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Thank You, Carrie Fisher, for Giving a Voice to All of Us Battling Mental Illness

Image Source: Getty Images
Image Source: Getty Images

Usually, I’m relatively unfazed by celebrity deaths. Don’t get me wrong — I have empathy for the family of those affected. For the colleagues, loved ones, and friends left behind. I feel for their loss. But for the most part, my life is not impacted; my life remains unchanged.

The same cannot be said for Carrie Fisher’s passing. This one touched me deeply, in unexpected ways.

Because the truth is, Fisher was more than “just a celebrity,” or “another Hollywood actress.” More than just the star of one of my all-time favorite movies: Star Wars. She was a mother and a writer. A recovered addict, and a fighter. A mental health sufferer, and mental health survivor. And, like myself, Fisher was a mental health advocate.

She spent decades speaking out against the stigma and working to reshape our collective mental health care conversation. And while there are so many things I want to say right now — while there are so many things that need to be said — the only thing I can seem to muster is “thank you.”

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Thank you, Ms. Fisher, for being such a powerful woman. A strong woman. A brave woman. And an inspirational woman, both onscreen and off. As “our princess” and as a person.

Thank you for sharing your stories with us, and your struggles with us — even in the face of backlash and criticism. Even in the face of adversity and endless scrutiny.

Thank you for using your position and your voice to not only make a difference, but to remind others struggling with a mental illness or addiction that they are not “bad” or “crazy,” they are not hopeless, and they are not alone.

And thank you, Ms. Fisher, for being one of the most outspoken mental health advocates of my generation. For being one of the most outspoken mental health advocates of my life.

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Since news of her death broke on Tuesday, we’ve seen countless articles about Fisher popping up on our Facebook newsfeeds, all lauding her incredible body of work over the last four decades or so. Her iconic run as Princess Leia in Star Wars; her memorable (and hilarious) role as Marie in When Harry Met Sally; even her first bit part in the 1975 film Shampoo, where she played the daughter of a Hollywood actress — a part that in many ways, mirrored her reality.

But away from the spotlight, Fisher struggled with mental illness most of her life; though alcoholism and addiction masked her symptoms for many years. In fact, Fisher didn’t receive a proper diagnosis — of bipolar disorder — until she was in her mid-20s. Unfortunately, Fisher was still drinking heavily and using drugs at the time, and as she later shared, she didn’t buy it. She also didn’t want to.

It wasn’t until Fisher got sober, several years later, that she realized something else may be “wrong.” Only then did she finally accept her bipolar diagnosis. Back in 2013, she told the Herald-Tribune:

“When I got sober, I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m an alcoholic or an addict, so that’s what’s wrong with me. I don’t need therapy.’ A year later, when I was going to have to turn myself into the brain police, I was not happy.”

But after coming to terms with her diagnosis, Fisher became an outspoken advocate on all fronts, opening up about her struggles with addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness in her 1987 novel Postcards on the Edge. While the book was a dramatized version of her own experiences, thinly veiled behind characters with different names, it was so well-received that it was later adapted into the 1990 film by the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

Of course, all of this may not sound profound. Not to many. (I mean, there are countless books, websites, and people dedicated to the subject of mental health care, and who are working hard to #StoptheStigma each and every day.) But it was, especially when you consider the timing.

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Fisher came forward during the height of her career, in a time when mental illness of any kind was still highly stigmatized. In a time when you wouldn’t dare tell your colleagues, your boss, your best friends, or even family about your “problem;” and you certainly wouldn’t tell strangers. You certainly wouldn’t write a book.

But Fisher wasn’t afraid. She didn’t give a damn about what her critics may think or what the public perception might be. And so, over the years, she spoke out: openly, honestly, with grace and with candor.

“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she told Diane Sawyer in a PrimeTime interview back in 2000. “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.”

And thank God she did, because her words not only made waves, they helped to educate and inform. They’ve helped change the conversation surrounding mental illness, reminding the world of what it truly is: an illness. One caused by a combination of biological, physiological, and environmental factors. Her words helped those who are struggling feel like people, and not just a list of symptoms. Not just a diagnosis.

Throughout my own life, Carrie Fisher — and so many other outspoken advocates like her — helped me feel comfortable in my own skin, and my own mind, even when I wasn’t.

Even when I was lost within it.

Image Source: Kim Zapata
Image Source: Kim Zapata

You see, when I was 15 years old, something changed. I changed; and before long, my mind — the same mind which once helped me fly imaginary pirate ships and rocket ships and play princess when I was little; the same mind that helped me believe I was a blaster-wielding princess, just like Leia — turned against me. And not in a subtle way. She turned suddenly and darkly, and just as I believed the pretend adventures we once had were real, I believed each and every negative word she now said: I believed that I wasn’t good enough, and that I would never be good enough, for anyone. I believed that I was a failure. A hopeless, unloveable failure. And I believed my life was meaningless.

I believed my friends, and the entire world, would be better off without me.

I was lost and hopeless, trapped and anxious, and I wasn’t eating. Like Fisher, I wasn’t sleeping. Instead, I would lay awake listening to the “voices” in my head.

The voices of depression.

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The good news is that it didn’t take me long to receive a proper diagnosis. Well, not nearly as long as Fisher, but the shame of being diagnosed with a mental illness — of being diagnosed with an “it’s-all-in-your-head” sort of illness — was so strong, and so real, that I avoided treatment for years . I even stopped going to my first psychiatrist weeks after he uttered the big “D word,” and instead of getting help, I got better at acting. I got better at lying. I got better at hiding, from my friends, my family, and myself.

And I lived this lie — off and on — for more than 10 years. For an entire decade, I actively avoided regular help; instead, I would only seek out therapy (or medication) when I was beyond desperate. When I was suicidal.

But when postpartum depression struck and I was fantasizing about death instead of my newborn daughter, something had to give. Something had to change. And so, I not only got help but I spoke up. I admitted to myself, my family, my colleagues, and my friends that I had an illness, a mental illness, and that I had said illness most of my life.

Image Source: Kim Zapata
Image Source: Kim Zapata

Shortly afterward “coming out,” I began writing and speaking. I began telling my story to anyone, and everyone, who would listen. I made mental health advocacy my mission, and my day-to-day work.

But it wasn’t by chance; it was because of the words of brave and courageous advocates like Fisher, who weren’t afraid to do the same.

So thank you, Carrie Fisher — because you helped shine a light on mental illness in a brilliant, poignant, and dignified way. Your works, and your words, helped to shape lives, change lives, and to save lives. And your actions — and the actions of people like you — are the reasons I am a mental health advocate today.

They are the reasons I will never again be afraid to speak up and share my truth.

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