After struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for years, beloved Friends star Matthew Perry, 43, opens up in this week’s issue of PEOPLE about getting sober – and finding new purpose by helping others steered him toward happiness at last. When a doctor prescribed him Vicodin after a Jet Ski accident in 1997, “I felt better than I ever felt in my entire life. I had a big problem with pills and alcohol, and I couldn’t stop,” Perry tells PEOPLE. For years tabloids chronicled his every misstep, including two failed stints in rehab.

Today, Perry is an entirely different man – relaxed, smiling, even laidback. “I’m in a really good place. I’m really comfortable,” says the actor. Thanks to the help of renowned addiction specialist Earl Hightower, he’s now sober and committed to helping others. He turned his former Malibu home into Perry House, a men’s sober-living facility. And he’s a passionate advocate for drug courts, where nonviolent substance abusers receive treatment instead of jail time for their offenses. “Matthew is an ambassador of possibility for a vast group of people,” says Hightower. “People he’ll never meet will get services because he championed their cause.” Perry says, “The interesting reason that I can be so helpful now is that I screwed up so often. It’s nice for people to see that somebody who once struggled in their life is not struggling anymore.” Below are some quotes from PEOPLE’s interview with Matthew Perry:

On Fame: “I was on Friends from age 24-34…From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem like I had it all. It was actually a very lonely time for me because I was suffering from alcoholism. It was going on before Friends, but it’s a progressive disease.”

On Being Functional: “I was never high at work. I was painfully, painfully hung over. Then eventually things got so bad I couldn’t hide it, and then everybody knew.”

On Getting Help: “After years of working with Earl – I was stubborn and I wanted to do things my way – I finally got it. Something clicked. You have to want the help. You have to be willing to change. I finally realized what had been told to me 500 times. From that point on, I decided whatever Earl asked me to do I’d do for the rest of my life.”

On the Tabloids: “Trying to overcome addiction is one of the hardest things for a person to do. And the fact that I had to do it under the scrutiny of tabloid press at first made it seem even more difficult. But in fact it oddly ended up being a plus. Because of the tabloid stuff, it wasn’t like I could walk into a bar and order a drink. If I did, strangers would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I just read that you’re not allowed to do that.’”

On Perry House: “In 2005 I bought this house because I subscribed to the theory of ‘If I just lived over there, I’d be fine.’ I’d buy houses and I’d move. It was a classic case of trying to fix inside stuff with outside stuff. Last year I still had this really nice house. That’s when I had this light bulb moment and called Earl. We put our heads together, and Perry House opened about six months ago. So now that ego-driven mistake is being used to help people. How cool is that?”

On Marriage & Kids: “As for my personal life, I’d love to start a family of my own. I think I’d make a great dad, and I think shortly I would make a great husband.’

On How He’d Like To Be Remembered: “When I die, I’d like Friends to be listed behind helping people.”

More on Matthew Perry is featured in the 7/15/13 issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.

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