Remembering Carrie Fisher as a Symbol of Recovery

“We all have doubts about ourselves, sometimes. It’s part of what makes us sentient beings. Doubt makes us examine ourselves and all that we do. And without the ability to do that, we become nothing short of monsters.” – Princess Leia Organa

On December 23, 2016, actress Carrie Fisher — most recognized for playing Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars franchise — suffered from a heart attack just fifteen minutes before her transatlantic flight landed at Los Angeles International Airport.1 Upon landing, she was rushed to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and placed on a ventilator. Despite the care she received, Fisher passed away four days later on December 27, 2016, at 60 years old.

Prior to boarding her transatlantic flight, Fisher has just concluded the European leg of her book tour. Although acting was surely her claim to fame, she had made quite a name for herself as both a writer and spokesperson, particularly as someone who suffered from bipolar disorder and who had a history of addiction.

To honor Fisher after her tragic passing, let’s recount how she came to be a such a prominent symbol of addiction recovery.

Hollywood Royalty

Carrie Fisher was born on October 21, 1956, to pop singer/actor Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.2 It’s due to her parentage that she is widely considered to be “Hollywood royalty” and destined for the stage by birth. However, prior to becoming an actress, Carrie was the family “bookworm,” reading lots of classic literature and even writing some poetry. Her first big break came at age 15 when Fisher landed a role in a Broadway revival of Irene, which starred her mother. When school began interfering with her blossoming Broadway career, she dropped out of high school so she could act full-time.

It was 1975 when Fisher got her first big film role in Shampoo opposite Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie. Soon after her feature debut, she landed what would become her most iconic role: Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars: Episode IV. It was a role she earned over the likes of Jodie Foster and Amy Irving. At just 19, Fisher had won a bigger role and experienced more success with Leia than many people experience in Hollywood in their entire lives.

After Star Wars, Fisher appeared in such films as The Blues BrothersThe ‘BurbsWhen Harry Met Sally and Drop Dead Fred. Meanwhile, she worked behind-the-scenes as a script doctor on numerous occasions, maintaining a presence in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera. Fisher failed to capture the same level of success with her later roles as she did in the role of Princess Leia, but it could be said that some of her most important work, and the work for which she’s most often uncredited, was as a spokesperson for mental health and addiction.

Ongoing Battles with Bipolar Disorder and Addiction

Fisher had been forthcoming about her mental health and substance abuse problems as far back as the late 1970s. In fact, there are many experts and advocates who credit her with changing the landscape of mental illness in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, people weren’t comfortable talking about or admitting their mental health problem, but her honesty showed those suffering from similar problems that they could come clean.3

Star Wars: Episode IV was only Fisher’s second movie, but it quickly propelled her to stardom. And with this newfound stardom came the darker side of Hollywood. As she became more and more drawn into the world drugs and partying, she became addicted to cocaine. Unfortunately, cocaine exacerbated the mania she experience as part of bipolar disorder. As she explained in a 2007 interview with Stephen Fry, Fisher began abusing prescription painkillers like Percodan as a means of offsetting the stimulants and manic periods.4 Due to the severity of her untreated bipolar disorder, she felt like she needed to self-medicate with cocaine and painkillers to feel normal, but this self-medication triggered the addictions with which she would battle throughout her life.

“There are many experts and advocates who credit [Carrie] with changing the landscape of mental illness in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, people weren’t comfortable talking about or admitting their mental health problem, but her honesty showed those suffering from similar problems that they could come clean.”

Like other addicts, Fisher experienced intermittent periods of sobriety and active drug use. She made her first trip to an inpatient treatment center when she was 28 years old. After a period of sobriety, she accidentally overdosed on painkillers and sleeping pills, which resulted in her trip to rehab. The experience served as the inspiration for the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. The novel would go on to be adapted as a feature film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

Journey to Health and Activism

In 2001, an interview with Carrie Fisher was published in Psychology Today in which she was particularly open about how severe her addiction and mental health issues became as well as how she finally regained her health.5 She spoke of a particular period when her daughter (Billie Catherine Lourd, b. 1992) was eight years old and Fisher, herself, had suffered from what she believes to have been a psychotic break. Crippling depression prevented her from getting out of the bed much of the time, but other times she would go days on end without sleep and hallucinate.

Fortunately, her brother, Todd Fisher, and her former partner, Bryan Lourd, remained with her in the hospital and provided the support she needed while starting with the appropriate medications to manage her condition. Her most recent relapse was in 2005 when lobbyist R. Gregory Stevens died in Fisher’s home. The autopsy report stated that his death was due to cocaine and oxycodone use, but an undiagnosed heart condition was also a factor.6 Stevens’ death was traumatizing to Fisher, who resorted to self-medicating with drugs over the next year.

Finally when she got sufficient treatment for her bipolar disorder, Fisher was able get sober. Despite the nudge that her rapid rise to fame may have given her, the actress never blamed Hollywood for her addictions and, instead, took full accountability. This is surely one of the most inspiring messages that she has conveyed about substance abuse, but it’s not her only message.

“Sometimes you can only find heaven by slowly backing away from Hell,” Fisher said in Wishful Drinking. The line is not only telling of her personal outlook on mental health and addiction, but also of the reality of these afflictions. Fisher stated numerous times throughout her adulthood that she felt it was her responsibility to share the lessons that she had learned over the course of her struggles with others. Her countless interviews consistently portray a woman who is flawed and imperfect, but also understanding and benevolent. The loss of Carrie Fisher — iconic actress, talented writer, outspoken advocate and role model — is unspeakably disheartening, but her legacy will always remain as a symbol of honesty and hope for others with addiction and mental health issues.


Sources

1. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/12/carrie-fisher-dies
2. http://www.biography.com/people/carrie-fisher-9542646
3. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/30/carrie-fisher-actress-writer-and-addict-recovery-advocate.html
4. https://web.archive.org/web/20071104071817/
5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/tv_and_radio/secretlife_documentary.shtml
6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200111/interview-the-fisher-queen
7. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4063186/Could-Carrie-Fisher-s-struggles-substance-abuse-weight-loss-caused-heart-attack.html

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