Carrie Fisher, a princess of both Hollywood royalty and the famed Star Wars films, died on December 27, 2016, a few days after suffering a heart attack. She was 60.
Fisher, daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds — the latter of whom died the day after her daughter — was an actress, writer, and humorist, perhaps most known for her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars.
But for many, Fisher’s most notable role was that of mental health activist, particularly as it pertained to bipolar disorder and substance abuse awareness.
Years of drug abuse and emotional instability no doubt were exacerbated by the chaos that accompanied a messy, public, scandalous upbringing. Fisher, who at first was in denial, finally accepted a bipolar diagnosis in her mid-20s that had been made a few years earlier, perhaps coming to the realization that the illness most likely was an underlying contributor to her years of substance abuse.
With this disease — at the time known as “manic-depression” before evolving semantically into what we now call “bipolar disorder” — Fisher took the bull by the horns. Instead of hiding behind the thick layer of stigma surrounding mental illness, she became a public figure and activist for the disease.
Aside from a prolific acting career, Fisher’s openness was exhibited in both theater and prose.
Fisher’s 1987 bestseller, Postcards from the Edge, was her first literary work — a semi-autobiographical novel that addressed, among other things, the dangers of drug abuse in Hollywood. Her 2004 sequel, The Best Awful, continued with the demons associated with substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and Hollywood self-obsession. 2008’s Wishful Drinking, a humorous autobiography based on her one-woman stage show, was frank, witty, funny, and overall completely and unapologetically honest about the mental illness that coursed through her life and career.
This was the Carrie Fisher who I “knew” and respected — not just the Jedi warrior with the funny hairstyle.
It’s interesting to me, and coincidental, that shortly before Fisher’s death, my fourth-grade daughter received an English research assignment about disabilities. Among those listed in the email that was sent home were people who are blind, deaf, or paraplegic, and those who have autism, ALS, or dyslexia. This list, which seemed a little broad — most likely on purpose, I would imagine — got me thinking about what exactly defines a disability. I started to ponder this even further when my daughter came home from school and told me that she asked the teacher if she could do her report on mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder.
My daughter’s question, which made me kind of proud, actually, also got me thinking even more deeply about disability, and what defines having one. Have I ever really viewed my bipolar diagnosis as a “disability”? Should I? Can it be the case for others, but not necessarily for me? These were questions in my mind — at the time, I had no answers.
The assignment involved conducting research in books catered toward children, online research, and personal accounts. (It was surprising to me that while we were able to find one memoir from a teenager who battled depression, we could not find a nonfiction book about bipolar disorder that was geared toward children.)
And so I repeat again, not just in my mind but now out loud, what defines the term “having a disability”? Is being left-handed a disability since you can’t write with your other hand? Is wearing glasses a disability? In a sense, don’t we all have some kind of disability or another?
This assignment got me thinking about its ultimate goal, which, I would imagine, is to show that while some of us are different, we need to make sure to create an environment that includes everyone and promotes togetherness.
Part of me is not quite sure that the term “inclusion” necessarily is the most accurate word to describe this idea. I can’t help but think it might unintentionally and counterproductively add some kind of “otherizing” component to certain people. It’s like saying, “Hey, these guys are different, but let’s accommodate for them.”
But maybe that’s just me. And let me be clear — I can’t really think of an alternative way to say it. Or, at least, I wasn’t really able to articulate what I meant until Fisher’s death, when I started thinking more about her roles in both mental health advocacy and society in general.
Following her death, the internet became alive not just with articles about her mental health advocacy, but with a huge movement on twitter — #InHonorOfCarrie — wherein people with mental illness actually started “coming out,” so to speak, revealing information about themselves that they may not have had the courage to share otherwise.
What Fisher did was to help normalize a “disability” that not only was a challenge in itself, but that was doubly hard because mental illness, especially at that time — and certainly now, still — was so taboo. Her ultimate message, at least as I view it, is not that some of us are “disabled,” but rather that we are “differently abled.”
Fisher’s brilliance, wit, warmth, and presence made her so incredibly compelling — and continue to make her so compelling — that it’s almost as if her very being redefined words like “disability” and “othering.”
Carrie Fisher was a force to be reckoned with. In the movie franchise, she started out as a princess and then, in the later films, became a general. And in the end, she was not “disabled,” but on the contrary, completely “abled.”
She was a change-maker, she was a leader, and in the strongest sense of the word, she was a true hero.