In an ABC News interview with Diane Sawyer in the year 2000, actress Carrie Fisher dropped what many people never knew about her:
“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, and I’m still surviving it, but bring it on,” she said.
This type of outspokenness about mental health was rare, even just 16 years ago, but Fisher was never one to shy away from sharing the most shocking and difficult parts of her life.
Fisher was indeed mentally ill, suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism, depression and bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a mood disorder that causes extreme shifts in a person’s energy levels, moods and ability to think rationally. Those with manic depression go through cycles of two distinct types of episodes: manic episodes and depressive episodes, both of which can last from a week to several months.
During manic episodes, moods and energy levels elevate past a normal level of “happy” and one’s barometer of judgment often goes out the window, leading to rash decisions. Sleeplessness, obsession, irritability, talkativeness and euphoria are all common as well.
During depressive episodes, many individuals may go from the high of their manic episode to losing seemingly all of their energy, often unable to get out of bed. Some may find themselves sleepless, while others may sleep much more than usual. While mania often makes individuals feel invincible, depressive episodes can make them feel as though making simple decisions is virtually impossible. Obsession is also a symptom of the depressive state, however it revolves around obsessing over guilt, personal failures and the idea that they are hopeless.
Fisher described her manic and depressive episodes through personification:
“One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood," she said. "And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs… Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out."
The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is twenty-five years, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, although symptoms of the illness can start in early childhood, and even as late as into one’s 40s and 50s. Carrie Fisher, who died at the age of 60 this past Tuesday, suffered from bipolar disorder for almost half of her life. She was diagnosed at the age of 29.
At the age of 14, Fisher later would recall noticing signs of her father, Eddie Fisher, suffering from bipolar disorder. She told Diane Sawyer in the 2000 ABC News interview that she, “...recognized that something was wrong with him when I was 14 and he said, ‘Come see what I got in Asia.’ And he had gotten 180 silk suits in every different color; my father was a drug addict so I knew I was like him.”
When Fisher was first told by doctors she may have bipolar disorder, she was 24 years old and fighting a drug and alcohol addiction. She originally believed that her manic episodes were caused by the drugs, rather than an illness. It wasn’t until she was 29 that she came to terms with her diagnosis and finally accepted it.
Even in modern society, where there is much more talk of mental illness than there was when Fisher was first diagnosed, she often acknowledged that there was still a stigma attached to talking about mental illness, and she vowed that she would fight that stigma. In an interview with People Magazine, Fisher claims that comedy is how she coped the most with her illnesses.
“That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous. It is not an entertainment. I’m not going to stop writing about it, but I have to understand it,” she said.
Despite treatment, which included medications, therapy and even electroconvulsive treatments, Fisher still battled with the illness her entire life. In 2013, while performing on a cruise ship, she rambled slurred words and mumbled lyrics, according to audience members. When the ship docked, Fisher checked into a psychiatric hospital to have her medication adjusted, and told People Magazine that her medication had gone wrong and she wasn’t sleeping.
Despite her setbacks, Fisher never gave up or allowed her illness to derail her from sharing her unique sense of humor, contagiously positive outlook or messages of hope to others suffering from mental illnesses.
When asked how she handled making peace with her demons, her response was quick witted and classic Fisher.
“What else is there to do? Give them a room in the house? Make peace with them? I make fun of them. That's different. And in that way, I get power over them.”
Prior to her death, many young adults born long after Princess Leia first graced the silver screen became familiar with Fisher for more than just her role in Star Wars — much in thanks to her Twitter account. Famous and beloved for her use of emojis in lieu of words, she spoke candidly about her experiences and struggles with bipolar disorder. Fans fell in love not only with Fisher, but with her therapy dog Gary, a French Bulldog who was featured many times on her Instagram, and accompanied Fisher wherever she went.
After her death, fans took to Twitter proclaiming their love, adoration and genuine thankfulness for Fisher’s work in regards to mental health awareness. People joined together and even dedicated a hashtag to the late advocate, #InHonorOfCarrie.
Through all of her humor, Fisher did have some very serious, and very inspiring messages for fans and for others dealing with mental illnesses.
"There is treatment and a variety of medications that can alleviate your symptoms if you are manic depressive or depressive."
"You can lead a normal life, whatever that is. I have gotten to the point where I can live a normal life, where my daughter can rely on me for predictable behavior, and that's very important to me."
Whether or not people are fans of Star Wars, it is evident that Carrie Fisher made an impact on the world in not only media and film, but as a mental health advocate, educating and raising awareness for bipolar disorder and addiction in a more comedic, lighthearted but poignant nonetheless, light.
Lead Image Credit: Chris Pizzello via Wikimedia Commons