Carrie Fisher Taught Us About Living with Bipolar Disorder
When I told my mother and fiancee that Carrie Fisher had suffered a massive heart attack, I choked back tears. I got the news as we were driving back from seeing the incredibly feminist Star Wars: Rogue One. I felt fiercely protective of her; she was one of my childhood favorites, and it always seemed as though she was the “troubled” aunt who “got” me.
Fisher took her final breath on December 28 at the age of 60, just a few years younger than my my own mother and aunts, and I find myself choking back tears again as I write about her tremendous impact on Hollywood, feminism and visibility for mental illness. Fisher made her bipolar disorder public through her books and her incredible one-woman show:
“I laugh a lot, actually. A lot. I’ve gotten to an age where I enjoy my life. I’ve spent enough time struggling with it, and at this point it’s living on one side of the magnifying glass; I stay on the side of making big things appear small,” Fisher told WebMD. “I enjoy myself and I have a lot of good friends, good relationships. You learn to get there. Having gone through a lot of stuff I’ve gone through — I don’t want to do that stuff anymore. I take care of myself best as I can. I do the best imitation of maturity I can possibly muster.”
Fisher was an inspiration for many reasons. She was an outspoken woman who refused to disappear quietly into the twilight of her career. She stood up to Hollywood and spoke out against ageism and the misogynist double-standard in which women are not allowed to age and continue doing what they love and have done their entire lives — while the careers of “distinguished men” often flourish after 50 or 60.
Fisher gave few fucks, and for this, I will forever love her.
Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 20s, and was no stranger to being singled out for her opinions and behaviors. She was lauded for being a hilariously funny woman, and demonized for her mental illness and addictions — arguably the other side of the bipolar coin. Luckily, she used that platform to candidly discuss the ups and downs of mental illness and addictions, including the relationship difficulties that often dot the lives of those living with such conditions.
“I’ve never been ashamed of my mental illness … it never occurred to me,” Fisher said. “Many people thank me for talking about it, and mothers can tell their kids when they are upset with the diagnosis that Princess Leia is bipolar too.”
“Going through challenging things can teach you a lot, and they also make you appreciate the times that aren’t so challenging. … The only regret [I have with] my difficulties is making my daughter go through them,” Fisher said in a Q&A with WebMD.
After stepping out of the limelight, Fisher showed the world what tremendous talent she had behind the scenes. A remarkable writer, Fisher both served as her own biographer and one of Hollywood’s most beloved and sought-after script doctors. She worked on Sister Act, Hook, and The Wedding Singer, as well as the recent Star Wars films.
Her book and documentary Wishful Drinking touches on her complicated relationship with director George Lucas and the entire Star Wars franchise, describing the sexism behind the scenes that was all too common for its time. Ironically, while there’s supposedly no underwear in space, there are impossibly uncomfortable gold metal bikinis.
“George comes up to me the first day of filming and he takes one look at the dress and says, “You can’t wear a bra under that dress.”
So, I say, “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”
And he says, “Because there’s no underwear in space.”
This entire interaction led to a beautifully funny self-written obituary:
“What happens is you go to space and you become weightless. So far so good, right? But then your body expands??? But your bra doesn’t — so you get strangled by your own bra.
“Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”
Wishful Drinking was incredibly influential and inspiring to this particular writer. I watched Fisher open up to an entire audience who loved her — not in spite of, but because of her mental illness and the beautiful and excruciating ups and downs that made Fisher the incredible woman she was. As I watched her open her entire life up to scrutiny on my TV, flip-flopped between intense laughter and ugly tears.
Recently, she released a book of her diary entries, The Princess Diarist, written during the filming of Star Wars. One of the more famous excerpts revolves around a brief affair between 19-year-old Fisher and her married co-star, Harrison Ford. She discussed the affair with Ellen Degeneres:
In June, Fisher began writing an advice column for The Guardian. While only three columns were published, they are excellent. Fisher invited readers to reach out to ask questions regarding “how to navigate everything from heartbreak to addiction, to mental illness and gender equality.”
“Hilariously — after all the drug addiction and celebration, marriage and mental illness and divorce and shock treatment and heartbreak and motherhood and childhood and neighborhood and hood in general — I’ve turned out to be (at close to 70) a kind of happy person (go figure!). A human who’s had her fair share of challenging and unhappy experiences. Over time, I’ve paid attention, taken notes and forgotten easily half of everything I’ve gone through. But I’ll rifle through the half I recall and lay it at your feet.”
Thank you, Carrie, for laying it all at our feet. We love you for it and the world is better because your brutal honesty and brilliance.
“The Force will be with you always. The Force will set you free.”