Matthew Perry's Untold Story: My Life as an Addict

07/06/2013 at 03:05 PM EDT

Matthew Perry's Untold Story: My Life as an Addict
Matthew Perry on the cover of PEOPLE
At 24, Matthew Perry landed a role that would utterly change his life – and help define a generation: Chandler Bing on Friends.

Along with his five castmates, his face was suddenly on everything from calendars to coffee mugs, and his salary ballooned to $1 million an episode. As his sardonic alter ego might have put it, "Could he be any more famous?"

But behind the scenes, Perry struggled with a serious alcohol problem. Then, after a 1997 Jet Ski accident, a doctor prescribed him Vicodin and said, "'Here, take this.' I did, and I felt better than I ever felt in my entire life," Perry says. "I had a big problem with pills and alcohol, and I couldn't stop."

For years tabloids chronicled his every misstep, including two failed stints in rehab.

It's no wonder that back then Perry invariably seemed deeply uncomfortable when dealing with the media. Today it's an entirely different man – relaxed, smiling, even laid-back – who strolls into L.A.'s Sunset Tower Hotel and orders a Diet Coke with lemon. "I'm in a really good place. I'm really comfortable," says the actor, 43.

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