Carrie Fisher – A pioneer for mental health

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The way Carrie Fisher speaks up on mental health will leave you feeling enlightened, hopeful, and less alone.

‘Get help.
Learn to say the words ‘I don’t know’,
mean them.’

Listening to the Hollywood actress talk about her experience with bipolar, also known as manic depression, is raw and allows even a non-sufferer an essential insight to existing with the illness; an illness almost incomprehensible and so very often misunderstood.

To a sufferer, Fisher’s insight into her own experiences offers a rare emphatic voice, a support.

Fisher struggled with drug addiction, using both Class A and prescription to self-medicate and was diagnosed with bipolar in her early 20’s after an overdose that nearly killed her. ‘Drugs made me feel normal…they contained me’, she told Psychology Today in 2001 and joking with Diane Sawyer in 2000 she said ‘I thought they told me I was manic depressive to make me feel better about being a drug addict.’

In 2006, comedian and actor Stephen Fry released the documentary ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive’, a candid look into manic depression and bipolar, that featured his long-term friend Carrie Fisher.

Fry was diagnosed with bipolar, a mental condition that causes periods of clinical depression interspersed with extreme elation or mania, at the age of 36 and had never previously heard the term; ‘For the first time I had a diagnosis that explained the massive highs and miserable lows I’ve lived with all my life’ Stephen told mental health charity Time to Change.

Fry went to meet Fisher at her wonderfully eccentric home in Los Angeles where she spoke openly to Fry about bipolar, explaining those manic highs and the dark transition to the depressive lows, in a way that will make complete sense to some, and switch a light on for others.

‘When you’re galloping along at a great speed, it is better than any drug you could ever take. God, if you will, is saving you parking spots, songs are being played on the radio for you, you’re just so enthusiastic about everyone, and everyone must be enthusiastic about your and it’s just ‘Come along, I’ve got this unbelievable idea. Let’s go to India.’

‘Then you just start going way too fast, and your faster than anyone that you’re around and that’s not fun…you’re not getting any sleep. Nothing is going fast enough for you. – Come on keep up with me you guys, come on! – And even you’re not more talented when you’re manic, you feel like you are. I am standing on boxes exclaiming speeches to the world. You know I’ve got a lot to say, messages from deep space in fact! …And I stayed awake for six days, I did lose my mind.’

In an interview from 2008 with Matt Lauer, Fisher explained how she uses humour to cope with her bipolar, ‘If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true and that would be unacceptable.’ She went on to say ‘What I do is I make light of stuff…It better get funny fast or it’s just going to be something that haunts you. So I make very difficult situations in my life funny as quickly as possible.’

Many people dealing with bipolar, addiction, a near-death public meltdown, rehab – would be tempted to hide, but not Carrie Fisher.

On her release from rehab at age 28, she threw a huge party featuring a rented ambulance and a cardboard cut-out of Princess Leia strapped to a stretcher with an IV in her arm, a move that perfectly demonstrated one of her many mantras; ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets, which means that I am completely well.’

‘She plucks out that thing that would destroy the rest of us. Then she makes fun of it,’ says good friend Meryl Streep. ‘I’m sure it saves her.’

Describing the mood swings like changes in ‘weather’, she regularly debunked the stigma attached to bipolar using humour and an ability to articulate one of the most complex conditions with stunning intelligence. In her 2008 memoir Wishful Drinking, the cover of which features an image of Princess Leia face down holding an empty Martini glass surrounded by pills, she writes;

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.’

She was an advocate of electric shock syndrome saying; ‘It worked’ despite losing four months of memory at the time. During this time her answering phone message told callers to leave their name, number and a brief account of who they are and how they know her.

Carrie Fisher died on 27 December 2016 from complications with conditions including sleep apnoea, heart disease, and drug use.

She exuded life, and even though hers was troubled, it was extraordinary. She used every opportunity she had to debunk myths about bipolar, remove the stigma attached to the disease, make people laugh about it, and help people both with bipolar, and those struggling to understand it.

‘You can lead a normal life,
whatever that is.’

– Carrie Fisher 

 21 October 1956 – 27 December 2016

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