Fisher’s kindness to others with bipolar disorder was one of the striking things I learned about ‘Princess Leia’ in researching her life for my book.
USA TODAY – Early in 2004, entrepreneur Joanne Doan had just gotten funding for a serious niche magazine. Called bpHope, it would be tailored to the more than 6 million Americans with bipolar disorder, which, until 1980, was called manic depression. In a fit of hubris, Doan contacted Carrie Fisher — famous of course as an actor, writer and charismatic personality. Since Fisher had gone public with her diagnosis of bipolar I (the more serious form) four years earlier, Doan asked her the long-shot question: Would she pose for the cover and give a lengthy interview to a magazine that didn’t exist yet?
“`Yes!’’ Carrie said, and “without hesitation,’’ Doan told me. She was happily stunned: “Carrie Fisher on the cover got us advertising we never would have gotten otherwise. I don’t know what we would have done without her.’’
Carrie’s candor in three interviews for the magazine “inspired our community to be able to … go out there and live fulfilling lives,” Doan said.“She took the stigma against bipolar disorder and kicked it to the curb.’’
Kind and encouraging to bipolar fans
Carrie’s significance in encouraging people who are bipolar to get over their shame, and her kindness to others in the community, were among the most striking things I learned in researching her life for my forthcoming book, “Carrie Fisher: A Life On the Edge.”
In 2000, she told Diane Sawyer about the severe psychotic break she had suffered. She had actually written the word “shame” instead of her name on a hospital form, Now, she said, looking into Sawyer’s eyes, “I am mentally ill. I can say that.”
Even at “Star Wars” events, she spoke of her illness and “made extra time, long after she was supposed to leave, talking to fans who were also bipolar,” said David Zentz, a nuclear worker and “Star Wars” fanatic who saw her at more than three dozen events over the years.
Carrie was a way-paver, especially with women. The only female celebrity who had comprehensively admitted her bipolarity before Carrie did was the former child actress Patty Duke, who in 1992 had published a memoir called “A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic-Depressive Illness.”
But, as Princess Leia and an icon to her peer group, Carrie’s influence was stronger.
Media shaming for bipolar women
Even though there’s the same personal shame for men as for women in being bipolar, women bipolars are media shamed far more than men are. After Carrie’s forthright declaration of her mental illness to Sawyer, it would be four more years before Jane Pauley dared write about her bipolarity, more than a decade before Catherine Zeta-Jonesrevealed hers and Demi Lovato admitted that she had been diagnosed, and nearly 18 years before Mariah Carey did.
Mental illness is agonizing, and bipolar disorder has its own form of agony. Carrie once described her manic periods to the Los Angeles Times as “feeling like my mind’s been having a party all night long and I’m the last person to arrive and now I have to clean up the mess.”
And being female can make things harder: Women are often diagnosed as merely “the worried well” until it’s too late to get the most effective treatment. And because of female hormonal changes, the arc from premenstrual to menopausal, women often have to change their medication frequently. Also, virtually all medication for bipolar — including the mainstay, lithium — involves weight gain, a particularly sensitive issue for women.
Credit for pushing the truth
At the end of her life, the usually snarky and tough Carrie Fisher admitted to being deeply hurt by the weight-shaming she received on the internet, and much of her weight gain had to do with her medication. Bipolarity is not “unlike a tour of duty in Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside),” she wrote in her book “Wishful Drinking.” And she believed that pride, not shame, should come from being a warrior in that battle.
One of the most important things Carrie did, says Stephen Fried, an author who specializes in the subject, is to make the point that just because a person’s symptoms are gone for a while, they are not gone for good — they will return. The public often misunderstands the chronic nature of mental illness and gets wrongly judgmental with what they misconstrue as relapse caused by an undisciplined person rather than the sheer tenacity of the disease.
“Carrie Fisher was always in people’s faces about her mental illness,” Fried said, admiringly. “She let you know that even when she seemed fine, she wasn’t. She deserves a lot of credit for pushing that truth’’ and humanizing the disease.
“I am mentally ill. I can say that.” Those were blunt, powerful words from an unusually honest and very helpful woman.
Sheila Weller is the author of “Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge,” to be published Nov. 12, from which parts of this column are drawn. Her earlier books include the 2008 “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — And the Journey of a Generation.” Find her on Facebook here.