Join Matthew and Elizabeth for the season three finale of “Heart of the Matter,” as they discuss his addiction journey, how his “Friends” co-stars supported him during his darkest days and what advice he’d give to those with addiction.
We were talking backstage about Matthew’s book. Get this. Did everybody… He broke Amazon. This book broke Amazon. How does it feel?
It felt very good. I didn’t really know what it meant, but there were so many sales at one time that Amazon broke, so that’s pretty cool.
It’s an amazing book. I know you’ve been asked a million times why you wrote it. It’s hard to be this personal and this honest and this open about something that is also very painful. How did you write that? And would you have any trepidation about being this honest about what you were going through all those years?
Well, the real truth is I was feeling very anxious, a little depressed. And I had heard from people that if you are creative, it dullens that and lowers that. So I was in the backseat of a car for a long drive and I went into the notes section of my phone and wrote 144 pages just with my thumbs because it’s faster that way. And I thought I was finished with the book. I was very self congratulatory. I talked to my manager and he said, “No, it has to be 240 pages or more.” And I was bummed because I thought I was done.
But they said there’s definitely a skeleton of a book here and my life has had extreme highs and extreme lows and I thought that I’d be able to help people if I shared it with everybody because to the outside it looks like my life was great. I was on this TV show and dating beautiful women and doing all this stuff, but I was so caught in addiction that I couldn’t really enjoy most of it and I can’t tell you. Probably a thousand people have come up to me and said, “If Matthew Perry can do this, I can do it too.” And I think that’s not really a compliment.
That’s great. And so I just kept writing and I kept writing. I kept writing. And it was a very freeing experience to write all this down. The hard part was reading it and I had to do the Audible section of the book. And so I had to read the book to be ready to do that. And I read it all in one big gulp, like five hours or something, two nights before I had to do it. And that was really hard to do. I cried a bunch and I disassociated a little bit and by the end I was like, “Oh my God. This man has had this horrible life and just awful, torrential things have happened to this guy.” And then I was like, “This is me I’m talking about.”
And I had to feel pretty safe in my sobriety to put out a book like this because you can’t really put out a book like this and then go to a bar and say, “I’ll have three martinis please.” But that’s why now. That’s why now.
I want to run some numbers by you because it really shows… You were just talking about the fact that you’ve had such highs in your life and such lows that you talk about in this book. “Friends” had a whole new rebirth and listen to this. There were 97 billion, with a B, minutes of “Friends” watched in the year 2020. At one point in your career you were one of… I think you can count them on one hand. That’s how few there are. You’re one of the very few actors to have both the number one television show and the number one movie in the United States. And at one point in your career you were earning $1 million dollars per episode.
Actually it was 1,140,000.
But who’s counting? Also these numbers are true. You’ve been to 14 rehabs, you’ve been to 65 detoxes, and you’ve spent, according to what you wrote in your book, $9 million on your recovery. Talk about how both those things can be true.
Well, that’s what I said about the rise and rise and the lows and the lows. Had to go to rehab for the first time when I was 27 because I weighed 130 pounds and I was very, very ill and sick and on “Friends” at the same time. And I’m like a back to the wall, back in the corner addict, very, very late stage addict. I can’t drink because if I drink I can’t stop. So I’ve gone to AA for a long period of time and a lot of people have said to me, “If hard work and muscling it in would get you sober, you would’ve been sober 20 years ago.” Because I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried. But it’s ultimately some kind of spiritual connection that you need to have some kind of faith in. And just that slowly… of the educational variety happened to me and saved my life.
But 14 treatment centers is a lot. And sometimes they worked for two years and sometimes they worked for six months. But you’d be surprised to know since 2001 I’ve been mostly sober, but there’s been 50 or 60 slips that were of different lengths. Sometimes I would slip for two weeks or sometimes I would slip for six months. But it’s a progressive disease and I want to talk about the disease to you guys because some of you, probably all of you, know someone who’s been going through this or are going through this.
