How the outspoken actress helped de-stigmatize mental illness through her own struggles.
If this year could be summed up in a single song, perhaps it’s The Stranglers’ “No More Heroes.” Although the 2016 jokes have grown tired on multiple levels, it is undeniable that some of the greatest cultural contributors the world round have left us this year. From David Bowie to Prince to Muhammed Ali to George Michael and many more, we have lost true icons in every sense of the word. And now on Tuesday, just a few days after suffering a heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles, a great disturbance in the force occurred with the loss of actress, screenwriter and novelist Carrie Fisher, who was just sixty years old.
It’s almost impossible to try and put Fisher’s larger than life personality and incredible career in retrospective, though Fisher herself did this more than once with her 1987 semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge, her 2008 memoir Wishful Drinking and 2016’s The Princess Diarist, a memoir based on the journals Fisher kept during the making of Star Wars. Fisher spoke candidly over the years about her family, her drug use, her lovers (most recently admitting to an affair with Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars), and her beloved therapy animal, Gary. But as we sift through our collective grief over such a colossal loss, there’s an important facet of Fisher’s life that deserves just as much attention and praise as her iconic turn as Princess Leia ‐ her advocacy for mental health awareness.
In December 2000, during an interview on ABC’s PrimeTime with Diane Sawyer, Fisher opened up about her bipolar disorder diagnosis and spoke candidly about the disease. “I’m manic depressive,” she bluntly said to Sawyer. When asked if it terrifies her to admit to this, Fisher defiantly shook her head. “No, no. I own it, I’m mentally ill,” she smiled. “I have a chemical imbalance that in its most extreme state will lead me to a mental hospital.”
Fisher’s disease first manifested itself when she a teenager with mood swings, racing thoughts and long periods of insomnia ‐ all hallmarks of bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that can cause shifts in mood and energy that can range between periods of elated and energized manic episodes and depressive episodes. In manic states, there is often an inability to sleep, racing thoughts, reckless behavior or spending and increased energy. Fisher personified her two moods, naming her manic states Roy and her depressive state Pam. “I used to leave messages and say ‘Roy’s in town,’ and then people would be glad,” Fisher told Sawyer. “The other mood doesn’t answer the phone.”
In an attempt to quell her symptoms and sleep more, Fisher began using pills regularly during the filming of the final installment in the Star Wars series, Return of the Jedi. She was able to briefly kick her cocaine habit during The Blues Brothers but she snorted heroin while filming When Harry Met Sally. Fisher says 1981's Under the Rainbow was the breaking point, “[that’s] the one, where I was completely crazy. I was on drugs, I started a lot of losing weight, I think I weigh about 95 [pounds] in that film. I wasn’t sleeping, I had a seizure on set,” she recalled. At twenty-four, Fisher’s disease was finally explained by doctors but she struggled to accept the diagnosis, “I thought they told me I was a manic depressive to make me feel better about a drug addict.”
At twenty-eight, Fisher entered rehab and fought to become sober. When reflecting on the experience in an an advice column for The Guardian she wrote, “Only then was I able to see nothing else could explain away my behavior.” But her sobriety and her disease would become lifelong battles. In 1985, Fisher overdosed on sleeping pills and prescription drugs. She was hospitalized for in the early 1990’s for a mental breakdown and she turned to electroconvulsive therapy in the mid-2000’s for relief from her disease.
In 2006, Fisher took part in the Emmy-award winning documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, once again discussing her struggles with a candor that helped lift the veil of mystery that often surrounds the disease. “When you’re galloping along at a great speed, it is better than any drug that you could ever take,” she told Fry. “Then you just start going way too fast, faster than anyone you’re around and that’s not fun…nothing is going fast enough for you…and even if it’s not true that you’re more talented when you’re manic, you feel like you are.”
Fisher’s struggles, which were often made public due to her celebrity status, showed the world that there is no easy fix for mental illness or addiction. She also illuminated the messy and daily battle behind the disease, one that is often exaggerated in film and television, turning bipolar characters in either raving lunatics or tortured but artistic geniuses. Fisher played a huge role in centering both our understanding and acceptance of the disease, doing her best to strip the stigma and help the public understand what it is like to live with bipolar disorder. “The only lesson for me, or anybody, is that you have to get help,” she told People Magazine in 2013. “It’s not a neat illness. It doesn’t go away.” Even in the face of multiple setbacks, Fisher remained defiant, picking herself back up and finding new ways to get healthy again.
Fisher’s fight for the mentally ill is one that continued until the end of her life. In April of this year, Fisher was awarded Harvard College’s Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism Award, with the college declaring that Fisher’s “forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.” And just weeks before her death, in an advice column for The Guardian, Fisher opened up to a bipolar young adult struggling to find peace with the disease. “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges,” Fisher wrote. “Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic ‐ not “I survived living in Mosul during an attack” heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.” Up until the end, Fisher lived her own advice, using her experiences to encourage those struggling with the disease to keep up the fight and to, in turn, encourage others to do the same.
Fisher’s lifelong fight is inspiring but it’s also a personal one as well. Her candor regarding her bipolar disorder not only helped me to accept my own diagnosis at twenty-two, but she showed me that I never have to feel ashamed of my mental illness. For countless others like me, Fisher inspired us to keep up the fight and to recognize the courage it takes to get up every morning and fight an endless battle. I always come back to Fisher’s brilliant response in The Wall Street Journal to a father concerned over explaining Return of the Jedi’s “Slave Leia” merchandise to his child: “Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.” On the darkest days, when depression seems unbearable, I think of this and am inspired. Our mental illness is like that giant slug, constantly attempting to imprison, enslave and humiliate us. But just like Leia, and indeed just like Carrie Fisher, we can fight back and win. And most importantly, we never have to feel ashamed of that fight.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273–TALK (8255)
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: