Matthew Perry credits Friends for saving his life during his darkest days of addiction to alcohol and pills, but an intervention held by the cast amid his struggles was “not going to work” in getting him sober.
The 53-year-old actor, whose memoir, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, is at the top of the bestseller list, spoke about recovery with Elizabeth Vargas for her Heart of the Matter podcast for Partnership to End Addiction.
Perry, who had his first drink at 14 and was already struggling when he landed Friends in 1994, said he “stifled the drinking a little bit when I got that job because for the whole time I was like, ‘You can’t screw this up. This is the best job in the world.’ … And the job saved my life in many ways. But … I was drinking every night. Then it got worse and worse and worse and worse.” He went to rehab for the first time at age 27 “because I weighed 130 pounds and I was very, very ill … and on Friends at the same time.”
His co-star and friend Jennifer Aniston called him out on his drinking, telling him they could smell it. He told Vargas that she wasn’t the only one.
“Lisa [Kudrow] said something” as well, Perry revealed. Then “at one point everybody was in my dressing room after a run-through that I had been really shaky in” for an intervention. “But that’s not going to work,” he said of the well-meaning effort. “You need a professional. You need someone who really knows [addiction]. Because what people don’t really understand is if there’s an intervention, the only thing you have to do to end an intervention is just say: ‘No. No, get out of my house.’ And then it’s over. If you have a professional, somebody who does this for a living, and an interventionist and a plane waiting and then you go to rehab, that’s the way to do it. But 50 people saying, ‘You should quit drinking.’ I can’t quit drinking. What are you talking about? And I can’t let you know that I can’t stop drinking because then you’ll try to stop me from drinking.”
Perry recalled going home and drinking after the first time Aniston privately called him out on his addiction. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. Aniston continued trying to help him, a reflection of the “lovely person she is,” Perry said. She also tried tough love. “The second time I came back from rehab, she said, ‘I’ve been really mad at you,'” because his addiction had “put the show in jeopardy.” Perry recalled replying, “‘Honey, if you knew what I’ve been through, you wouldn’t be mad at me.’ But she had — and why would she? — no idea what I’d gone through to be sober at that time.”
Perry estimates he spent $9 million to get sober. He has been to 65 detox centers. While on Friends — the show which paid him $1.14 million an episode in its final years — he would steal pills from real estate open houses to feed his 55-Vicodin-a-day pill habit. At one point, he had a 2% chance of living after his colon exploded due to Oxycontin abuse. Even after that, he had another brush with death — when his heart stopped for five minutes during surgery.
Perry reiterated while talking to Vargas, who is also in recovery from alcoholism, that addiction “is a disease.” He said when that finally clicked — that it is actually a sickness — it helped him in his recovery.
It was when he was taking 55 Vicodin a day and “I was very thin, very sick,” he recalled. “And they put me in this office with a religious fellow. I don’t know exactly what he was, but he was talking to me … and the last thing he said was, ‘And it’s not your fault.’ And I went, ‘What? Say that again?’ And he said, ‘It’s not your fault. … You have a disease.’ I mean, I can’t tell you what that meant to me. I didn’t know. I just thought I was weak and I needed this thing that other people didn’t need. And then I started to learn that it was a disease and I was so relieved by that.”
And it’s a disease that runs in Perry’s family. He said his father, actor John Bennett Perry, also struggled. However, they had very different addiction journeys.
“My dad was pretty much how I learned to drink,” Perry said. “He would have like five vodka tonics and then bring the sixth one to bed. But he always woke up at 7 o’clock in the morning and … went to work. He was a very functional alcoholic.”
When he stopped drinking, it was like a switch.
“One night he had one too many drinks and he fell through a bush or something like that and the next day his wife said, ‘Do you really want to keep living this way?’ And he went for a walk” to consider his circumstances “and quit drinking [that day]. I’ve been to 6,000 AA meetings. I’ve been to 14 treatment centers. I’ve been to a mental institution. And you quit by going for a walk?!” he said.
Perry is currently 18 months sober. “I couldn’t write this book unless I was really strong in my sobriety, which I am now,” he said, “And I’m very grateful