The world mourned as news of Carrie Fisher’s death spread across the internet. Best known for her role as the iconically badass Princess Leia in Star Wars, she was also a talented screenwriter, novelist, and comedian. But one of Fisher’s lasting legacies, other than her Star Wars fame, will be the ferocity with which she battled against the stigma of mental illness.
According to Telegraph, “[Fisher] said she smoked pot at 13, used LSD by 21 and was diagnosed as bipolar at 24.” She refused to accept her diagnosis, and careened off the rails for another four years until, at 28, she allowed herself to be diagnosed. “So when I was 24,” she said, according to Independent, “someone suggested to me that I was bipolar, and I thought that was ridiculous. I just thought he was trying to get out of treating me.” In 1995, she gave an interview to Diane Sawyer in which she discussed her mental health issues, saying, “I used to think I was a drug addict, pure and simple — just someone who could not stop taking drugs willfully. And I was that. But it turns out that I am severely manic depressive.”
This was one of the first times a star had spoken publicly about mental health issues, and bipolar disorder in particular. Others had come clean about their addictions, but no one had been so candid as Fisher about their struggles to stay sane. “I am mentally ill,” she told Sawyer. “I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”
She gave others courage to face their own issues, and to keep going in the midst of bipolar disorder and depression. She was also open about her treatment options, which according to Telegraph, included electroshock. She told USA Today in 2002, “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.”
In 2001, at a rally in Indianapolis, Fisher said, ”Without medication I would not be able to function in this world. Medication has made me a good mother, a good friend, a good daughter” — this when the first consumer-targeted Prozac ads had only come out four years before, with the message: “Depression hurts. Prozac can help.” Fisher was talking to Diane Sawyer about bipolar disorder before one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most well-known psychiatric medications was marketed to the public.
In her memoir Wishful Drinking, published in 2008, Fisher really got honest about what it was like to live with bipolar disorder. “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 knew pain, and she knew that others lived with the same pain but shouldn’t have to live with the stigma. On the eve of a Wishful Drinking performance — when it was a solo show — Fisher told chron.com: “If I have the problems, the problems don’t have me. They’re not something I’m ashamed of. It’s not as if I came out with things that weren’t already out there, things like my having been to a mental hospital. But I said, ‘If this stuff’s going to be out there, it’s going to be my version!'”
She also explained that people with mental health issues, like her, need not be defined by their disease “because generally someone who has bipolar doesn’t have just bipolar, they have bipolar, and they have a life and a job and a kid and a hat and parents,” she told Bipolar Hope, “so its not your overriding identity, it’s just something that you have, but not the only thing — even if it’s quite a big thing.”
And just last month in The Guardian column “Advice From the Dark Side,” Fisher offered wise words and support to a reader with bipolar disorder who asked how she finds peace with her illness: “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. […] As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.”
But her most enduring words of wisdom may have come in People in 2013: “The only lesson for me, or anybody, is that you have to get help. It’s not a neat illness. It doesn’t go away. I’m just lucky this hasn’t happened more. [In the future] I don’t know if there are setbacks or steps forward. I’m not embarrassed.”
She was not embarrassed. She was never embarrassed. That was the Carrie Fisher we all grew to love, the one who scolded us out of our complacency about mental illness, who offered her hand to the suffering and said, Look. You are not alone. There she stood, and she was not quiet about her disease, and she was not complacent, and she was not reticent. And in the end, she gave us the last line she will ever speak on film, in George Lucas’s Rogue One: Carrie Fisher gave us hope.