Patti Davis: Matthew Perry and the loneliness of addiction

He was a brilliant performer, but his honesty will be his greatest legacy.

FILE - This Sept. 22, 2002 file photo shows "Friends," castmembers, from left, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox Arquette, Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc after the show won outstanding comedy series at the 54th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

A long time ago I lay awake for hours, terrified that they would be my last ones on earth. I had committed myself to quitting cocaine, which was my second addiction, the first being years of amphetamines. I was devoting myself to cleaning up and getting healthy. But then a friend called who I had routinely done coke with and who always had a supply of the drug. Earlier on that black night, I’d careened backward into the familiar land of white lines on a mirror and a heart racing way too fast. It was pounding so hard, so fast, so loud, I was certain it and I couldn’t survive.

I saw the fact that I did survive as somewhat of a miracle. It would be a nice, clean story if I said I never did drugs again. But addiction is never nice and clean. I did go back to trying to clean up my life, and truthfully I only backslid a couple of times after that — and never as severely as on the night I thought might be my last.

I don’t think back on those days too often, but with Matthew Perry’s death the memories have coiled around me because of how honest he was about his own addiction. I want to tell you something about addiction: no matter who it is or what substance that person is hooked on, loneliness is at its root. For whatever reason — and I have no theory as to why — there are those of us who feel isolated in this world, as if everyone else has some secret formula for getting along, for fitting in, and no one ever let us in on it. That loneliness resides deep inside us, at our core, and no matter how many people try to help us, no matter how many friends reach out, support us, show up for us, it never entirely goes away. It’s vast and shadowy, and also part of who we are. Something happens when we discover a drug, or alcohol — suddenly we have a companion holding our hand, propping us up, making us feel like we fit in, like we can be part of the club. It’s there for us in the empty hours when it seems like no one else is.

“Nobody wanted to be famous more than me,” Mr. Perry said at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April. But, he added, “Fame does not do what you think it’s going to do.” I remember hearing him say that and thinking, right — it doesn’t penetrate that loneliness. I wonder if he ever realized how brave he was to reach past his pain and hone a talent that would make people laugh?

He discovered alcohol at 14. I was 16 when I discovered amphetamines, and I felt like I had met my best friend. Suddenly I felt like I was livelier, more entertaining, not the shy, nearsighted girl who felt uncomfortable around people. To understand an addict, you need to appreciate that companionship, that need to reach for what won’t judge you but will instead seem to transform you into who you wish you were.

Perry spoke about being lonely. He wrote about it in his book, “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing,” and he talked about it in the context of longing for a relationship. I wondered if he knew that even the joy and fulfillment of a relationship doesn’t fill up that insecure place deep inside some of us. When I quit drugs for good, I had to accept that this was just part of who I am; I didn’t have to fix it or try to obliterate it. That hadn’t worked anyway. I had followed the white lines of coke right back to who I was — the person who felt she needed to use drugs to live.

We may never know what Matthew Perry’s emotional state was at the time of his death. Had he come to terms with the fact that fame made addiction so much harder to bear — but also allowed him to help others, through the story of his own journey and through the sober living house he created? “The best thing about me, bar none, is that if somebody comes to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say ‘yes’ and follow up and do it,” he said on the “Q with Tom Power” podcast.

He laid bare his wounds, his struggles, his complicated relationship with drugs and alcohol. That’s the best we can do in life — be truthful and hope those truths become lanterns for someone else as they wander through the dark. My biggest hope is that he knew he had fulfilled his wish.

Patti Davis

Patti Davis, a daughter of President Ronald Reagan, is the author, most recently, of “Floating in the Deep End: How Caregivers Can See Beyond Alzheimer’s.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.