Tragic Details About Matthew Perry's Life

It's human nature to reach a certain age and start to contemplate one's own mortality, and there's not much that can trigger those thoughts like the untimely death of a star we grew up with. For an entire generation, those stars were the cast of "Friends," and when Matthew Perry became the first cast member to pass away on October 28, 2023, tributes poured in — but when he released his memoir the year prior, he'd already revealed some pretty dark thoughts.

"My life from the outside looks great. It really does. And sometimes it is, but I think people will be surprised at how bad it got at certain times and how close to dying I came. I say in the book that if I did die, it would shock people, but it wouldn't surprise anybody. And that's a very scary thing to be living with," he said, speaking to People, not only about his memoir but of the addiction he had been living with for years.

Perry got candid about just how low the lows of his life were and heartbreakingly revealed in interviews what he wanted his legacy to be. He told Tom Power: "The best thing about me, bar none, is if somebody comes up to me and says, 'I can't stop drinking. Can you help me?' I can say yes and follow up and do it. ... 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."

His experiences with drugs and abandonment started when he was a child

By the time Matthew Perry released his memoir, "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," stories of his addictions and time in rehab had been in the headlines for a while. But, he told GQ that when he went back to read what he'd written ahead of recording the audiobook, "I read it, and cried and cried and cried. I went, 'Oh, my God, this person has had the worst life imaginable!' And then I realized, 'This is me I'm talking about ...'"

And that included coming face-to-face with some defining moments of his childhood, including being given barbiturates when he was just 2 months old. He had been a colicky baby, he revealed to the Los Angeles Times, and said that no one had reason to doubt a doctor's prescription: "It's hard to blame my parents. But when I was detoxing, I thought, why would you give barbiturates to a kid who is crying?"

He also wrote about how his parents had already been separated for four years by the time he was 5 years old, and in sending him to visit his father, his mother put him on a plane in Montreal — by himself — and sent him on his way to LA. He wrote (via The Washington Post), "Not having a parent on that flight is one of the many things that led to a lifelong feeling of abandonment."

He prayed for fame but found it couldn't fix his life

Matthew Perry's trips to rehab and history of drug and alcohol use had already been making headlines long before "Friends" ended, and when he spoke with The New York Times in 2002, he made it clear that it wasn't the fame that had sent him down the path he'd found himself on. Fame was tricky, though: "When it happens, it's kind of like Disneyland for a while. For me it lasted about eight months, this feeling of, 'I've made it, I'm thrilled, there's no problem in the world.' And then you realize that it doesn't accomplish anything, it's certainly not filling any holes in your life."

As a teenager, his longing for fame came from a place of self-doubt and loneliness, he told ABC News. It was then that he also began turning to alcohol to numb his personal pain. Perry has categorized himself as becoming an alcoholic with his first drink. He said about that day: "I lay in the grass and just was in heaven. I thought to myself, 'This must be the way that normal people feel all the time,' and I thought that at 14." 

Sadly, once he found fame, it didn't fix what he'd thought it would fix. And by that time he was already deep into his addiction. "Alcoholism did not care that I was on 'Friends,'" he told Tom Power. His first trip to rehab happened in 1997, and by 2000, he had a rule in place: There was no drinking on set, but sometimes, he would be so hungover that everyone knew.

From getting hooked to getting creative

Countless recovery centers will say that the first step is admitting there's a problem, and Matthew Perry has been very candid about talking about his experiences with drug and alcohol addiction. In an interview with GQ, he said that it started when he was young.

For alcohol, it was his first drink at 14, and the weight of worries being lifted from his shoulders. Then, years later, came the pills. Perry wrote that after the second season of "Friends" he was involved in an accident while jet skiing and was prescribed painkillers. "As the pill kicked in, something clicked in me. And it's been that click I've been chasing the rest of my life."

Perry told The New York Times that he soon knew exactly how many pills he was going to need to get through every meeting, every outing, every day. "When you're a drug addict, it's all math," he said and said he very quickly reached a point where he needed 55 Vicodin to get through the day. When eight different doctors weren't prescribing enough, he said that he got extremely desperate: He would schedule meetings with real estate agents, going to houses in the price range of a massive television star. Once there, he'd covertly escape to the bathroom and rummage through medicine cabinets. "I counted on the fact that no one would think that Chandler went through my medicine cabinet and stole from me," he told GQ. 

