By now you know Saint Carrie Fisher, an iconic actress, writer, and mental health advocate, died over Christmas. While Fisher was best known to the world as Princess Leia, it was her feminism, fat acceptance, and openness about living with bipolar disorder that made her a saint to me. I live with bipolar disorder, and Fisher is one of the reasons I’ve survived it into my 40s.
I’m a transracial adoptee who grew up in a lower-middle-class white family. My sister and brother both had significant developmental disabilities and health issues, and as the “gifted” middle child I was expected to always be helpful and cause no problems. I don’t remember a time in my entire life when I slept well or didn’t have stomach pain and headaches, probably all due to high levels of stress that began early. We attended counseling as children, but the focus was on discipline, with concerns about my “refusal to adjust” and accusations I was “attention seeking” because I failed to be submissive and “normal.”. I was labeled as “difficult” instead. What was never caught or addressed (until after my own son was born) was my adoptive father’s bipolar disorder that impacted his parenting skills.
It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I got my first diagnosis that went beyond “incorrigible” and “mouthy.” My diagnosis was cyclothymia, which we now know is a “mild” form of bipolar disorder, but in the late 1980s it only labeled me “manipulative,” “hysterical,” “selfish,” and “disruptive.” I was dealing with physical and emotional abuse, identity issues, being molested by an elderly neighbor, a mild cutting habit, and a first suicide attempt shortly before the diagnosis.
My introduction to mental illness came via John Benton’s book Crazy Mary followed by Lisa, Bright and Dark by John Neufeld, featuring characters I could relate to. Patty Duke’s autobiographical movie Call Me Anna came out in 1990, shortly after my suicide attempt and subsequent diagnosis. Duke’s film was the first time I heard the term “bipolar,” while most people still called it “manic depression.” I knew it named how I felt.
It’s ironic now to think that Patty Duke and Carrie Fisher died the same year. They were both important to my understanding of myself. Where Duke helped me to name my experience, it was Fisher who ultimately taught me something about how to deal with it. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
When I was 16, I dated a guy whose mother, Susan*, a lawyer and social worker, was open about her bipolar disorder. She left the lights on at all hours, kept curtains open for natural light even on grey days, and played the oldies radio station on low at all times. She also had a strict “no closed doors” rule. It was a safety measure that made it possible to track her moods so her son could recognize if she was spiraling. Spiraling, for her and for me, included craving darkness, isolation, obsessive behaviors, hiding alcohol, and hoarding pills.
Susan saved my life, in more ways than one. She saw the signs in me, taught me coping skills, and told me she was always there for me if I needed someone to talk to. A few months later she proved that by showing up and defying my father to take me out of my abusive home situation. Susan literally held my hand through some of the most shaming experiences of my life. Children’s Protective Services, child advocates, my parents’ lawyer, and even the social worker assigned to me, tried to use my mental health against me and to defend the years of abuse.
I remained friends with Susan’s son (we are still friends almost 30 years later), while I went through counseling that seemed intent on misunderstanding and minimizing my illnesses. Over the next few years I was told I was just “confused” about my sexuality and gender, called a liar, and told to forgive my parents. I was told I just needed Jesus. My illnesses were not being treated and the counseling wasn’t helpful. One day when I was 18 and living with a girlfriend’s family, I felt an urge to read the obituaries. That was how I found out that Susan had shot herself. It was the beginning of a very dark time for me, because realizing Susan had given up made me wonder why I was still trying to live. Shortly after that I moved again and the next two years were some of the worst manic-depressive cycles I’ve ever experienced, including ever-present thoughts of suicide. It was the beginning of that constant voice I still have in the back side of my mind today, the voice that suggests suicide even when there is no obvious reason for it. I never thought I would live to see 30, could not imagine how I would see the next month even as I observed another birthday and another, had a child, and somehow continued living.
I wasn’t properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 27, and didn’t get my complex PTSD diagnosis until 34. It was a major nervous breakdown including self-destructive and addictive behavior related to mania, that led to my diagnosis. Even then, the therapist I was working with insisted the “problem” was my spiritual life (i.e. not being a Christian and being queer) rather than the real illness their own on-staff psychiatrist had diagnosed and was medicating. I still didn’t think I’d see 30.
So, now we come to Carrie Fisher. Fisher died of heart failure after surviving addiction and bipolar disorder. But more than how she died, I want to talk about how she lived, because that’s why she mattered to me.
Carrie Fisher lived loud. Carrie Fisher spoke her mind, dressed how she wanted to dress, swore, flipped the world off on a whim, told bawdy stories, was an avowed feminist and anti-racist, and spoke with complete and utter openness about what having bipolar disorder had meant in her life. She shared her bad decisions, her off-on-a-manic-bender stories, and how medications and new methods of electroshock therapy had affected, and eventually helped, her.
What’s more, Fisher was the first person I ever knew who said yeah, you can live with this, but you don't owe that to anyone else. Carrie was straight up about if you're going to live through it, do it for your own self, even if it's defiance, even if you have to make tacky jokes to deal with it. But Carrie said she was never actually suicidal.
For me, various medications have increased my anxiety/mania or my depression, as well as having side effects that I could not tolerate. Medication increased the volume of my suicide-suggesting inner voice. In an intersectional world in which life is tougher when you are marginalized in multiple ways - race+class+disability+chronic illness+queerness+fat+more - the demand that you should want to live, that doesn’t acknowledge all that is going against you, personally and systemically, is not conducive to a high quality of life.
There was a trend in 2016 where I saw many of my chronically ill, disabled, mentally ill, and/or neurodivergent friends making promises across social media to “reach out” and to not take their own lives. At least a dozen of my friends’ friends who were trans or gender-non-conforming took their own lives in 2016. While I witnessed the mourning, and acknowledge the pain of survivors, I was disappointed that the response was the promise “I will never do that to you, friends. I will get help. You will not find out on social media that I gave in to the pain.” Those of us with mental illness and chronic pain feel a unique pressure to make these promises. Among other things, it is inherently ableist to suggest that we don’t deserve to live or that our “difference” means only suffering.
But I can’t make that promise, even now 12 years past the 30 I thought I would never experience. I can’t make that promise, in part, because Carrie Fisher taught me I don’t have to promise that. Fisher said, yes, it’s hard and we should try to survive bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. She said there is something heroic about surviving it and building a full life. Carrie Fisher said mental illness can be the ultimate comedy, and is just as funny as it is tragic. She certainly found the humor in her own experiences, and maybe that’s exactly how she survived it. What she managed with a dark and confrontational sense of humor combined with medical intervention, I manage through creative output sans medical intervention. But I’m a rockstar for however long I survive this world, and no less awesome when I decide I’m tired and ready to stop.
We’re great, in disability and mental health circles, about talking about support and encouragement. What we’re not so great about is allowing people to feel the lows and express the “negative” emotions. We focus heavily on “positivity” and how your thoughts create your world. Those things are not helpful to me when my thoughts are out of my control because I have bipolar disorder and C-PTSD. Expecting me to hide the difficult feelings or the suicidal thoughts because they make others uncomfortable effectively silences my attempts to “reach out.” Carrie Fisher taught me to deal with my illness with humor. Without romanticizing suicide, it’s time we talk about what “surviving” really means, and the pressure it creates. Sometimes the hero needs to be able to lay down their cape and not be everyone else’s inspiration at their own expense. Susan taught me that.