Matthew Perry’s Near-Death Experience: How It Happened

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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When did Matthew Perry have a near-death experience? What caused Perry’s health to decline suddenly?

In 2018, actor Matthew Perry was sent to a hospital during a health crisis. He describes the scary event in his book Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, and how it helped him come to terms with unresolved issues from his past.

Find out how Matthew Perry’s near-death experience forced him to confront feelings he’d been suppressing.

Relapse, Rehab, Recover, Repeat

Before getting into Matthew Perry’s near-death experience, you need to know how it possibly happened in the first place. After Friends ended, Perry’s addiction accelerated. In 2013 he went into rehab for the third time. During that stay, he found that helping the other residents have fun made him feel useful. However, his counselor questioned why he was having fun at rehab and pointed out that he enjoyed the chaos that addiction created in his life. At first, Perry was offended by this remark, but then he found that there was some truth to it. 

During that same rehab stay, he had an epiphany. He didn’t want to invite anyone to family and friends night at the center because he didn’t want to put any of his loved ones through another ordeal related to his addiction. But then he asked himself why he didn’t give himself the same courtesy. He concluded that he needed to permit himself to let go of the inner conflicts that kept him trapped in addiction. But the realization didn’t lead to him applying the lessons learned right away, and he eventually relapsed.

After leaving rehab, he got involved in activism. He advocated for the use of drug courts that would allow drug offenders to be sent to rehab facilities instead of jail. He also got into business with his AA sponsor creating treatment homes in LA. However, that business failed and it ruined his relationship with his sponsor.

How to Build a Sustainable Sober Lifestyle

It’s possible that Perry struggled to remain sober in the years after Friends because he lacked a sustainable, self-protective lifestyle. In Quit Like a Woman, Whitaker recommends setting up a long-term lifestyle that includes:

Finding forms of fun to replace the old, self-destructive forms of fun. To do this, Perry might have leaned into his talent for making people laugh.

Putting yourself first. This would have required Perry to stop trying to constantly please others. For example, he might have invited some of his loved ones to Friends and Family night at the rehab center because it would have been helpful for him to feel their support, even if it made them uncomfortable to go.

Assembling a set of healthy coping strategies. In Perry’s case, deepening his involvement in activism might have been a healthy coping strategy.

A Near-Death Experience 

In 2018, he had a major health crisis when his colon ruptured as a result of chronic constipation caused by opioid abuse. He was in rehab at the time, and his best friend and assistant drove him to the hospital as he screamed in pain. At the hospital, he went into a coma and developed pneumonia. He had emergency surgery and was put on an ECMO machine, which performs the jobs of a critically ill person’s heart and lungs so that the organs can rest and recover. His chances of survival were slim at every step, but he beat the odds. He woke up from his coma after two weeks and spent the next five and a half months at UCLA. When he woke up he had a colostomy bag which he continued to have for about a year.

(Shortform note: Opioid-induced constipation is sadly a common struggle for people who rely on opioids, such as cancer patients. For many patients, the discomfort is not worth the benefits of the drugs and they stop their opioid treatments altogether to avoid this side effect.)

At first, he refused to talk about what happened because he was afraid of being responsible for his own near death. When his sister finally explained to him how he ended up in a coma and with a colostomy bag, he again refused to talk about it for weeks. He says he hated himself for putting his own life in danger and putting his family through such a scary time.

How to Start a Conversation With Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Talk

It’s not uncommon for people to react as Perry did and avoid having difficult conversations about tough issues. If you face a situation where you need to talk to someone who is unwilling, you can follow the advice outlined in Crucial Conversations:

First, it’s helpful to know that if someone doesn’t want to talk about tough issues, it’s usually because they believe it won’t do any good or they don’t feel safe doing so. Second, help the person see a compelling reason for having the conversation. Then, start the conversation with the least threatening issues. Try to make conversation safe by being alert to when the person becomes uncomfortable and avoiding definitive statements.

However, his family and friends being with him meant a lot to him and it helped him come to terms with inner conflicts he’d had since childhood. He mentions that during the six months of his health crisis, he was never alone, a major fear of his. He was grateful for their loving companionship, especially to his parents. During this time, he got closure with his mother, who stayed with him the entire time he was at the hospital. He finally felt her undivided attention and it helped him come to terms with the loneliness he had felt since childhood. He accepted that she did the best she could as a single, working parent with limited emotional tools.

How Adult Children Can Heal From Parental Emotional Neglect

Although Perry continued to struggle with addiction after this health crisis, the event was still a turning point in his recovery, possibly because of the opportunity it provided to repair his relationship with his mother. In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, psychologist Lindsey Gibson says that redefining your relationship with an emotionally immature parent can help you heal and move forward from childhood emotional neglect. 

To move forward in a healthier way with a parent, you must first see them objectively. This can be challenging because the adult child may desperately want their parent to change, but the unfortunate reality is that most emotionally immature parents lack the tools necessary to have healthy, emotionally connected relationships with their children. Coming to grips with this realization, though painful, enables the adult child to interact with their parent based on the reality of who they are rather than who they wish them to be—better preparing them to manage their limitations when they interact.

Struggling to Recover

After being released from UCLA, he went to New York to continue recovering. He was still using opiates because he convinced his doctors that he was in too much pain, but he admits that he didn’t need the painkillers. Once the doctors realized he was addicted to the oxycontin they were giving him, they sent him to rehab. This led Perry into a series of rehab facilities where he constantly clashed with doctors, lied to get more drugs, and nearly died during a follow-up surgery. During this time he traveled within the US and from the US to Switzerland, unable to find a rehab center that offered the treatments and support he needed. 

(Shortform note: Perry’s experience shows the delicate balance doctors must strike when prescribing opioids: They must treat a patient’s pain without creating or exacerbating an addiction. Some sources argue that most people who become addicted to opioids first tried them through a prescription. The 1990s, when Perry’s addiction began, were a period in which opioid prescriptions increased, leading to the first major wave of opioid deaths from 1999 to 2004.)

Perry’s experiences with treatment centers gave him a negative opinion of the industry. He believes they don’t care about the people they allegedly try to help—that they’re interested in taking their money rather than making them healthy. He also argues that at most centers it’s very easy to get access to drugs, which exposes how little they care about their patients.

(Shortform note: Perry’s not alone in his critique of rehab centers. A study found that much of the rehab industry is driven by marketing and sales experts rather than medical doctors or recovery experts. The researchers argue that this leads to rehab centers focusing on extracting as much money as possible from patients and their families, offering spa-like services that don’t contribute to substance abuse recovery. Furthermore, many rehab centers don’t offer medication maintenance treatment, a treatment that allows patients to receive supervised doses of specific drugs so their bodies can sustainably wean off the substances without suffering painful and even fatal withdrawal effects.)

Matthew Perry’s Near-Death Experience: How It Happened

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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.

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