Seeing himself on Friends only made him face his problems

When "Friends" said that final goodbye, it ended up being the fourth most-watched finale in television history, with around 52.5 million viewers. It's tough to overestimate just how important a television show it was, and Matthew Perry was in the middle of it, from beginning to end. But for all the millions of viewers the show netted, there was one person who just couldn't watch it.

When Perry spoke with Tom Power in 2022, he confirmed that he had never been able to watch the show. To watch it, he said, was to come face-to-face with his ever-changing appearance that varied through the seasons. In some? "I was, like, brutally thin and being beaten down so badly by the disease." He added that his fluctuating appearance brought back memories he didn't really want to revisit, saying, "I didn't want the show and haven't watched the show because I could go, 'drinking, opiates, drinking, cocaine.' Like, I could tell season-by-season how I looked."

That interview was broadcast in November 2022, and Perry added that he thought he might finally be in a place where he could sit down and watch it. He wanted to know what it was all about, he said, and wanted to know what made it so enduring, and to see what so many millions of people had fallen in love with.

Friends ended with some of Matthew Perry's biggest regrets

Wrapping up "Friends" after 10 years was a big deal to everyone... except, apparently, for Matthew Perry. He wrote about filming that final episode in his memoir (via Today) and admitted that while everyone else around him was in tears, he just ... wasn't. "We had made 237 episodes, including this last one..." he wrote. "But I felt nothing. I couldn't tell if that was because of the opioid buprenorphine I was taking, or if I was just generally dead inside."

He shared the fact that after walking around the studio one last time and bidding everyone goodbye, he went to his car and thought more about what he'd gone through — including the series of stints in rehab — than of the show, and added that although they'd all promised to keep in touch, it was "in the way that people do when they know it's not true."

And that's how wrapping up "Friends" led to one of his biggest regrets: Amid the attention given to the release of his memoir, he told Access Hollywood (via People) that one of the things he wished would happen more often was a reunion. "We don't get to see each other as much. I wish the group would see each other more times." He went on to praise  co-star Jennifer Aniston for keeping in touch. In spite of having a missed romantic connection, Perry said, "She was the one that reached out the most. You know, I'm really grateful to her for that."

He had a terrifying near-death experience

"Don't Look Up" was precisely the sci-fi movie that the world needed in 2021, and it had a stellar cast. One person that it didn't have was Matthew Perry, and even though he was not only locked in but had filmed a scene, he didn't end up in the final thing. Why? He had a near-death experience that actually involved some very real death.

According to what he wrote in his memoir, "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" (via Rolling Stone), Perry's scenes were scheduled to film and he'd even ad-libbed some additions. But at the time, he was struggling with both opioids and alcohol and wrote that in the one scene that he did film, he had just taken 1,800 mg of hydrocodone. For reference, the Mayo Clinic says that although dosages can vary, the standard adult dose is 10 mg.

Instead of filming, Perry ended up going to a Swiss rehab clinic, where he was scheduled to undergo back surgery. It didn't go as planned, and the anesthetic actually killed him. "Apparently, the propofol [anesthetic] had stopped my heart. For five minutes. ... I was told that some beefy Swiss guy really didn't want the guy from 'Friends' dying on his table and did CPR on me for the full five minutes, beating and pounding my chest. If I hadn't been on 'Friends,' would he have stopped at three minutes?" he wondered. The CPR broke eight of his ribs, and he had to bow out of the movie.

He never achieved one of his main goals in life

Matthew Perry made headlines for dating some high-profile women, including Julia Roberts and Gabrielle Allan. Still, he famously never married and famously never had children, and when he spoke to GQ around the release of his memoir, he explained that no matter how well things were going, he had always been the one to break things off. "I break up with them because I'm deathly afraid that they will find out that I'm not enough, that I don't matter, and that I'm too needy, and they'll break up with me and that will annihilate me and I'll have to take drugs and that will kill me," he explained. 

At the time, Perry could count multiple women that he would have loved to marry, but most of them had moved out of his life long ago. At the same time he said he was happy that they were happy, his past had left him with a lot of regrets, too.

And he'd known for years what he really wanted. In 2014, he spoke with TimeOut London (via the Irish Independent) and said then that he thought he was in a position to concentrate on what really mattered to him: "My goals are more in life than work; meeting the right woman, starting a family." That was never destined to happen, and according to what he wrote in his memoir (via People ), not tying the knot and settling down with Lizzy Caplan was one of his biggest regrets.

