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Matthew Perry was long revered for his role on the popular sitcom Friends. But the actor, who was found dead on Saturday at 54 years old, hoped that his struggle with addiction and journey to find sobriety would be the work he was remembered for.
His own experiences with abuse of both drugs and alcohol is something that Perry detailed in his autobiography titled Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing released in 2022. He revealed the impact of his first drink at 14, that he was drinking consistently by 18 and how he navigated alcoholism while portraying Chandler Bing on the show for years. He recounted his attendance at 6,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, 15 times in rehab and having detoxed 65 times, while also facing serious medical scares with one that put him on life support.
All in all, he estimated that he had spent around $9 million trying to get sober himself, while also putting time and money into advocacy work to help others reach the same goal. Fans, friends and Perry himself hope that those efforts are forever remembered.
“When I die, I know people will talk about Friends, Friends, Friends,” Perry wrote in his memoir. “But 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. I know it won’t happen, but it would be nice.”
Advocating for treatment centers
Perry has advocated for the success of treatment centers since the early 2000s when he used his press tour for the film Serving Sara to discuss a recent stay at a rehab facility.
“It’s been pretty well documented that I had some problems with alcoholism and addiction and before this movie was over, I left the film to go get help,” he said on a 2002 Late Show with David Letterman appearance. “For better or for worse, I’m doing this in the public eye. So I’m kind of an example to other people who may be struggling with this. ... My true message is that if you face this, then sobriety is possible, and I’ve never been happier in my whole life.”
Perry worked to make that reality possible for others when he converted his 5,500 sq. ft. beachfront compound in Malibu to a sober living facility for men called the Perry House. Perry’s facility offered programs for men with substance abuse issues with the help of addiction specialist Earl Hightower. The property was sold in 2015, just two years after opening, because of issues with cost. However, his goal of bringing sobriety to people stayed the same, which he demonstrated in a promotional video for a California-based treatment center called Phoenix House.
“The best thing about me is that if an alcoholic comes up to me and says, ‘Will you help me stop drinking?’ I will say, ‘Yes. I know how to do that,’” Perry said at the time.
Testifying in support of drug courts
The actor’s passion for rehabilitation programs led him into advocacy work with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (now All Rise), an organization that encourages courts to take a public health approach to criminal offenders with substance abuse issues.
He testified before Congress in 2013 in support of funding for drug courts and veterans treatment courts, which provide an alternative to incarceration for low-level nonviolent offenders by offering treatment and education related to substance abuse.
“I know firsthand the personal and societal devastation caused by substance abuse. When I found recovery from prescription drug abuse I dedicated myself to helping others,” he said in his testimony. “Drug courts are the single most effective program for getting serious drug addicts into life-long recovery, putting them back to work, back in school and back with their families."
Sharing his story
This is something Perry did, not only through his 2022 memoir, but also in multiple tell-all interviews (like his 2013 People magazine cover) and the play The End of Longing, which he wrote and starred in. The plot was one that drew on his experience with alcoholism with his signature dark comedy.
The interest that people had on the topic, and his relationship with it, was no surprise to Perry. That intrigue inspired his decision to be so open about it as he shared that “the secrets [around addiction] are what kills us” in his conversation with Tom Power in 2022. “One of the main reasons I wrote the book was I wanted people to understand [addiction] and not many books have come from the side of the addict and told the story from that side before. Certainly, not somebody who’s been on one of their favorite shows or whatever. ... I was the first, kind of high-level celebrity to go into a rehab," he said.
Perry added: “I was just setting out to help people.”
The cause of Perry’s death has yet to be determined. However, William Moyers, vice president of public affairs for the Hazelden Betty Ford Treatment Center (where Perry initially sought help in 1997), said that Perry’s openness about addiction was “a story of hope and the possibility of healing.”
“In his life, Matthew proved that you could get up off the floor again and again and again, and keep striving forward, imperfectly,” Moyers said during a segment broadcast on Boston public radio station WBUR. “Matthew really was the epitome of the power of this illness. But in sharing his story and telling his story, he also was the bright light of hope. That’s really going to be his legacy, I hope, that he did inspire lots of us to keep walking that walk, a day at a time.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).