around him. “They were understanding, and they were patient,” he says. “It could be said that [doing the show] saved me.”
Sitting down to discuss the book, Perry is wryly candid about his long periods of sobriety and relapses. He’s mostly been sober since 2001, he says, “with about 60 or 70 little mishaps over the years.” He has scars from 14 surgeries on his stomach and 15 rehab stints under his belt, and he’s well-versed on the tools needed to maintain his sobriety. He smiles when he’s complimented on his appearance.
“I’m pretty healthy now,” he says, before segueing into that familiar funnyman mode. “I’ve got to not go to the gym much more because I don’t want to only be able to play superheroes.”
While he prefers not to disclose how many days he’s been sober, he does still count. “It’s important, but if you lose your sobriety, it doesn’t mean you lose all that time and education. Your sober date changes, but that’s all. As long as you were able to fight your way back without dying, you learn a lot.”
Perry’s path, though intensely dark at times, has made the actor stronger “in every way,” he insists. “I’m most surprised with my resilience. The way that I can bounce back from all this torture and awfulness. Wanting to tell the story, even though it’s a little scary to tell all your secrets in a book, I didn’t leave anything out. Everything’s in there.” But it’s also a story “that’s filled with hope,” he adds. “Because here I am.”
What was the catalyst for writing the book?
I like writing a lot. I wanted to talk about the highs and the lows, because people are suffering out there. And maybe if they hear a story from somebody they’ve seen on TV that’s worse or the same as theirs, they’ll be filled with hope.
You chose to open your memoir with a frightening drug-related experience—you were hospitalized for five months after your colon burst. Why was that important to you?
I thought it would be grabbing. Especially to people who have this problem, and how dark it can get. The doctors told my family that I had a 2 percent chance to live. That’s the time I really came close to my life ending. I was put on an ECMO machine, which does all the breathing for your heart and your lungs. Every doctor says it’s a Hail Mary. No one survives that. So the big question is why? Why was I the one that survived? There has to be some kind of reason.
Was there any subject off-limits?
I didn’t want to attack people. The only person I attack is myself. And I don’t really blame anybody for what I’ve been through. It’s a disease. I have it and so do more than 10 million other people. I don’t say, “Well, this is because I had a terrible childhood.” I have the gene for addiction, and it’s taken me, for some reason, a lot longer even to strive to beat it. Sometimes I think I should be luckier because I was on Friends, but none of that helps because the addiction just stays doing one-arm push-ups waiting for you, trying to get you alone, trying to get you really sick, trying to get you to do the unimaginable, which is to drink again.
What were the most challenging parts to share?
When things got really dark. But it all flew out of me. It wasn’t that difficult a book to write. It’s a more difficult thing to read, because you go, “Wow, this is a horrible story.” But there’s a sense of humor that runs through it.
You mention you’ll never buy a home without a view. Why is that?
When I was 5 years old, my parents put me on a plane alone from Montreal to Los Angeles. And I was terrified. My feet didn’t even touch the floor. And then when I saw the lights of the city, I knew we were landing, that my dad was going to pick me up, and I’d have a parent again. That’s why views of the ocean or city lights have always given me a feeling of safety.
How would you describe the Matthew who was first cast on Friends?
He was just a guy desperate for fame, thinking that it would fix everything. Just “on” all the time. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I realized I don’t have to do that because it’s probably annoying to people. I was 24 when I got [the role], and the disease was just getting started right around then.
You insist you would give it all up—the fame and fortune—to not have battled addiction.
The fact that I would trade it all to not have this disease is true. But I don’t belittle how fun the experience has been on Friends. And the money was amazing. Just the creative experience of being on the show probably saved my life. When you’re making a million dollars a week, you can’t drink the 37th drink. You have to go home and go to sleep.… That was the greatest job in the world.
You write that your addiction to opioids started after you had a Jet Ski accident during production for 1997’s Fools Rush In.
Yeah, I hadn’t had a pill before that. That first high from it was euphoria. And then I didn’t need to drink, which made you sweat and made you smell of alcohol. Ultimately that’s how my friends knew that I was doing something else, because I stopped drinking. And it rose really fast, so I got to the point of taking 55 [Vicodin] a day. I was down to 128 lbs.
