Carrie Fisher, the princess of Star Wars and champion of mental health and addiction awareness, passed away on December 27th, 2016. Four days prior, on December 23rd, she suffered cardiac arrest on a transatlantic flight from London to Los Angeles, fifteen minutes before the plane landed. She was transferred to and held in UCLA Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit for four days until she died at 8:55 the morning of December 27th. She was 60 years old. Perhaps the most beautiful tragedy surrounding her death is the wide publicization of her work to normalize and put a face to those struggling with mental illness, addiction, and alcoholism. Though she was vocal about these issues years before her death, writing four novels and three memoirs, most to do with the struggles of mental health and addiction, yet they were not as recognized until her passing.
Star Wars, Addiction, and Bipolar Disorder
Carrie Fisher rose to Hollywood fame at the age of 21 after the premiere of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, for her famed role as Princess Leia Organa. Already experiencing signs of manic and depressive episodes, she explains that she self-medicated with anything she could get her hands on alcohol, weed, cocaine, painkillers, and acid was commonplace in her life. When she was at the peak of her abuse she took 30 Percodan a day. Fisher was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 24 but, as she explained in an “Ask Carrie Fisher” column in The Guardian, she was unable to accept her diagnosis until she overdosed at age 28. She once mentioned that she named her bipolar moods: Roy was the wild ride and Pam was the one who “stood on the shore and sobbed.” After her overdose, Fisher checked herself into a 30-day rehab program which helped her to get sober and begin her recovery journey. She also found continuing support through Alcoholics Anonymous and affective disorder support groups (for those with diagnoses such as depression, anxiety disorder, or bipolar). Like many addicts and alcoholics when they originally attend 12-step meetings, she did not like the groups at the beginning. It wasn’t until someone told her, “You don’t have to like these meetings, you just have to go, go until you like them,” that something changed in her. While in active addiction and alcoholism, most often you are used to chasing down things that please you, usually substances or the money to purchase them. Little else is as important as finding the next high or drunk and you become consumed by the things that bring you pleasure. As soon as you sit in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or another 12-step program, you start down the path of doing things that are not always enjoyable or comfortable but will benefit you in the long run. Fisher explains further in her column, “My comfort wasn’t the most important thing – my getting through to the other side of difficult feelings was. However long it might seem to take and however unfair it might seem, it was my job to do it.” Though she worked to maintain her sobriety, Fisher admits to occasional slips and relapses. Following an accidental overdose in 1985 with a mix of sleeping and other prescription medications, she used her experiences for reference in the somewhat autobiographical novel and screenplay, Postcards from the Edge.
Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Many people toss around the term “bipolar” to describe a friend’s sudden irritation or anger, but few understand the true depth of the mental illness they are referring to. Bipolar disorder takes four different forms: Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Cyclothymic Disorder, and Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders. In each faction of bipolar, individuals experience a series of manic and depressive episodes. Manic episodes consist of:
- Feeling elated or high
- Increased energy
- Impulsive and risky behavior
- Difficulties sleeping
- Increased irritability and agitation
- Rapid thoughts
Depressive episodes consist of:
- Feeling hopeless or empty
- Decreased energy
- Lower levels of activity
- Difficulties sleeping or oversleeping
- Slowed thoughts and behaviors
Manic and depressive episodes can last anywhere from a few days to a few years each and the length of episodes will constitute the type of bipolar it is categorized as. These symptoms often impact the life of the individual experiencing them, sometimes to the point of their being unable to carry out basic daily functions. It is not as simple as a friend losing their cool, although the casual references make it seem this way. Carrie Fisher dedicated her life to helping educate others regarding addiction and mental illness, that they may understand the severity of bipolar disorder and substance abuse, and how consequential these issues can become.
Carrie Fisher’s Work to De-Stigmatize Addiction and Mental Health
As anyone who writes about addiction or mental illness knows, when writing about such dreary topics it is difficult not to slip into morbid reflection. Carrie Fisher handled this challenge through her use of humor which helped readers consume her work. While so many suffer with addiction or mental illness in silence, she used the platform she found herself on to give a voice to those without one. Although she was incredible in Star Wars and the many other works she appeared in, she built a greater legacy upon more than her acting abilities. She worked to break down the stigma of addiction, alcoholism, and mental health issues through writing. Women experiencing the same are more often referred to as “crazy” when behaving out of the norm. This makes women experiencing symptoms of and living with bipolar disorder even more prone to these slurs. It takes little to understand why many feel as though they need to hide their mental illness in order to appear put together and professional, just as women are expected to be. Carrie Fisher turned these expectations on their heads. By laying claim to her struggles with mental illness and addiction, Fisher gives other men and women permission to do the same. “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 a steady stream of medication.” – Carrie Fisher
“Carrie Fisher Was An Advocate For Women With Mental Illness and Addiction” The Huffington Post https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/carrie-fisher-was-not-just-an-advocate-for-people-with_us_58641dd3e4b04d7df167d2a7?utm_hp_ref=addiction-recovery “How Carrie Fisher Championed Mental Health” Rolling Stone https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/how-carrie-fisher-championed-mental-health-w458009 “Ask Carrie Fisher: I’m bipolar – how do you feel at peace with mental illness?” The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/30/carrie-fisher-advice-column-mental-illness-bipolar-disorder “Carrie Fisher, Child of Hollywood and ‘Star Wars’ Royalty, Dies at 60” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/movies/carrie-fisher-dead-star-wars-princess-leia.html