I Wanted To Disappear Until Carrie Fisher Showed Me A Naked, Noisy Life
By Kerry Neville
My stability comes from giving up substances and living my truth in the open.
Content warning: suicidal ideation
I have not disappeared, though I wanted to once: I was locked in a room under 24/7 video surveillance with a thin mattress on the floor, eating bland spaghetti with a plastic spoon (though not really eating since I’d stopped that, too) because I kept cutting my wrists with the tines of a fork in the hospital cafeteria; or swallowing fistfuls of pills — Lithium and Ambien and anything else in the medicine cabinet; or eating an apple, and only an apple, a day and then throwing it up; or jumping into a frozen lake — a failed Ophelia.
I kept trying to disappear for good and my doctors kept locking me away. “We need to stop you from killing yourself,” they said, earnestly believing they could help me resurface from Bipolar’s concurrent mania and depression.
I have my hospital records from those years, six inches thick. My attending psychiatrists’ notes are repetitive in their simplicity: “Generally unresponsive. Resists the group therapeutic milieu. Paces the hallway for hours. Counts steps. Rigid focus. Chronic, recurring, persistent. Stabilization unlikely. Husband informed.” I could, in my various doctors’ eyes, read their real diagnostic assessment: “What a waste.” My records, in all the emergency room intakes, include details about me such as, “young, pretty, well-groomed, thin, professor, PhD, published writer.” Details that don’t add up to a patient locked in a safe room banging her head against the cinder block wall in an attempt to stop her brain from hurting so much and all the time.
I have not disappeared, though I wanted to once.
At the time, I believed the doctors’ assessment because I didn’t know anyone who had survived — much less thrived — in spite of or because of Bipolar Disorder. Then I rediscovered Carrie Fisher. As a kid, I’d idolized her as the fierce Princess Leia, asking my mother to braid and loop my hair around my ears like hers (as I know many, many young girls did), but I grew up and stopped believing in galaxies far far away and instead disappeared inside my own black hole.
Meds didn’t work, but Fisher’s book, Wishful Drinking, did — a gift from a friend while I was an inpatient about to go through my own long bout of electric shock treatment. I read her brave, in-your-face account of her own difficulties with addiction and mania and depression, and her own course of electric shock treatment. She transformed her pain and shame into a generous, funny, self-forgiving story, and lived a large life because she’d managed to turn away from a little death.
Carrie Fisher is why I can write without shame that I have Bipolar Disorder. From 2007–2011, I was hospitalized more than 20 times. Her recovery inspired mine. Since 2011? I no longer drink booze and now eat to sustain my body. I take my prescribed medication (only one now, Lithium, compared to my unstable, acute phase, which had included Lithium, Abilify, Trazadone, Klonopin, Seroquel — all at once — and which at times left me in a deep, drooling fog). I am stable. But I am also stable because I am living a visible life again. Though Carrie Fisher wrote fiction, it is her truth that I follow.
My doctors couldn’t see that what was killing me was not just Bipolar Disorder and my anorexia, but the absence of desire and love in the dumb, dark silence of the underground bunker that was, in part, my unhappy marriage. I was forever wondering if I was good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, confident enough, lovable enough for my then-husband. By the end times of our marriage, though still sharing a home and wearing our wedding rings, my husband had already left me for a flesh and blood woman instead of a ghost-wife made of smoke and ash.
My illness, and my suicide attempts — active and passive — offered an escape from myself and from a marriage likely made too young. That I was too young to be tied to a husband — and one who wanted the perfect, pretty me (or that’s what I believed he wanted) — exacerbated the escalation of my Bipolar Disorder. I was 22 when I met my husband, just out of an abusive relationship, and he seemed like the answer to all my pain and loneliness — he saw me, for a few years, as someone who was beautiful and desirable. I felt seen when for so long I had been invisible in that abusive relationship, feigning happiness, despite the degradation and bruises.
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Of course, that statement — he saw me — reveals the source of so much of my later pain and need to escape through my own death, the only way I could see out of my bunker. How else could I say, “Cut!” and abandon his script — happy wife, happy life, no strife? How could I have imagined divorce when I was unstable and taking care of two very young children? How could I have imagined our ending as something other than failure and contraction, when, in fact, it might be necessary and expansive?
I relied on my husband to show me myself, rather than holding myself in my own mind’s eye, fixed with intent on a life of my own. Consequently, for years, my inside self, my Bipolar self, was invisible, and my husband was the only one who saw its ravaging effects — cuts on my arms hidden under long sleeves, meals thrown up in the toilet, hours spent ruminating over suicide methods. Carrie Fisher was still Princess Leia and Wishful Drinking was not yet a life-saving gift; I didn’t yet know that stability comes not just from giving up substances and behaviors that kept me sick, but living my truth in the open, sleeves pushed back, and writing my story, too.
Those doctors couldn’t see that what I wanted was a noisy naked life, with my inside self aligned with my outside self. It was impossible for them to see this as I was a shadow on a negative; if you held that negative to the light, you might wonder: Is that her? Likely, you wouldn’t see me at all. Before my last hospitalization, I remember standing in a dressing room trying to find a dress that would fit my body because everything, even the smallest of sizes, was too big. I looked in the mirror, and then quickly away, unable to see myself because what was visible was not a body but a ghost — there was nothing beautiful or desirable left. In the throes of manic depression, I felt a tragic satisfaction: Soon, soon I would disappear.
We wear our wedding ring on our left hand’s fourth finger because the vein, vena amoris, runs from the heart to this finger. But that wedding ring around my finger, beautiful as it was, with a vintage diamond (I picked it out myself), was a cinch cutting off the supply of sustaining blood from the heart. When I finally took off the ring, selling it for so much less than its worth, I understood that its worth depended on its disappearance and my worth was in my reappearance.
The most important romance now? I take me for my beloved in sickness and in health.
When I learned of Carrie Fisher’s death, I mourned my fierce princess but more, the warrior who showed me how to transform invisible pain into visible strength. The etymology of “visible”: “a condition of being seen, conspicuousness.” In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Fisher said, “I think I do overshare and I sometimes marvel that I do it. In a way, it’s my way of understanding myself. I don’t know, I get it out of my head. It creates community when you can talk about private things.”
I take me for my beloved in sickness and in health.
Also under “visible”: “range of vision under given condition.” When we tell our true stories, our invisible selves manifest, and vision expands because we are no longer cinched by the conditions of secrecy, shame, and silence. “Visible”: “prominence, fame, public attention.” Carrie Fisher used her celebrity to help me — that woman once locked in the safe room, almost locked away for good in a state institution (truly invisible) — to find my way back into a life of my choosing.
I am here. You can see my shame and beauty, my regrets and joy, my teetering in the dark and exultation in the light. I am visible. My heart is my sleeve. This becoming is an unbecoming: an unraveling into a noisy, honest, authentic, raucous, give-no-fucks, almost-45-year-old, single, stable, sane, sober self. My thumb is on my throbbing pulse, and I am wet with longing. My desire runs wild and it is for myself.
I sit here, writing this on the cusp of another new year, on the cusp of another chance to love myself with abandon. I am eating an orange split into two halves, one in hand and one in mouth, juices spilling down my chin. This is what I taste like, flesh and blood, sharp and sweet, and I devour each half whole.