Let’s talk about…Matthew Perry and sobriety advocacy

Remembering Perry as a sobriety advocate first, and as Chandler second

As I would assume is the case with most people, the immediate association I make when I hear the name Matthew Perry is the role he played in Friends as the witty and goofy-yet-charming Chandler Bing.

And it’s not because I’m a super avid Friends fan or anything; it’s more so down to how inescapably iconic the show and its characters are. The ubiquity of Friends as a TV staple and cultural reference, and its immense popularity during its airing and still now – even decades after its end, even among generations who were born long after it started – has made the unshakable association that now exists between its actors and characters kind of unavoidable.

It’s the same for all six main cast members; you might know them for other stuff too, or like them better for other work of theirs, but in the case of most people, it’s probably safe to say that if you think of Jennifer Aniston, you think of Rachel; Matt LeBlanc, Joey; David Schwimmer, Ross; Courteney Cox, Monica; Lisa Kudrow, Phoebe – and Matthew Perry, Chandler.

That is why, when news broke this week that Matthew Perry had passed away in his Los Angeles home at the age of 54, most outlets included a reference to this role in the headline – prefaced his name with ‘Friends actor’, or followed it up with a “best known for playing Chandler Bing” etc. Which makes sense. Putting what a celebrity is best known for when reporting about them is so commonplace, that it normally wouldn’t be notable at all. I mention it only because of a quote of Perry’s that began circling last year, shortly after he released his memoir, and which has been doing the rounds again now following his passing.

Last year, during a podcast appearance promoting his new book, Perry spoke about the other major thing (apart from Friends) that people have come to associate with him: his journey with addiction – a journey which eventually led to him becoming a passionate sobriety advocate, particularly in recent years. Referring to this work, Perry 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 going to live the rest of my life proving that”. The memoir itself reportedly shares the same sentiment, with Perry adding, “I know it won’t happen, but it would be nice”.

Evidently, he was right in this prediction. Not even solely in the way noted earlier, with headlines reporting his death unwaveringly referencing his part on the ‘90s sitcom, but in the reactions from the public too. Online tribute after online tribute make reference to the show or his character, sharing artwork with the caption, ‘The One Where We Lost a Friend,’ (in a nod to the Friends episode title format). His former castmates’ reactions are among the top related searches around his passing. The memorial for him created by fans in New York City is located outside the building used as the exterior shot for Chandler’s apartment. The examples go on…

And of course there’s been this reaction. Friends is a beloved show. Chandler is a beloved character. And it’s undeniable that Matthew Perry delivers in the role, undeniable what his acerbic comedic chops and acting ability added to the show – his performance, after all, did win him an Emmy.

But as correct as Perry was in calling that people would talk about Friends when he passed before they talk about anything else, he was just as correct to remark how much more valuable it might be if his work as a sobriety advocate took precedence.

Perry’s struggles with alcoholism and addiction, the ups and downs he went through on his journey towards sobriety, have been a highly publicised topic for a very long time. And over the years, sometimes it’s been handled empathetically, yes, but very often, it’s just been used as tabloid fodder, his rehab visits used as a scandal to splash across gossip rags. This is not a case unique to Perry (although his lead role on one of the most popular shows of all time surely exacerbated the ‘scandal’ angle), it’s how we for a long time have treated stories of celebrity drug use and addiction.

It’s sort of indicative of the attitude we hold towards addiction that stories centred around those dealing with it are treated as scandalous, as opposed to acknowledging the seriousness and debilitating nature of addiction as a disease. I feel it can only feed into the line of thinking that addiction is an inherently shameful thing, something that shouldn’t be given mention to. And given how many people struggle to open up about having issues with substance use in the first place, this is just a recipe for more harm.

Addiction is something we need to talk about more, and something we need to understand a whole lot better. The same way our approach towards mental health struggles have evolved radically in recent years, we need to be doing the same for addiction so we can actually help those who struggle with it.

This is something Perry understood. His memoir has been praised for its candid honesty and his openness around addiction, which many have cited as having directly bolstered their commitment to sobriety. He spoke regularly about what addiction is, how it actually affects people, and how to actually help people get better, during his public appearances. He strove to help others in more direct ways too; he converted his mansion in Malibu into a sober living house. He became a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Perry was right to predict Friends would be the first thing people spoke about after he passed. There was no changing that, and it’s not a bad thing. But hopefully as time goes on, his legacy extends beyond the show, and the impact he had as a sobriety advocate in humanising addiction, fostering understanding and compassion, and directly helping people will get its due appreciation too.