Matthew Perry is dead, but in life, the ‘Friends’ actor was a survivor

In 2018, the actor was given a 2% chance of survival by doctors. He made it and, in the years since, tried to help others who were struggling

Arnob Khan
Published : 8 Nov 2023, 01:30 PM
Updated : 8 Nov 2023, 01:30 PM
Hi, my name is Matthew, although you may know me by another name. My friends call me Matty. And I should be dead.
the opening lines of Matthew Perry’s 2022 memoir 'Friends, Lovers and the Big, Terrible Thing'

To most of us, the death of Matthew Perry – the actor who so memorably played Chandler Bing on Friends – came as a shock. But Perry himself was quite familiar with the concept of his own death.

Under the smiling face and quips was a man who struggled with depression and alcohol addiction, two troubles that robbed him of years of life. He fought bravely against them for many years.

When we measure success, we tend to focus on the outcome. On wins and losses. But so many things in life are more complicated. Perry was a survivor who fought to live for many years. And in the final years of his life, he became a friend to many who had none.

It is rare for us to get direct insight into another person. What we often see is a mask, a public face that eases social interaction. For Perry, during his long run on Friends and in the years after, that mask was Chandler Bing. He wore it well. He made us laugh and even introduced sarcasm to a new generation. But, like any comedian, he was a performer.

Behind that mask was a troubled human being. Behind the fame and the catchy theme song about lifelong friends, Perry was lonely. In a Hollywood Reporter podcast, he said, “I was always the funny guy, the one who made everyone laugh. But inside, I was dying.”

Even during the height of Friends, his experience was harrowing. He was terrified of watching the show. At one point while filming, he was on 55 pills a day. He barely had any memories from Season 3. Everyone on the set knew. But, as is often typical with mental illness, you often think you’re better off alone. The stigma and shame of addiction and the reluctance of his colleagues to speak about it only isolated him more. Among his co-stars, Jennifer Aniston was the only one who actively intervened and tried to check in on him regularly. But even so, when he was at the top of the world, Perry was miserable.

Addiction is often a symptom rather than the initial cause of unhappiness. For many of us, our most formative memories occur in childhood and cast a shadow over the rest of our lives. Thankfully, many recall our early years like the gentle breeze of springtime. Others, however, remember childhoods plagued by fire and ash.

Perry’s childhood was not a happy one. His parents separated when he was one years old. His mother married and had four children with another man. This left Perry feeling like a perpetual outcast, one who never fit in.

"I was so often on the outside looking in, still that kid up in the clouds on a flight to somewhere else, unaccompanied," he wrote in his memoir.

He thought of his family as broken. He felt unloved and uncared for by his mother and felt distant from his father. He started misbehaving – his grades slipped, he stole money, smoked, and even got in fights with fellow student and future Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He began drinking alcohol at 14 and was drinking every day by age 18.

Though he learned to cover it up with humour, always looking to deliver a killer line to ease the tension, he felt the darkness of the world at an early age.

People like Perry, who experience heartbreak and trauma so early, can have a skewed perception of reality. All the stuff we bottle inside to survive those early years can erupt like volcanoes into our present lives. When we are entangled in depression, it is as much about the past as the present. When you grow up without love, you feel unloved everywhere, regardless of the efforts of other people. You seek validation and comfort in unhealthy things. Things that often make you worse.There are rarely singular reasons for mental health problems. But, sometimes, we have others to help ease our load. Those who are able to overcome their issues are definitely strong, but they are lucky as well. Perry wasn’t. He escaped into drugs and alcohol while trying to keep up appearances after the end of Friends, but unresolved tensions did not disappear. He began drowning in public, his addiction affecting his work and his personal relationships. As the functional parts of his life started going downhill, he slipped further towards substances. His addiction cost him decades of his life, love, friendship, health, money, and a steady career.

But not everything was lost. In 2018, Perry was hospitalised and given a 2 percent chance of survival. He made it.

It was a turning point. He decided there was still a little life to be lived. He lived these handful of years sober and content for the first time.

Some things may have been impossible to overcome, but what little he healed, he tried to share with others.

“I'm a schmuck who's alone in his house at 53, looking down at an unquiet ocean,” he said in an interview. But he said that, despite that, he was doing good.

He was still suffering, but was ready to stop being a prisoner of his past and the pain and loneliness it brought. He may have been alone, but he decided to start being there for himself.

The brutal honesty and openness of his memoir about surviving loss and suffering are the purest ways to reach out to other people who are lost and in need of someone. It is incredibly brave to try and save other people while you’re still learning to swim. Though he wasn’t lucky enough to have the support he needed, he has tried to reach as many people as he could with his wealth and fame.

“Addiction, the big terrible thing, is far too powerful for anyone to defeat alone,” he wrote. “But, together, one day at a time, we can beat it down.”

Many of us watched Friends on our journeys to adulthood. But, as we grew up, it started to feel ordinary, even basic. But, when we think about it, our simple, human lives are often basic. We do many of the same things each day, have the same kinds of conversations with the same groups of friends. And, perhaps, that is why the shown remains popular, even now.

But, there is one aspect of the show that I still find unrealistic – its depiction of friendship.

Everyone talks about the huge apartments, but what seems even stranger to me is that Chandler and all of the characters around him had friends who would go the extra mile for others whenever it was needed. Sometimes even when it wasn’t needed. But few people are that lucky. Perry himself wasn’t.

Now that people are more open to discussing mental health on social media, it may seem like we know a lot. Maybe it feels as if everyone is free to discuss their problems. But the truth is, as Perry’s memoir shows, our struggles with mental health are like an iceberg – we only see the top. Many people are still drowning.

But the few years of life that Perry lived since 2018 showed that change is possible. When friends or family are in distress, we can’t live their lives for them. We can’t navigate them out of dark waters. But we can be a light that shows a way forward, that there is a life to be lived.

Perry found it difficult to survive and keep living. Many people give up. Perry thought he would be one of those people. But he didn’t. And, where possible, he tried to help.

We may not be able to save everyone, but we can try and ensure that no one has to die while thinking no one was making an effort for them. We often hear about the strengths of individualism and self-reliance, but if we don’t have empathy, what truly defines us as human?

In these past few years, I started seeing Perry as less of an actor and more of a person. Many of us don’t find Friends funny anymore. The laugh tracks in the background may seem annoying and unnecessary. But I think that, at some point in our lives, Perry made us laugh.

Some obituaries will label Perry as ‘an actor’ or ‘a comedian’. But I feel, urgently, that we lost someone who was more. He was a friend, a survivor, and a great human being. It may not matter, but the least we can do is pray that he is now in a place where he has the things he craved at the end of his life. And that he is brightening it up with his jokes.

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.