So I just wanted to say that to educate you for a second, the disease… And it is a disease. 1956 American Medical Association called it a disease. Is progressive. So it starts off and it’s not that bad and then it gets worse. And then I talk about in the book. “Why am I the only one in the room that can’t stop thinking about drinking?” I went out on a social event with my friends… And this is right out of the book. But I went out on a social event with my friends and then went back to somebody’s apartment and there was no liquor there, which was fine for everybody except not for me. I was like, “Wait a minute. I have to drink. Where’s the alcohol? I have to drink.” And I looked around and no one else was feeling that way.
And it kept going from there because basically you have an obsession of your mind. It’s a two-pronged disease. You have an obsession of your mind which makes you think, “I need to drink. I need to have a martini. I can’t stop thinking about anything but a martini. Why is everybody not thinking about this? I need to have this. I need to have a drink or I’m going to go crazy.” And that’s what I thought. I thought I would go crazy. And then there’s an allergy to your body, which means once you’ve put in the martini, your body basically goes, “Okay, now give me everything you did last time and more.”
So after the first drink, I’m not in control of what will happen and the only way that I can stop drinking is if I’m locked up somewhere. That’s how powerful the disease is. And people who don’t believe in the disease… And there’s a stigma. Are just incorrect. There’s a slight stigma… Sorry how long this answer is. But there’s a slight stigma attached to this and there shouldn’t be. Some people think, and I’m one of them, that they should take anonymous out of the equation and just have it be Alcoholics because anonymous suggests that we should be hiding it. And I don’t think anybody should.
You write in the book a lot about your childhood, a lot about your feelings. And by the way, most people… I too am in recovery and in the rooms of recovery people, every single person, no matter what their story is drinking or taking some substance to not feel something else. And you write in the book about your feelings of abandonment, of anxiety and loneliness as a child.
And then you also write about at age 14 when you had your very first drink, your two friends that you were with were both sick from the alcohol, but this is what you write about that first time. “‘This is the answer,’ I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been missing. This is how normal people must feel all the time. I don’t have any problems. It’s all gone. I don’t need attention. I’m taken care of. I’m fine.’ I was in bliss. I had no problems for those three hours. I wasn’t abandoned. I wasn’t fighting with my mom. I wasn’t doing lousy in school. I wasn’t wondering what life was about and my place in it. It took everything away.” I really related to that and I think a lot of people will.
And if that happens when you have a drink, you want to have more. And most people when they drink… They feel a little queasy and a little silly and then they stop. But for me, that’s what happens. So why wouldn’t I want more and more and more and more? And then alcohol stopped working, so I took pills and then pills stopped working and it was a disaster. At one point I was on so many drugs that I was shooting… I’ll tell the story.
I was shooting a movie in Dallas and I was on so many drugs at the time that I rehearsed the scene that we were going to do the next day in my trailer and I memorized the lines and I decided what I was going to do with each line and all that stuff. And I got to work the next day and I was ready to go. And they said, “Matthew, we shot this scene two weeks ago.” And I was like, “Oh, well, let me go learn this scene.” But that’s how bad it can get. I didn’t remember at all.
When you were cast in “Friends”… And by the way, I was surprised to read you were not only the last member of the cast to be cast, but you had a friend who was offered the role first and you told him to take it.
This guy named Craig, who was a really good friend of mine, the funniest person around and the ‘it boy’ for that particular pilot season, and he asked Hank and I to go meet him because he had been offered two shows that were both directed by the best director in town. One was called “Friends Like Us,” which was the original name, and I had known about this and wanted this job very, very badly. And the other one was just called “Best Friends.” And he said, “Can we read these two scripts and can you tell me which one to take?” And my first response was, “Hey, fuck you.”