How did your Friends castmates support you?
It’s like penguins. In nature, when one is sick or injured, the others surround it. They walk around it until that penguin can walk on its own. That’s kind of what the cast did for me.
You quit drinking alcohol after you had an experience in your kitchen where you believe you sensed God.
It was this bright yellow object that became all-encompassing. I couldn’t see the kitchen anymore. It was just this light, and I felt loved and understood, and in the company of God or whatever. My dad was right next to me, and we were holding hands and I was praying when it started, which is something I rarely did. It was like God showed me what’s possible. And then said, “Okay. Now you go learn this.”
What compelled you to stop taking drugs?
I was in a coma after the ECMO machine, and I woke up two weeks later and realized I had a colostomy bag. They said, “It’s all too messy down there. We can’t do surgery. But in about a year you can reverse that.” It was pretty hellish having one because they break all the time. So my therapist said, “The next time you think about taking OxyContin, just think about having a colostomy bag for the rest of your life.” And a little window opened, and I crawled through it, and I no longer want OxyContin.
You were given drugs to help you get off the prescription opioids.
Subutex. Suboxone. It doesn’t make you high. But that’s the hardest drug to get off.
You’re also open about your past relationships in your book—and say you were almost always the one to instigate breakups.
Yeah, that’s me afraid. That is what I manifest, something that’s wrong with them. And then I break up with them. But there can’t be something wrong with everyone. I’m the common denominator.
What have you learned about love?
I had a tremendous amount of fear about it, and then, through a lot of work, got over that fear. I’m going to learn as I go. I have no interest in hanging out with somebody that I don’t know or that I’m not that into. The next person I take seriously is somebody that I’m going to be in love with, and [I won’t] be scared by the things that used to scare me.
You admit you would love to get married and have children. What personality traits are most important to you in a partner?
Somebody who’s self-supporting. In every way, but monetarily, especially because I got burned a few times by women who wanted my money, not really caring about me. A sense of humor, beautiful inside and out, caring. Somebody who can have a back-and-forth with me.
Describe a typical day for you now.
I wake up. I have a few cups of coffee with vanilla sugar-free creamer. I speak to a couple of AA guys. I try to play pickleball every day. I have dinner parties. I have a screening room in my house and invite people. If you want to feel lonely, watch a movie in a screening room by yourself. It’s awful. You have so much money, you look over and there’s nobody there.
What’s your wellness routine?
I’m going to a gym. There was a time when my arms were bigger than my trainer’s, and I miss that. I’ve been working very hard at it.
Do you ever read what’s written about you on the Internet?
No. I had to learn that lesson when I was about 25, 26, because what they do is they break you down and build you back up and then break you down again. And I was taking everything personally. So no, I do not Google my own name ever.
What do you give yourself credit for?
’m a little hard on myself. I give myself credit for being sober today, for caring about others, for never giving up. Helping people as much as I do. That’s probably my favorite thing about myself. Being creative, seeing, learning that if you’re uncomfortable or feeling anxiety, one of the ways to get out of that situation is to be creative. I wrote a screenplay in the same year that I wrote this book. I play a small part in it. I’m going to direct it.
When are you most happy?
Happiness is a weird word that maybe should be reserved for Hallmark cards. Happiness is tough for me. I have moments of joy, certainly, but long stretches of happiness, I don’t know about that. I think it’s because I won’t allow myself to have it. I always think something’s going to go wrong.
What did loneliness teach you about yourself?
To treasure the people that really love you. And there are some.
How do you think people will respond to the book?
They’ll be a little surprised because it gets dark. Alcoholics and addicts will relate to it a tremendous amount and hopefully be helped by it. My life from the outside looks great. It really does. And sometimes it is, but I think people will be surprised at how bad it got at certain times and how close to dying I came. I say in the book that if I did die, it would shock people, but it wouldn’t surprise anybody. And that’s a very scary thing to be living with. So my hope is that people will relate to it and know this disease attacks everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re successful or not, the disease doesn’t care.
What would you say to those struggling with addiction?
That there’s a way out. And if they have my phone number, I’d be more than happy to show them.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please contact the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.
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