Carrie Fisher: Mental Health Advocate Like No Other

Mental Health

I miss Carrie Fisher.

I didn’t know her personally, and I was never lucky enough to meet her, but she touched my life deeply nonetheless. Leia will always be the first princess I saw save herself (damned bikini notwithstanding). She had a wit, stubbornness, and competency I had never seen a princess show. It was transformative, and enamored me to Carrie Fisher, who so perfectly brought Leia to life.

Years (okay, decades) later, I was diagnosed with bipolar II. The diagnosis certainly explained just about everything that I thought was “wrong” with me, but wasn’t one that came with easy acceptance. In fact, until just last year, I did everything I could to hide it from the world, telling only people I felt I could trust with that type of information. Everyone from well-meaning friends to former employers perpetuate harmful stigma about the disorder. Friends don’t always understand and may have a hard time separating the disorder from the individual suffering from it. I once had a former employer who used the term “bipolar” as slang for “difficult”, even after I had told her I had bipolar, and it was not a synonym for difficult.

Living with a mental health challenge like bipolar is difficult. There are debilitating highs and crushing lows and you still have to navigate the details of everyday life while trying to sort out your brain. It’s easy to feel defeated, to wallow, to believe that things won’t get better. After all, those of us who suffer from bipolar and other mood disorders are pretty good at catastrophic thinking.

It’s times like those that we can turn to Carrie Fisher. She has been open about her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. Her first novel, later adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep, Postcards From The Edge was a fictionalized re-telling of her suicide attempt when she was in her early 20s.

Fisher opened up about her mental health struggles publicly in a 2000 interview, long before widespread awareness about mental health issues existed. She was remarkably blunt and honest, especially given the massive amount of stigma surrounding mental illness. Phrasing it relatively simply, she told Diane Sawyer, “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital.”

In 2006 Fisher wrote and starred in a one-woman show called Wishful Drinking. It was later used as the base for her memoire and HBO special of the same name. The special and book are filled with quotable stories, meant to create inspiration, laughs, and in a few cases, both.

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”

I completely agree.

A few years later, Fisher released Shockaholic. Where Wishful Drinking explored both mental health and addiction, Shockaholic focused more on Fisher’s experiences with bipolar. As it turned out, electric shock therapy was the only treatment she found to be effective. In writing about it so open and honestly, she helped de-stigmatize a frequently misunderstood therapy option.

“Now, I, too, of course, believed what pretty much the entire Western world believes, thanks in large part to Hollywood’s portrayal of it—I believed that this treatment was an extreme measure primarily administered as punishment to mental patients for being crazily uncooperative. But it turns out that if you’re in sufficiently agonizing shape, you—or maybe not you, but, for example, I—will finally sob, “F–k it. Let’s say it even does turn out to be a punishment, which I doubt very much that it will, but if it did it couldn’t be much more horrifically harsh than what I’m barely able to endure now, so what are you waiting for?! Go on! Do it! Do it before you don’t have a mind to change.”

These works, and her outspoken attitude about what life with an illness is really like, made her a mental health advocate like no other.

“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”

She was brutally honest about the disorder; as Fisher says, “it is not a neat illness”. Bipolar is messy. She shared some of that mess with us, giving those with mental health issues a role model. Someone who not only tells us that it’s okay to laugh at the ridiculous aspects of our illnesses, but showed us how.

I miss Carrie Fisher not because she was my princess role model, and not because she told critics obsessed with her appearance to shove it, though both of those qualities are admirable as hell. I miss Carrie because I miss that rich voice, those random yet hilarious tweets, those funny yet on point words about how being mentally ill fucking sucks, but you “do it anyway”.

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