So no one told me life was gonna be this way: reflecting on recovery after Matthew Perry’s death

6 November 2023
By David Woodhead

I awoke quite early for a Sunday – we had been gifted an extra hour in bed after all – and my first involuntary action was to check my WhatsApp messages. There was just the one, from my sister.  

‘So sad x’, she wrote, and pasted a link to Facebook. I assumed it was an update on what had happened during the night in Gaza. I was wrong. It was breaking news from Hollywood. The actor, Matthew Perry, had been found, unresponsive, in his hot tub.  

Very sad indeed.  

My sister’s message was not without context. She had given me Matthew Perry’s memoir – Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing – last Christmas and, despite my ever growing ‘to be read’ pile, I started it almost immediately, and worked my way through it in only a couple of days. It was the perfect gift from her to me because it resonated for us both.  

First, we had both followed Friends – the US sitcom in which Perry shared the billing with five other actors – with great gusto in our twenties and early thirties and were sad when it came to an end. As many have written in the past few days, it was part of the cultural landscape of the 90s and early noughties. Second, we both love a good celebrity memoir. I mean, who doesn’t? And third, she and a good friend saved my life a decade or so before when addiction had taken me over and I was lost and desperate, heading, with unfathomable determination, towards irreparable chaos, and likely death.  

Having read the book, and knowing as many addicts as I do, it comes as no real surprise that Perry died young and in terrible circumstances. In fact, he made this point himself on more than one occasion and foretold his early death in media interviews as well as in the book itself. Of course, how he died we do not yet know for sure – and it is looking unlikely that it was an overdose as no alcohol, substances or paraphernalia were found – but his psychological and physical state, over decades, is well known. And I can’t help but wonder whether his diminished state, even in his sobriety, was related to his previous challenges and therefore had some bearing on his untimely death.  

Whatever the reason, my speculation took its toll on my mood and prompted me to look at my addiction and sobriety with fresh eyes.  

And such a strong identification on my part with Perry in the aftermath of his death took me by surprise. After all, there were few similarities, except for what he characterised as the disease of addiction, in mine and Perry’s lives. His Hollywood lifestyle, and his mansion that looked out over the Californian dusk, was a far cry from mine, and the tiny flat from which I enjoy the sun setting gently over the English Channel. What is more, I never met him, let alone knew him, although it might have felt that way, as it can do so easily with celebrities, or at least with the characters they play.  

And yet, the news of his death shook me. And the rest of the day was tinged with sadness as I thought of the chaos I was once in, of the dangers facing the people in my life who are in the throes of active addiction right now, and of the friends who have died either by overdose – sometimes accidental, sometimes on purpose – or from some indirect consequence of their despair. Indeed, it is a brutal truth, that being an addict means that you are likely to become friends with other addicts and that some of them will die much sooner than they ought in ways and places difficult to imagine.  

One of the hardest things to bear, I realise, is the helplessness I feel at not being able to help others, at not having the skills to get through the carapace, at not having the expertise to ease the pain and relieve the effects of the childhood trauma that many addicts endure.  

My own recovery is ongoing – to my mind, I will be forever an addict although I am no longer in active addiction and have been sober for almost nine years – and has been aided, variously, by interventions at the LGBTQ+ charity London Friend, led by the magnificent duo of Jamie Willis and Toni Hogg, Gestalt therapy on the NHS, and ongoing psychodynamic group therapy in private practice – a truly life changing experience. And, much like Perry, the thing that has made the biggest difference has been the love and support of family, notably my sister, and my dear and diverse friends, including those who are addicts themselves. As the adage goes: I do it for myself, but I don’t do it alone.  

Perry said that his biggest achievement – for which he wanted to be remembered – was his empathy and support for others, and his willingness to assist them in finding help. He has also created – not least in his death – a kind of legitimacy, a moment in which people with lived experience can tell their stories and challenge others’ preconceptions about addiction, and, perhaps most importantly, about addicts themselves. He brought a strong wind to our backs and somehow encouraged us to tell our stories, to share our truths.  

The challenge for researchers and policy makers is stark. How do we create an environment in which addicts can be heard? How do we corral their collective wisdom and insight to influence prevention programmes, fight the stigma of addiction, and extend the reach of counselling and therapeutic services?  And crucially, how do we build networks of social support to catch them, as the Friends’ theme tune reminds us, when the rain starts to fall?  

For information about getting help with addiction, check out the NHS website or London Friend

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