But we read the two scripts and we both said… It was heartbreaking for me to say this, but I’m not a jerk. So I said, “You should do ‘Friends Like Us.’ That’s the best one.” And then Hank went to the gym because he was always going to the gym and Craig and I went to Fred Segal… And this is back on payphones. We didn’t have phones 1994. And I stood two feet away from him and heard him turn down “Friends.” And I went, “Oh, you went a different way than what we had said.” And then I raced home and I called my manager. I said, “The role’s still open and it starts on Monday. Please get me in.” And they got me in and I got the part.
In that first season you were already drinking every day. You were the definition of highly functioning.
Yeah, but it hadn’t gotten that bad yet. And I 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. You’ll never forgive yourself.” And the job saved my life in many ways, but yeah, I was drinking every night, but then it got worse and worse and worse and worse. And by a 30 I got pancreatitis, which is a thing that you can only get from too much drinking and it feels like a saber in your stomach. And it was awful. And it took about six years for it to become completely out of control.
How did you manage to be so good on that show while, as you write in the book sometimes… And I’m quoting you. You were shaky hungover. How did you manage to knock it out of the park still as you did as this ensemble?
Thank you. I had a rule that I wouldn’t drink or do drugs at work. I just made that rule because the other five I loved and respected so much, but I was insanely hungover all the time. But I think that rule saved me a little bit because I wasn’t drunk while working. I just felt terrible and I was-
It’s hard. It’s hard to do your best work when you feel so awful.
Yeah, it is. But I was this guy, you know what I mean? From the very first time I read the script, I could shake hands with this guy. We had a similar sense of humor. We talked to the same. Well, actually that’s not true. I changed the way he spoke. But I knew the character so well that it was pretty easy for me to do it.
You write in the book that at one point Jen, Jennifer Aniston, did come into your dressing room to say, “We know you’re drinking.”
Yeah. After a show she came up to me and she said, “We know you’re drinking.” And I went, “Okay.” And I said, “How do you all know?” And she said, “We can smell it. We can smell it.” And I knew that I couldn’t stop. And she was like, “So you know you should stop.” And I went, “Okay, I’ll try my best.” But I went home and drank that night and couldn’t stop drinking. But much to Jenny’s… How lovely a person she is. She reached out and tried to help me and was very mad at me the second time I came back from rehab and she said, “I’ve been really mad at you.” And I said, “Honey, if you know what I’ve been through, you would not be mad at me.” And that was-
Mad at you because?
I went to rehab and I put the show in jeopardy and all that stuff. But she had… And why would she? No idea what I’d gone through to be sober at that time.
And I think you also… Right in the book, they had no idea really how bad it was for you. They knew you were drinking. They could smell it on you, but they didn’t really know what was going on.
No. And why would they? Like I said when I first came out here, you have to know somebody or go through it or have a brother or sister or mother or father that’s gone through it to learn these things and what it’s about. To be blamed for drinking if you’re an alcoholic is insane. It’s crazy because that’s what we do until we can beat it. But in AA, they don’t shoot the wounded ever. Forgot about this whole side of the room. Hi.
They don’t shoot the wounded in AA. They welcome you back and you start a program again. And for me, what happened was I would get to certain levels of success in AA and then something would happen. Something good or something bad would happen. And I would start it up again, knowing that it was going to absolutely destroy my life. And I would do it again and again and again.
I recently read in the New York Times somebody in recovery writing, “Nothing is more bewildering to me than the fact that I would harm myself against my own will.” Utterly baffling.
Yeah. I would stop at my drug dealer’s house and say to myself, “This has never led to anywhere but chaos.” And then knock on a door and get it and take it. And it’s insane. What I say in the book is it’s crazy. It is crazy and I’m crazy, but only in that area am I crazy. That’s the interesting part. I’m a fairly logical guy other than that, but when it comes to drugs and alcohol I’m insane.
I once heard somebody in recovery talk about their drinking. In this case they were an alcoholic drinking career in three stages: magic, medicine, and misery. Does that ring true for you? And if so, how long did you spend in each of those phases?
