Ray Richmond: Matthew Perry and I had a big terrible thing in common

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It’s hardly a secret that Matthew Perry went through hell in his life battling a monstrous addiction to pills and alcohol. He’d been in rehab seemingly every other year for most of his adult life. His death last Saturday at 54 from a still-unspecified cause is a cautionary tale to be sure, cutting short his time on earth due to a chronic abuse of substances. He died just under a year after his profoundly honest memoir was released. A sad irony, that.

I took an especially personal interest in Perry’s tragic saga, because it turns out we had a big terrible thing in common. I too am an addict, albeit with a different drug of choice: cocaine. The powdered kind that was way too expensive for a dude at my salary level to easily afford. I got hooked on it in my 20’s and stayed that way to varying degrees for the better part of three decades. I somehow missed the memo that people pretty much stopped doing it in the Eighties. It helped me to blow up a couple of marriages, squander several hundred thousand dollars, and lead me to the precipice of ending my career and my life.

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The only significant difference between me and Matthew is his luck ultimately ran out, and mine didn’t. I was able to stop before it was too late and not have to pay the ultimate price.

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The one other difference between us (besides several million dollars) is that Perry’s alcoholism and drug issues were very much a public thing, while mine were kept largely under wraps and known only to a precious few. In fact, I’m outing myself here to make the point that I’m incredibly grateful to have a second chance when this story usually turns out far differently.

Indeed, I’ve had my own dances with substance abuse rehab. The first time, it didn’t take. The second time, I was extremely fortunate that I was able to fully commit to it and it stuck, and I’ve now been clean and sober for many years. Today, I eat better, exercise daily and vigorously and am in the best physical shape of my life. Mentally, I’m strong and focused.

Like me, Perry embraced sobriety before he died, but I’m guessing that his heart muscle had ultimately taken too heavy a toll and it finally gave out. I’m hoping it isn’t found that Perry had relapsed, but if he had, that wouldn’t be unusual for addicts like him and me. It was only after I accepted that what I suffered from truly was a disease that I was able to get well. That, and staring into the abyss of being left hopeless and penniless and alone. And ultimately dead. That was all very much on the menu.

It wasn’t always torturous, however. Doing coke felt fantastic or I wouldn’t have kept doing it, at least initially. You keep chasing that earliest euphoric rush, that first blissful high, until you’re no longer ingesting it to elevate your senses and enhance your mood but just to feel normal. At the start, you’re doing it only on weekends. Then it’s to get through family gatherings and social interactions with friends. Then it’s to perform more capably on the job. Finally, you’re doing it just to stay awake and keep from crashing after weeks of barely eating and sleeping.

Based on what he’d written and said, Perry experienced a similar downward spiral to my own. It sounded tons more severe than mine on paper, but it’s madness to believe, “Well, this guy had a much worse addiction than I ever did.” No, he didn’t. A drug addict is a drug addict. You can die from a single snort up your nostrils or one unfortunate pill-and-drink combo. And if you’re clean, all you have is today. Years of sobriety can disappear and flip to zero in a single bad decision. That’s what has to be uppermost in your mind. You are never immune from relapse, no matter how many years you’ve got.

For a long time, I’d accepted that the drugs I was loading daily – sometimes hourly – into my body were going to kill me. I knew, especially as I entered middle age, that they could (and probably would) lead to my heart exploding at any moment, or for my health to otherwise plummet. So I’d come to terms with the idea that I was doomed to meet a bad end because I couldn’t stop. Therefore, it was a simple matter of when, not if

The fact that I’ve been able to beat this one day at a time is a bit of a miracle, but also something I never for an instant take for granted. I experience no cockiness or hubris surrounding it. Likewise, there is nothing special about my ability to overcome a dependency that has been the bane of my adult existence. It wasn’t personal fortitude that led me through the minefield to abstinence. It was acceptance of my powerlessness and the intervention of lots of good and generous people in the substance abuse community who understood and encouraged me to seek the help I finally took to heart. That’s not to at all minimize having an impossibly forgiving and exceptionally understanding wife as well. Without her unwavering support, my recovery would never have experienced liftoff in the first place, much less led to long-term sobriety.

That I no longer experience cravings for coke is a profound gift after years of never going more than 15 minutes without obsessing over it. I wonder if Perry ever had extended periods of time when his mind wasn’t locked onto downing something to alter his consciousness, because it seemed he was a perpetually tortured soul. It pains me to think he could never just relax and enjoy his considerable success, and that he couldn’t fully exorcise his lingering demons.

I never thought I’d be gifted with the freedom that I have today from imprisonment to a narcotic. And while I know it’s a cliche, it really does happen to be true: if I could do it, honest to God, anyone can, because I’m no more able and focused than Perry was. I’m just a guy whose gotten insanely lucky to still be here and productive. I’ve also finally lived long enough for my gratitude to exceed my resentments and regret, which is no small thing. And I’ve concurrently found genuine peace, something that I pray Matthew Perry is eternally resting in. He certainly deserves it,

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