Matthew Perry’s Drug Addiction: How He Started Young

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" by Matthew Perry. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did Matthew Perry’s drug addiction start? What was the actor’s first experience with drugs?

Before he was ever on the hit show Friends, Matthew Perry was suffering from a drug addiction that would take over his life for years. From just a few weeks old to his teenage years, Perry constantly battled the horrors of addiction.

Continue reading to learn more about Perry’s fight against drug addiction, as described in his memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.

First Experience With Drugs

Matthew Perry’s drug addiction may have started when he had his first experience with drugs when he was only a few weeks old. He was a colicky baby, and his parents were desperate to get him to stop crying. His doctor prescribed him barbiturates, a depressant drug class that generates addiction. His father remembers Perry as a baby crying inconsolably and then falling asleep immediately after being given the drug.

While baby Perry didn’t develop an addiction to barbiturates, the experience left a mark. First, he believes it negatively affected his ability to sleep because he was given the drug during a period of intense brain development that shapes a person’s sleep. He implies that this could be the reason he has trouble sleeping as an adult. Second, Perry suggests that this was the first instance of trying to fix a problem with a drug rather than investigating and solving the root cause, establishing a pattern he would later repeat.

Teenage Years and Early Twenties

While his childhood was the beginning of Perry’s anxieties regarding love and attention, his teenage years and early adulthood were when his unhealthy coping mechanisms started. This section will explore how, in an effort to heal his inner conflicts, he developed substance abuse issues and a fixation on being the center of attention.

(Shortform note: Perry’s unhealthy coping mechanisms began in adolescence, a time when people are especially prone to developing risky behaviors because the brain is still developing and is seeking out new and thrilling sensations. Unfortunately, the habits developed in adolescence often continue beyond the teenage years, which is why it’s important to instill healthy habits in teens. Parents can help teens develop healthy coping mechanisms by teaching them to problem solve, seek help, and develop meaning and purpose for their lives.)

Perry’s Inner Conflicts

Perry felt uncomfortable with himself and with others, and drinking and seeking attention made him feel better. He turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms for three main reasons:

  1. He felt a gnawing loneliness he thought could only be fixed with outside things, such as substances and people’s laughter.
  2. He experienced thoughts that made him afraid of his own mind.
  3. He experienced anhedonia, an inability to feel pleasure. This especially affected his ability to enjoy small, everyday pleasures, like being with friends. He needed experiences to be heightened, such as with drugs, in order to enjoy them.
The Causes of Addiction

These three inner struggles may have made Perry particularly vulnerable to addiction. In Quit Like a Woman, Holly Whitaker argues there’s more than the generally assumed genetic basis for addictive behavior. When you suffer from inner pain like Perry, you’re more likely to turn to outside sources for the comfort and validation you can’t give yourself.

When you repeatedly use an outside substance to cope with inner pain, you reinforce a neurological cycle of addiction to that substance: Outside sources of pleasure trigger the release of dopamine, the happiness hormone. Then, the substance triggers the subsequent release of glutamate, which makes you remember how happy the addictive substance made you feel so you’ll want to take it again. When this cycle repeats for long enough, you come to believe the pleasurable substance is not only enjoyable but necessary for survival, and you prioritize it over true survival needs, like finding nourishment, procreating, and defending yourself. You thus become addicted, concludes Whitaker.

The neurological process Whitaker describes may become even more destructive and worsen your addiction if you have reward deficiency syndrome (RDS), which might be at the root of Perry’s anhedonia. When you have RDS, you have fewer dopamine receptors than other people. This means you don’t get the same level of pleasure as others from the same thing—for instance, a piece of cake—and must consume more of the substance to get a significant hit of pleasure—say, an entire cake. You thus become addicted but need a particularly high quantity of the substance to feel pleasure, which will likely have adverse health effects—as was the case for Perry.

Using Alcohol to Cope

Perry had his first alcoholic drink at 14, which marked the beginning of his substance use as a way to cope with his inner turmoil. He and his best friends, the Murray brothers, were alone in Perry’s house. As usual, there were no adults in the house and they got hold of beer and wine. They drank together, but although the brothers felt sick and threw up, Perry felt great and found a calm he had never felt before in which the scary thoughts that plagued him dissipated.

A year later, he moved to LA to live with his father and his exposure to alcohol intensified. He claims he learned how to drink from his father, who would get home each day, make himself a drink, and comment on how that drink was the best part of his day. That sense of relaxation and relief made a big impression on Matthew. 

At first, drinking had positive effects. For example, he was uncomfortable in social situations, but drinking made him feel at ease, which made socializing easier. In fact, he claims he would still drink if he went back in time and did things differently because in his youth, the alternative to drinking would have been worse: loneliness.

However, he soon began drinking alone, too. He began to suspect he had a problem with alcohol when he noticed that he was drinking every day and that other people didn’t get as restless as he did when there was no alcohol available. But instead of trying to reduce his dependence on alcohol, he began drinking alone because he felt ashamed.

Using Attention to Cope

While alcohol helped ease some of his anxieties, Perry still felt profoundly alone, so he used humor to get people’s attention. When he was a teen, he and the Murray brothers invented a funny way of talking that would later become his signature Chandler Bing cadence. (Perry claims that this cadence changed the way America spoke in the nineties.) In high school, he wouldn’t stop talking in class and made everyone laugh. While he got bad grades and frustrated some of his teachers, he was talented and had leading roles in school plays.

How Humor Makes You More Likable

You don’t need to struggle with Perry’s need for attention to take advantage of humor. You can use it for practical purposes, like becoming a more effective public speaker. In Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo explains that humor increases your likability as a speaker in various ways:

Humor makes a good first impression on strangers, particularly in group settings. Therefore, using it is a simple way to gain favor from an unfamiliar audience. 

Making people smile or laugh puts them at ease. The more relaxed you make people feel, the more likely they are to like you. 

If people notice your sense of humor, they’re more likely to associate other positive traits with you, too—for example, friendliness, emotional stability, and consideration for others. 

In 1986, at sixteen, he landed his first big job in a movie, acting opposite River Phoenix in the movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. He got the role thanks to his “always on” personality. He was in a diner, flirting with a group of girls and making jokes to make them laugh. The movie’s director, William Richert, was watching him and felt he would be perfect for the role of Phoenix’s funny sidekick. Before leaving, he slipped him a note that said, “I want you to be in my next movie.”

(Shortform note: Perry’s reference to River Phoenix in his memoir generated some controversy. In the earliest excerpts released to the press, Perry wrote about how devastating it was that creatives like River Phoenix died so young while people like Keanu Reeves still “walk among us.” Fans of Reeves questioned the framing of Perry’s comments and he eventually apologized, claiming that he had picked Reeves’ name at random.)

After high school, Perry became more and more fixated on the idea of achieving fame, which he hoped would make him feel better and fix the emptiness he felt.

(Shortform note: Psychologists believe that the desire for fame is actually a desire for social acceptance. People in societies where media is very influential often channel that desire into a pursuit of celebrity.)

Matthew Perry’s Drug Addiction: How He Started Young

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew Perry's "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing summary:

  • Actor Matthew Perry's autobiography about health, loneliness, and addiction
  • Words of hope for those who are currently struggling with substance abuse
  • A look into Perry's childhood, his time on Friends, and his life after Friends

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

One thought on “Matthew Perry’s Drug Addiction: How He Started Young

  • December 30, 2023 at 10:05 am

    You can’t give a baby barbiturates and say the baby was never addicted, but you can say that his parents were neglectful, absolutely.


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