I think it’s a little darker than your friend was talking about, but it is right. You are correct. It is magic. And the first time I took a pill, it certainly was magic. And it is miserable. What was the other one?
Medicine. Yeah, of course. Medicine. Magic, medicine. Yeah. And all the things you said was true. Misery is just a soft way of putting it because it’s life and death. It’s life and death. And I started off the book on a night that I almost died, that I came very, very close to dying. And my parents, when they got to the hospital, were told I had a 2% chance to make it through the night and I’ll have to live the rest of my life knowing that my parents were told that. And I was put on what’s called an ECMO machine. And every doctor you talk to says that an ECMO machine is a hail Mary. It’s the last thing they try before you die. And five people were put on that ECMO machine that night at the hospital and four of them died and I lived.
So I’m not really answering your question, but when that happens, you have to think. You cannot not think of why? Why? Why did I survive that and the other four didn’t? There has to be a reason. Because one thing that’s interesting is you’re not filled with gratitude in that moment. You’d think you would be, but you’re are not. You’re pissed. You’re just mad. You’re angry at what happened to you and how long it’s going to take to get better. You’re angry.
And I wanted to know why I was still alive. And I knew that it was in the area of helping people, because that’s the only thing that’s really given me any juice in my life. Standing in front of 1500 people and helping people is great, but also just helping one guy and sponsoring one guy and watching the light come into his eyes when he starts to get it. It’s in that area. And then ultimately it became writing this book which the goal of this book is of course to help people. It says in the dedication, “To all the sufferers in the world. You know who you are.” And I couldn’t write this book unless I was really strong in my sobriety, which I am now and I’m very grateful.
I’m curious. Was Jen the only person who said anything?
No, no. Lisa said something. At one point everybody was in my dressing room after a run through that I had been really shaky in. But that’s not going to work. You need a professional. You need somebody who really knows this stuff, 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. So if you have a professional, if you have somebody who does this for a living and an interventionist and a pro 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. That’s crazy.
You write very powerfully of the bottom and what it feels like to be there. “I had reached my point in my drinking and using where I was drinking and using to forget about how much I was drinking and using and it took an almost lethal amount to accomplish that kind of amnesia. I was so lonely that it hurt. I could feel the loneliness in my bones. On the outside I looked like the luckiest man alive, so there were only a few people I could complain to without being told to shut up and even then, nothing could fill the hole inside of me.”
The scary part is I have to ask you which one you’re talking about. Which bottom are you talking about? I don’t know which one you’re talking about. There were a few, so I don’t know which one… Y’all talk about one, but I don’t know which one you’re referring to.
One of the times, I heard about this rehab in Switzerland and was sent to this rehab in Switzerland where they had all these things and it was a new found way to get sober. And you get on a private plane that costs $165,000 and you go to Switzerland. And what I did was basically say, “My stomach really hurts. My stomach really hurts. My stomach really hurts,” until they gave me enough drugs that would kill a person. But it was 185 milligrams of hydrocodone a day. It was until I could feel it. I kept saying, “My stomach hurts,” and my stomach did not hurt. I was not in pain. I was just lying to get as many pills as I could feel it and feel better.
So they were doing a procedure where they were going to put this metal thing on my back and it was going to help the pain that I was not having in my stomach. So they gave me propofol, the Michael Jackson drug, and my heart stopped for five minutes. Five minutes. So I say in the book just close the book. Look at your iPhone for five minutes and really experience how long that period of time is. I woke up across town and was told that I had nine broken ribs and-
From CPR, from five minutes of CPR. And you have to wonder sometimes. If I wasn’t on “Friends,” would he have quit at three minutes of CPR? And you wonder those things. Did “Friends” come back and save my life again?
But the real drag there is I had just booked the biggest movie that I’d ever gotten. I had four scenes with Meryl Streep… Ugh! Ugh! And I couldn’t go. I couldn’t do. Don’t Look Up. You know that movie? I had a part in that and I couldn’t go because I had eight broken ribs and I just couldn’t go. But that was one of the times that there was a bottom, and it was just a nightmare getting off of all of that. I don’t know if that’s the one you’re talking about.
