We’re still waiting for the official cause of death for Matthew Perry, who was famous for starring in “Friends” and struggling mightily with substance abuse. Even in the addiction recovery world, I’ve heard people suggest Perry’s legacy depends on whether the pending toxicology reports show he suffered a relapse. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Yes, Perry died of still unknown causes. More important, he changed the conversation about addiction in our country. More people will get help because of his bravery. Fewer people will die.
But … did it get him in the end? And shouldn’t we know that before we talk about his recovery – whether it stuck or not?
That type of thinking is exactly what keeps people sick. Shame is an ally of addiction, and this notion threatens people in recovery with the possibility of extra shame: that no matter what you do to get sober, if it ends poorly, it was all worth nothing.
Even in the recovery world, where we say “relapse is part of recovery,” the most valued story is that of a person seen as fully recovered. We value time, the unspoken message to a newcomer being that those with the most time know the most.
So when you’re a relapser like me – and I was really a professional relapser – what you hear is that everything you learned during your last sober stint is worthless and you’re now back to square one. And how many times can you hear that before you’re tired of starting over?
If you were driving across the country and your car broke down, would you get it fixed and then go back to where you started your trip to begin again? That doesn’t make any sense, but it’s exactly how we talk about addiction and relapse.
Learning, growth, healing, amends, reconnection – none of these aspects of recovery have to happen in a straight line. If you can do any of them at all during your lifetime, it’s a success.
From my perspective, the world record for sobriety is 24 hours.
Yes, of course there’s value in having 12 years compared with seven days: The cravings have weakened, you’re not sweating through the sheets at night, and, sure, you probably don’t have a parole officer anymore.
But I’m not sure time in recovery guarantees that you become a truly empathetic or inspirational person. I know lots of sober jerks, and I know plenty of people who are bettering the world even though they just can’t beat this beast of addiction.
Let’s tell the newcomer, “Every day you don’t drink and you don’t use is a victory. No one will take it from you.”
I remember when the idea of going an hour seemed impossible. A day was a victory. And when it took me two years to string together 90 days together in a row, I felt like I was doing it for the first time because I had internalized the shame about relapse. In reality, I had been fighting it for two years, not just 90 days. So I’m not shaming the next person who faces a similar struggle.
I hope the toxicology results for Perry, whatever they are, give his family some answers. But all the rest of us need to know is that the world is better off, and more people still live in it, because he was here. Matthew Perry 1, Shame 0.
Now let’s follow his example and celebrate any 24 hours of sobriety that anyone has. After all, they’re tying the world record.
Sean Daniels is a person in long-term recovery who runs the Recovery Project at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. His play “The White Chip” is scheduled to reopen off-Broadway in February.