He started his memoir with a 2019 near-death experience

Most memoirs tend to begin at, well, the beginning. For his "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing," Matthew Perry took a bit of a different approach and started with 2019, when he found himself in the hospital with a burst colon. When he spoke with People, they asked him why he started with the medical emergency and the following five-month hospitalization. He replied that it was kind of twofold, saying that he not only thought it was pretty attention-getting, but that he wanted readers — especially those who were dealing with addiction — to know right away that they weren't alone in dealing with darkness.

"That's the time I really came close to my life ending," he said. "I was put on an ECMO machine, which does all the breathing for your heart and your lungs. Every doctor says it's a Hail Mary. No one survives that. So the big question is why? Why was I the one that survived?"

Perry also explained (via Today) that it wasn't just about him. When he was first admitted to the hospital, doctors knew that his chances of survival weren't just slim, they were almost nonexistent. They estimated that he had about a 2% chance of pulling through. He said, "I will have to live out the rest of my days knowing that my mother and others heard those words. ... I had realized that my greatest fear had come true, which is that I did this to myself."

He said he couldn't claim to ever be happy

It's easy to sit back and envy the rich and famous, especially when they appear on the television screen every week, with perfect hair, designer clothes, and massive, unobtainable New York City apartments. But even knowing that the character isn't the person playing them, it's tough to assume that they're anything but living the good life. When Matthew Perry talked to People around the release of his 2022 memoir, though, he gave an eye-opening response to the question of his happiness. Simply put, he couldn't bring himself to say that he was.

In response to the question of when he found himself being the most happy, he said, "Happiness is tough for me. I have moments of joy, certainly, but long stretches of happiness, I don't know about that. I think it's because I won't allow myself to have it. I always think something's going to go wrong."

And it makes sense. He wrote in his memoir (via The Guardian) that one of the stand-out moments that he recalled being not just happy but euphoric was one that led him further down the path of addiction. He recalled driving a Mustang convertible across the desert while high: "I remember thinking, 'If this doesn't kill me, I'm doing this again.'"

Matthew Perry was famous, but he was incredibly lonely

There's an old saying about money not buying happiness, and while it might seem like the star of one of the biggest television shows on the planet would have his pick of paramours, Matthew Perry told People in 2022 that more than once, he'd found himself with a woman who was more interested in his money than in him — and it was a situation he just didn't want to be in again.

In a conversation with The New York Times about his memoir, Perry confirmed that one of the toughest parts of his life to look back on was the relationships. They may have failed for a variety of reasons, but he hadn't given up. In the meantime, he said, "I'm lonely, but there's a couple of people on the payroll to keep me safe."

That's a pretty heartbreaking thing to have to face, and he hasn't been shy about admitting that all the money in the world wasn't able to replace the family that he'd always hoped to have. When People asked him to describe his typical day, he said that although he had friends he regularly played pickleball with and invited to parties, he said surrounding himself with those friends was a way to fight loneliness. "If you want to feel lonely, watch a movie in a screening room by yourself," he said. "It's awful. You have so much money, you look over and there's nobody there."

His death came when he'd felt he'd gotten his life on track

When Matthew Perry's death was announced in 2023, tributes poured in from people who had been touched not only by "Friends," but more importantly, his candid talk about addiction and recovery. His obituary stated that no cause of death was immediately confirmed, but that it was tentatively ruled a drowning with no foul play involved. He was 54.

Tragically, his death came just a year after he published his memoir, and very nearly a year to the day after the publishing of a GQ interview where Perry said that finally, he felt he was in a decent place in life. Not only did he feel really good about being able to help others through addiction and into recovery, but he'd even come to terms with the fact that his body was covered with scars — but that they were scars from surgeries that had kept him alive.

While he confirmed that he did still relapse, he knew it wasn't the end: It moved his sobriety date, but it didn't remove the lessons. He said, "I understand more now. I'm less ruled by fear now. One of the things I learned is I can handle when bad things happen now. I'm resilient, I am ... a strong man and I never gave myself credit for that, ever. But now, I'm slowly starting to." He continued, "I believe that I am enough, I believe that I'm not too needy, and I believe that I do matter."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).