Well, they’re all bottoms. It doesn’t matter which one. It’s the one at the end of the book, so I assume it was your last one.
Yeah, well, that was my most recent one. Yeah.
There’s a great book out there called “Moments of Clarity.” It’s all these essays.
I don’t understand.
It’s a bunch of essays from people in the public life.
Spell it out for me in a way that I can understand. No, go ahead.
Who have all given up drugs or alcohol and they all write about their “moment of clarity,” the moment they realized, “Oh, I got to stop. I need to put the drink down. I need to put the drug down.” And I’ve read it. And some of them are very big and dramatic and some of them are so mundane and ordinary you can’t even believe it, like your own dad. Actually, you write in your book that your dad quit drinking after he went out for a walk one day. That was all it took, was a brisk walk in the neighborhood.
My dad was pretty much how I learned to drink. He would have like five vodka tonics and then bring the sixth one into bed, but he always woke up at seven o’clock in the morning and did his thing and went to work. He was a very functional alcoholic. And 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? Do you really want to keep living this way?” And he went for a walk and quit drinking. And I was like… No, no. Don’t applaud that. 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? I’ll tell you where you can go for a walk.
Anyway, back to our moments of clarity. Did you have one?
Did I have a… Yeah, I definitely had a… Yes. And I won’t go too far into it. It was a very private thing, but… Actually, I do talk about it at length in the book, but I had a moment where I was praying and I really did feel like this beautiful yellow light was shining on me and I felt like completely loved and accepted and I did feel like God was in the room. And that moment did happen for me.
Bill Wilson… I’ve spoken already about him, but he created AA when he saw a lightning bolt through the window experience and he had the foresight then to create AA. But when I had my experience, I started weeping crying after and then laughing. And then I felt safe. And I know that there’s something more powerful out there. I know it. So I was there and I know it and it sounds hokey, but I know there’s more out there. And if you believe in a force or believe in anything that’s more out there, you have to follow it, right? So that’s what I’ve been doing.
So I’m reminded as I listen to you talk about that great Toni Morrison quote, “If you want to fly, you’re going to have to give up that shit that weighs you down.”
I’ve never heard that quote.
No, I haven’t. I guess that’s right though.
Yeah. If you want to fly, get rid of that stuff. As if it was easy enough to do it that way, but yeah. Of course that’s correct.
So now that you have, what’s next for you, do you think?
I’ve written a book. It’s doing-
It’s breaking Amazon.
It’s doing so well. It’s warming my heart and it’s obviously warming the hearts of others. I didn’t see that coming, so I don’t know what’s next. One thing I do know though is I’m not going to take drugs and drink. I know that one day at a time. And my life is going to flourish as a result of that. Who knew that that would happen?
Do you see yourself acting in another television show? Acting in another movie? I know you’ve been writing.
Yeah. Well, what I’ve been doing recently is writing. I have a screenplay that I wrote that is out there being offered to people now. And if that happens, I’ll direct it and that’ll be a whole new experience for me. So that would be great. Acting again I’m completely open to, but I couldn’t for a while, but now I can. Being in movies would be great. But I’ve got… Do you have to take that call?
It’s not my phone.
Oh, it’s not your phone? Okay.
Good one. Nice try.
Is that David Schwimmer on the other line?
I don’t know what’s next, but I know it’s going to be great. It’s going to be fun and great. I’m going to enjoy it and I hope it challenges me.
Are you surprised at the reaction and the reception because it’s really been extraordinary.
Yeah, I am. I knew it was going to touch addicts because it’s one of the few books that comes from the point of view of the addict. But no, I didn’t know that it was going to do things like break Amazon and be number one on the nonfiction list and do as well as it’s done. No, it would be impossible to know that.
