First published by The Independent, 28th December 2016
This year has been suffused with suffering and tragedy, from the deaths of celebrated childhood icons to the immense loss of life in Yemen and Syria. Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher may be just one of many who slipped away from us too soon, but her legacy as an outspoken mental health advocate must not be overlooked.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 24, Fisher demonstrated a lifelong commitment to breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness. Her openness and honesty serve as an inspiration and a rallying cry to anyone who’s suffered from mental health problems. Her three memoirs, countless interviews and newspaper advice column sent a clear message: I will not be silent, I will not be cowed by my past or the chemistry in my brain.
Fisher wasn’t ashamed. She was strong enough to override any innate compulsion to be secretive about the reality of living with bipolar. She recognised shame and embarrassment as entirely superfluous to requirements. Carrie Fisher faced her illness with strength and humour, using her wit to transform the “other” of bipolar disorder into something ordinary and manageable.
In an interview with ABC News, she 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. Better me than you.”
She spoke about addiction in the same candid way, never conforming to the unspoken yet pervasive belief that famous men bingeing on drugs are damaged and glamorous (Keith Richard, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Depp) while famous women are damaged and contemptible (Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan).
It’s inevitable that some will respond to Fisher’s death with the same pseudo-moralism that tainted the coverage of the late George Michael, as though addiction and mental illness are characteristics for us to sigh and raise our eyebrows over. I like to imagine that Carrie would be laughing at this pursed-lipped, pearl-clutching, one hand resting on her beloved French bulldog Gary and the other reaching to perch her thick-rimmed glasses on top of her head.
There’s altogether too much disingenuous talk about what makes a “good” female role model, but I can say that Carrie Fisher is one of mine. She triumphed over addiction and bad relationships. In her final advice column, she wrote to another bipolar sufferer: “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges.” She describes the heroism inherent in emotionally surviving the experience of living with mental illness with a wisdom not easily acquired.
Fisher should be remembered as much more than a princess clad in a gold slave bikini. She was a mental health activist, a writer and a feminist; a woman who displayed the kind of courage, warmth and honesty that many of us can only aspire to.