Matthew Perry, by his own admission, nearly died on several occasions, so it’s no surprise that he thought about his own obituary and legacy. This week, headlines around the world declared some version of “‘Friends’ Star Dead at 54” or “Matthew ‘Chandler Bing’ Perry Dies,” memorializing the actor in the context of the show that made him famous.
But Perry, who was found dead at his Los Angeles home last Saturday, had hoped for a different legacy. After suffering the ravages of longtime addiction, he wanted to be remembered not only for his time on NBC’s Must See TV, but as a champion of sobriety and a mentor for people struggling to find a way forward through addiction.
Perry’s journey, as described in his 2022 memoir, “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing,” included dozens of rehab stints, multiple relapses and dire health consequences, including two weeks in a coma and five months in the hospital after having a perforated colon, which was associated with his heavy opioid use.
He discussed these experiences in a November 2022 interview on “Q with Tom Power” and proudly shared his vision for his legacy beyond “Friends” (at the 44:16 mark).
“The best thing about me, bar none, is that if somebody comes to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say ‘yes’ and follow up and do it,” he said. “When I die, I don’t want ‘Friends’ to be the first thing that’s mentioned. I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned. And I’m gonna live the rest of my life proving that.”
No cause of death has been announced as of this writing, but friends and colleagues have indicated that Perry appeared to be well on his way to fulfilling that vision. He founded Perry House, a sober living facility for men in Malibu. He advocated for those charged with drug-related offenses to receive treatment instead of incarceration. He planned to start a foundation for people seeking help.
In a gross simplification of the complex neurology of addictions, it’s like the chemical hijacks your brain and, after a certain point, the chemical itself is in control.
As a clinician specializing in addiction recovery, I want to amplify his message that sobriety is possible and support the legacy he imagined by offering three tenets he espoused that are key to starting a sober life:
Ask for help. Easier said than done, right? It’s common among people with substance-use histories to isolate, perhaps because of guilt, shame or a core sense of unworthiness. Perhaps because they were abused or neglected as children. Or perhaps because they were betrayed by a loved one and can no longer trust that anyone wants to help. Societal stigma adds to the problem. No matter their history, people with substance-use disorders deserve support.
As Perry discussed in an interview on ABC’s “The View” a year ago, his “Friends” co-stars knew he was actively using during the show’s run in the 1990s. Even though so many people “had his back,” he said, it wasn’t until he “raised his hand,” seeking help, that he finally got into treatment.
In my own practice with individuals and groups, I know it is normal and natural for people struggling with addiction to have to ask for help over and over again. While their resolve might come and go, I remind them that a relapse is not a referendum on their worth; it’s a sign of strength to keep trying.
Build community. In the same interview on “The View,” Matthew Perry advised: “Don’t be alone with it.” Connecting with supportive people who “get it” is an important part of recovery. And as Perry emphasized, finding the “right” professional help is a good first step. Along the way, building and maintaining a support network of empathic family, friends, coworkers and peers helps too. But it’s even more crucial to find fellowship in recovery, which lowers your sense of isolation and shame. Seeking group therapy facilitated by professionals or attending free self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery can help you avoid relapse and maintain sobriety.
Practice self-compassion. In one clip from the Tom Power video (at the 29:33 mark), Perry explains the impact of hearing a counselor say, “It’s not your fault.” As Perry learned, without self-compassion, people in recovery are vulnerable to harsh, recriminating internal voices that repeat, “You’re a mess!” “What’s the matter with you?” or “Why can’t you stop?” I have heard clients regularly give voice to those painful inner critics. In a gross simplification of the complex neurology of addictions, it’s like the chemical hijacks your brain and, after a certain point, the chemical itself is in control. Efforts to “just say no” or “white-knuckle it” usually fail; then people blame themselves for not being strong enough to resist using.
Self-compassion can help you feel less isolated, less “defective” and more capable. Offering kindness to yourself is not the same as self-pity. It is not selfishness. It is a healthy way to heal and move forward. Replacing the negative self-talk with more loving statements such as “I’m OK as I am,” “I’m a flawed yet resilient human being,” and “I’m worthy of love and respect” can help quiet the negative voices.
The tragedy of Matthew Perry’s death is that through his very public battle with addiction, we could see that he had only begun to develop self-compassion after many years of struggle. He had only begun to give back to others in trouble. And he had only begun to create the meaningful legacy he dreamed of — the gift of his true, authentic and generous self, a manifestation of his hard-earned sobriety.
Resources: You can reach the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline, which offers confidential free help and information for substance use and addiction treatment services, at 1-800-662-4357.