My friend Diane Sawyer interviewed you for 20/20 and she asked you a question that really I found interesting. “What would you tell people who love you to look out for? What’s a warning sign that you may be slipping?” Because I know that in the rooms of recovery, many people say the slip happens long before you take the drink or the drug.
Yes, it can. Dangerous things for me to say are, “I’m cured.” If you hear say that. It could be as simple as, “No, I’m just going to chill alone tonight.” Something like that would be a danger sign. Robert Downey Jr. said, “I’m fine.” And that was a very good answer. So those are a few of them.
It’s funny. Throughout this book, from the time that you’re writing as a child when you were that little boy at age five on a plane all by himself… Your feet didn’t touch the ground with the unaccompanied minor sign around your neck. And how scared you were going from your mom in Canada to your dad in LA. It’s hard to believe… I have two boys myself. I can’t imagine putting one of them on a plane by themself. But from those earliest stories through your super stardom when you were the ‘it guy’ in Hollywood… Everything. The thread throughout all of it is loneliness, whether you were a little kid or deep in your addiction, and how you prayed for fame at one point in your life, and then you got it beyond anybody’s wildest dreams and it wasn’t anywhere near enough because it wasn’t what you thought it would be.
Yeah. You sound like a jerk when you say… No, not you. Me. When you say it’s not enough. What I really meant was that it didn’t fix everything. And that’s what I thought it would. Everybody told me, “If you just get famous and get all your dreams come true, it’s going to fix everything. You’re going to be fine.” And it felt that way for about six months. And then there was that moment where I went, “Oh God, no, this is not fixing everything. Why can’t I stop drinking? What’s the matter?” And if I ever said that’s a secret or something like… Alcoholics can’t have secrets. It kills alcoholics to have secrets. I said that on Diane Sawyer. But anything in that road… “I’m just going to chill by myself and watch TV,” people know, my friends know, that that would scare me a little bit. So if I said that, they’d be a little hyper aware.
I’m going to ask you to wear two different hats on this. What advice would you give? We know that after the pandemic that we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis in this country. We know that statistically anxiety and depression are off the charts, especially with young ones. We know statistically more people are drinking and that opioid overdose deaths have hit record highs. This is a country in the grip of an addiction crisis. What would you tell anybody who feels that they are in that spot? It might not look like your journey. It might not be your substances of choice. It might not be your bottom. But anybody who’s suffering… And I think everybody I’ve met who has suffered isolates. It is the loneliest disease from which to suffer. What advice would you tell them?
I would tell them to raise their hand as quickly as humanly possible and lift up the 75,000 pound phone and ask for help right away. And yeah. That’s what I would do.
Tell someone. Reach out to someone. Let them in on the truth of what’s happening.
When I was first in rehab in 1997, I was coming off of 55 Vicodin a day, and I was very sick and very scared.
Wait, wait, wait. 55 Vicodin a day?
Let that sink in.
No. I don’t want it to sink in anymore. At 55 Vicodin, I was very thin, very sick. 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 then I left. 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.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You have a disease.” I mean, I can’t tell you what that meant to me. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I just thought I was weak and I needed this thing that other people didn’t need. And then I learned. I started to learn that it was a disease and I was so freed by that.
And I eventually opened the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous and there was a saying that I read that really hit home for me, which was, “Alcoholics think they’re drinking to escape, but what they’re really doing is trying to overcome a mental disorder they don’t know they have.” And I read that and I was like, “That’s me. That’s me. That’s me. This is great. The book was written in 1939. I’m not alone. There’s millions of us. This is wonderful.” And on the other hand, it was bad news because I was like, “I’m an alcoholic. I can’t drink ever again for the rest of my life.” So it all happened at the same time.
We talked about what it was like for your parents to go to that hospital and be told that you got 2% chance of living and you have to live with that. What advice would you give to people who have someone in their life who is suffering from this disease?
Get a professional. Get people in the know to help them.
Well, Matthew Perry, it’s an amazing, extraordinary book. Everybody here has a copy of it. Thank you so much.