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What 'Friends' are for: Trying to make sense of Matthew Perry’s death

OpinionWhat 'Friends' are for: Trying to make sense of Matthew Perry’s death

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I met Matthew Perry at a men’s sobriety event in 2001 in Los Angeles. The format of the gathering was “involuntary sharing,” meaning that the leader would point to individuals, who could then speak for a few minutes about anything, really – where they were in life, how sobriety was treating them, work, relationships, whatever. Bring it and sling it.

Perry was hardly our only celebrity; these events were the next stop on the circuit for movie stars, comedians and other famous types who knew they would find a safe haven when getting sober. Still, the presence of a co-star of one of the country’s most beloved sitcoms had our attention, and around 10 minutes to 1, the leader oh-so-casually pointed to Perry.

With the same perfect comic timing that had endeared all of America on Thursday nights, he said that while listening to us, “I thought you were all auditioning for the role of ‘my sponsor.’”

Cracked us all up.

‘FRIENDS’ STAR MATTHEW PERRY DEAD AT 54

Afterward, he came over to me and flicked me in the stomach, in a friendly way, telling me he liked a story I had told about my gratitude for taking my baby daughter swimming for the first time. 

A split side-by-side photo of Matthew Perry walking outside

During his most recent sighting, Matthew Perry spent time with friends at the Los Angeles restaurant The Apple Pan.  (The Image Direct)

Ever since, while watching “Friends” episodes – my wife has been binge-watching the series lately – I think, I met that guy. Nice guy.

And now he’s gone.

Perry’s struggles with alcohol and drugs were well-documented; he wrote and spoke about his challenges with recovery and even established a recovery center in his former Malibu home.

“Friends” became “must-see TV” because its creators perceptively realized that for young people, adrift in a new city for their launching of their careers and their adulthood, their friends become their family. Perhaps that’s even more true today, in these rootless (and ruthless) times.

Perry’s struggles with alcohol and drugs were well-documented; he wrote and spoke about his challenges with recovery and even established a recovery center in his former Malibu home. Staying sober, as he sought to do, is described by Alcoholics Anonymous as “simple but not easy.” You go to the meetings and find a mentor figure, as Perry did, take the 12 Steps, clean house, make amends for harms done, develop a spiritual life, and help others. Or as a member once shorthanded it, “Don’t drink and don’t die.”

MATTHEW PERRY PHOTOS SHOW ‘FRIENDS’ STAR WITH PALS JUST DAYS BEFORE HIS DEATH

We all have friends who drink too much, who perhaps feel insulated from the normal rules of life. On some level, they know that what they’re doing is unsustainable, but as they say in recovery circles, the denial is bigger than the disease. Meaning that they keep on keepin’ on with their lives, most likely doing damage to relationships, to family, to career, without feeling the need to confront the demons that underlie their compulsive drinking or drugging. 

We can’t really say much to those people about what they’re doing. I once asked an older friend, sober for decades, what I could tell a college buddy whose drinking was tanking his marriage. He gently put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Mike, could anyone have said anything to you about your drinking, two weeks before you were ready to stop?”

And yet. 

What if there had been a “Friends” episode called “The One Where Chandler Has an Intervention”? And Phoebe, Joey and the gang sat Chandler down and told him, one at a time, without rancor or judgment, how his addiction was affecting them. Maybe Chandler would have gone to rehab, or started attending AA meetings. 

Friends cast eats ice cream

“Friends” focused on the lives of six young adults living in Manhattan. (NBC)

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That would have been a powerful message coming from a show about friends who are family. Maybe it would have encouraged just one person to confront – in a loving manner, of course – a relative, a friend, or a co-worker about his or her drinking or drug-taking, and suggest the path of recovery.

Is there someone you know who’s needlessly suffering from addiction? Is it possible that person feels as though he or she is living life in a bubble and that “no one knows,” and that having the courage to pierce that lie might help the person find a path toward sobriety?

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Maybe that person is ready to quit. Maybe that person heard about Perry’s death and shuddered, thinking, that could have been me. Maybe that person just needs a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Because… after all… that’s what family, and maybe “Friends,” are for.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM MICHAEL LEVIN

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