Carrie’s Candid Confessions

Carrie Fisher, c. 1980 in New York City (Getty Images)

Carrie Fisher. We all know her; we all love her. She transformed the screen in 1977’s Star Wars, becoming the face of a cultural legacy that has thrived for decades. Though most associate her with the iconic white dress in A New Hope to the infamous bikini in Return of the Jedi, mental health advocates have lauded her for exposing the realities of mental illness with raw honesty and humor. Carrie Fisher wasn’t just an actress, a sex symbol, or a cultural phenomenon; she was a mental health champion.

In 1956, one of Hollywood’s most treasured couples, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, welcomed a little girl into their stardom. Carrie called herself the “product of Hollywood in-breeding,” and mostly shied away from the spotlight that followed her endlessly talented mother. When Carrie was just two years old, her father Eddie Fisher left the family for Elizabeth Taylor in one of Hollywood’s most infamous scandals. But, Eddie unknowingly left a little gift behind for Carrie: the genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder.

Though Carrie’s early life was decorated with wealth and security, she felt unattached from her starlet family and craved a sense of normalcy in her life. That would never come. In her teenage years, Carrie’s illness fully manifested. By just 15 years old, she relied on drugs to compensate for her depressive episodes — episodes that went undiagnosed by Carrie and her doctors because of misconceptions about mental illness. When Carrie was 21 years old, her performance in the revolutionary motion picture Star Wars made her an overnight household name in her own right. Her newfound fame did nothing to aide in Carrie’s battle with bipolar disorder. She relied more heavily on substances like LSD, cocaine, and high dosages of prescription medications to deal with her overwhelming celebrity status. By 24, Carrie was formally diagnosed with bipolar and manic depressive disorders. She refused to accept the diagnosis.

Carrie continued to embrace the drug-filled Hollywood nightlife of the seventies and early eighties. After a widely successful movie franchise and several high-profile relationships, Carrie still struggled with the weight of her illness; and in 1985, Carrie nearly overdosed on a combination of sleeping pills and prescription medication. This turning point in her life led her to rehab for the first time — and since then she has been a fierce advocate for mental health awareness.

Fisher’s bold personality was the conduit for her advocacy. She wasn’t afraid to speak audaciously about the realities of mental illness with revolutionary openness. Fisher first explored her struggle with mental illness and addiction in Postcards from the Edge, her 1987 bestselling autobiographical novel. She was brutally honest, calling her bipolar disorder out for exactly what it was: a chemical imbalance. She never apologized; she never demeaned herself. She is the portrait of a woman who candidly tackled her grievances all while exposing the complexity of mental illness.

In 2000, Fisher revealed that she never fully understood the spectrum of her illness; she had simply thought that she was a drug addict. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, Fisher said “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital. 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.”

Fisher never associated her mental illness with a disability; she vehemently rejected any notion that mentally ill people could not live fulfilling and productive lives. She spoke fearlessly and unapologetically about mental illness. Fisher herself said “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.” She often resorted to a calming humor to discuss her mental illness. In that same 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer, Fisher publicly explained her “moods” with a touch of wit: “I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”

A household name that transcends generations, Carrie Fisher was like no other artist. Her legacy will of course include Star Wars, When Harry Met Sally, and personal works like Wishful Drinking, but her legacy of mental health advocacy has long been established in her fight to eliminate stigma. She was unapologetically candid about her life and her illness, which ultimately became her signature. That candid bravery became a comfort for millions, and will continue to do so for generations to come. Her contribution to mental health awareness challenges the stigma and the historic trials for mentally ill patients. We’ll explore the history of these trials in the next post.