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OPINION: Perry, the “Friends” star who died Saturday at 54, wrote about his struggles in his 2022 memoir, “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.”
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Matthew Perry, who died at just 54 on Saturday, was much more than a comedic actor. For many people, he was a man who valiantly battled against addiction for years. His 2022 memoir, “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing,” gave us insight into that part of his life and inspired many to continue on their own sobriety journey. Perry was an alcoholic by the age of 14 and went through a lot of pain because of his addiction, but by the release of his memoir, he had been sober for 18 months. To get there, he attended thousands of AA meetings and spent millions putting himself through multiple rehab centers. Perry told the New York Times he spent about $9 million trying to get sober. He tried as hard as he could.
Some will look at a man going to tons of meetings and rehabs and see someone who’s too weak to just stop using, but if you have ever known the power that addiction can have over someone, you’ll know the real story is much different. In Perry, I saw a man fighting valiantly against addiction. (It should be noted that a cause of death has not been determined). He tried as hard as he could to free himself from its grasp. “By the time he was 49, Perry had spent more than half of his life in treatment centers or sober living facilities,” according to a New York Times profile. As someone who has known the grip of addiction, I find his journey inspiring.
Perry once said this about battling addiction: “A lot of people think it’s a matter of will. That has not been my experience. I don’t find it has anything to do with strength.” He’s right — fighting addiction isn’t about strength. Being addicted doesn’t mean you’re weak or weaker than the addiction. Getting sober doesn’t mean you’re strong or stronger than people who are still using. We need to erase that whole way of thinking. We don’t think of fighting cancer as a test of how strong or weak you are. We no longer think of having mental health issues as an example of how strong or weak a person is. We need to apply our newly learned understanding and compassion for people suffering from mental illness to people battling addiction.
When I heard of Perry going to tons of meetings and checking in to lots of rehabs while still sometimes using, it sounded like someone torn by two separate consciousnesses. I know what that’s like. The addiction becomes a voice inside your head telling you what to do, and it always has a reason why you should use more. It’s a parasite living inside you, fighting to get you to do more and battling for its own survival. Sometimes, it feels like there are two voices inside of you, arguing about what you should do with each moment of your life. The voice of the addiction is constantly pushing you to do more. Whether it’s morning or night, sunny or rainy, anything can become a reason to do more. Meanwhile, the more rational voice in your head is saying “No, I can’t use right now, I have to get to work, I have to get home, I have to do whatever normal thing that will push my life forward one more inch.” Sometimes the addict listens, sometimes they don’t.
Perry’s life also stands as a reminder that sobriety is a day-to-day struggle. We can never think it’s done. You’re never there. You just haven’t used today. I used to go to meetings and look at people who had 30-day chips and think, wow. I don’t know how that’s possible. Now I’ve been sober a lot longer than that. I was able to transition from using to being sober not because I was tough or strong, but because I was truly ready to stop, and I realized there was something bigger than me that I needed to be sober for. But I know to this day that any day I could get knocked back into it. Perry very much wanted to help addicts — he was a sponsor for three people, and his memoir was dedicated to them. “For all of the sufferers out there,” he said. Hopefully, Perry’s tough but valiant journey will be an inspiration to others. Because addiction is a very difficult beast to wrestle.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
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