Actor Matthew Perry, the star of the wildly popular sitcom Friends, died on October 28. He was 54. On social media, there was a deluge of messages about Chandler Bing, sometimes the jerk, at times caring and sometimes vulnerable character played by Perry.
Chandler Bing may well be Perry’s greatest legacy, but there is also another: his long struggle with addiction, its cycle and the meandering paths that it can take and what he lived through.
Perry began struggling with his addiction well into Friends at the peak of his professional success but possibly well into personal despair, frustration and destruction.
In 2022, Perry published his very frank autobiography, Friends, Lover, and the Big Terrible Thing, detailing his long struggle with addiction. It takes a special kind of effort to be so blatantly frank about one’s struggles, particularly addiction, and more particularly when at the heart of the story is a famous personality. The struggle borne out of addiction, dependence or misuse is stigmatised and it gets more complicated when the person is from the entertainment industry.
Those addicted to drugs or those who die of overdose are often mythologised or it is all spoken of as a deeply shameful reality. This is a prevalent and strict binary.
Efforts have been made to tackle the stigma of mental illnesses but the stigma of addiction persists. After all, the first hit is often the one we choose. Not only does the “addict” choose it, but they also neglect well-meaning and well-intentioned advice, tough love and even violence by loved ones to stop the addiction. They are often perceived as wilfully reckless and choosing to set themselves on this path, not caring about those around them, and if they get into trouble, it is sad but perhaps deserved. They are to be blamed.
The “addict” begins their long lonely journey, often hating themselves for “being who they are”. The conversation Perry wanted to have about addiction – in his case it was also that he was prescribed opioids and became dependent on them – was messy. By telling his story of addiction, Perry put the messiness front and centre: multiple shots at rehabilitation, multiple instances of tripping up, multiple instances of falling and multiple instances of getting up and taking another step.
Perry does not come across as necessarily likeable or always pitiable or deserving of empathy. That, perhaps, is the point. Human beings are complex, made up of contradictions, alignments, disjunctions and parallels. Multiple characteristics, if not characters, reside within us, and we play them consciously or unconsciously. Adding addiction to this mix is necessarily explosive and it stains everything and everyone in its wake.
Shame, guilt and emptiness that often accompany addiction are barriers to recovery and also motivators furthering substance use. It is a vicious cycle and fame, love and material comforts often dwarf before them, with love being particularly tricky. To let down the people you love and who love you is particularly painful and stinging, but love is also essential to recovery. Perry did recover multiple times but also relapsed multiple times. He used the story of his addiction and recovery to not motivate, but help.
Recovery from addiction is not about motivation and courage and all those nice and positive words of self-help. It is about coming to terms with oneself: the good and the not so good. It is about trying to stand up knowing you will most likely fall, every single day. It is a daily struggle, some of it visible, a lot of it internal, unseen and unacknowledged.
Perry chose to make his story visible, open for all and open to be judged. He was by no means the first person to talk about his addiction openly, but Chandler Bing’s humour and fame often overshadowed Mathew Perry’s struggles. Public memory seemed to have loved the former more.
Maitreyi Misra works with Project 39A, National Law University Delhi. Views are personal.