On the event of her passing, I had a stark realisation (one seen only through clouding tears): that Carrie Fisher was my mental health icon, for at least a decade, if not longer. I am fast coming up to a decade of living with a diagnosis of Bipolar II, something I don’t really think (or talk or write or tweet) about anymore – although here we are – because I’m so well medicated and supported that I sort of stink of sane.
This forthcoming anniversary will also mean it is close to a decade since I was introduced, by the then very new YouTube, to Stephen Fry’s documentary ‘The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive‘, which in turn was an introduction to Fisher’s history with the illness and her extreme brand of frankness. I was left devastated by her death because for many of us living with the disorder she was providing a pretty terrific mud-map on how to get through life with it, and, most importantly, to age with it. I mourn that she won’t show us how to live through her sixties and seventies and, hypothetically, further on, but, back to reality, she has also tragically proved that we have a statistically higher risk of dying younger and not just from complications caused by suicidal ideation etc.
I wanted to plead with the news services that day to understand her legacy in mental health advocacy when they report on her passing. I feared about a billion too many teenage boys jerked off to images of her in a gold bikini for that to be true, but, for the most part, I was proven wrong. ‘WHO Magazine’ – the weekly tabloid that is usually about the disappearing or resurfacing fat on Hollywood bodies – ran a cover story about her death with the headline ‘Her Amazing Life’. Please take note of the absence of ‘Tragic’ or ‘Crazy’ or ‘Fucked up’ in that description. The writers at the magazine also went with ‘colourful and complicated’, which, well, whose life isn’t colourful and complicated? If yours isn’t, do something about it.
Mostly though, through all of this, I am hopeful that over the coming years people will slowly discover her traces in this separate sphere (a parallel dimension for the jerk off ‘Star Boys’ playing along at home) and that’s where her life will take on new meaning for those who need it. If I say that ‘Carrie Fisher was my mental health icon’ what do I mean? Part of it is the fact of saying it at all – the idea of there being such a thing as a mental health icon, or a mental health hero – feels like a relatively new concept, and it’s not just in the phrasing. As stigma around mental ill health recedes, advocates can emerge more freely. Fisher came from a place of intense privilege in order to speak out at all, and a spotlight was trained on her from early on, the stage already built, but to state as much is not to take away from her achievements in that particular arena.
Indeed, part of the shock of Fisher’s death was realising we had lost such a strong advocate, a voice who enunciated, with great strength and clarity, the particular costs of living with the disorder. It was easy to forget that she had been doing so for a very long time. In losing a leading light, you often find, through shared mourning, the community around you. So, yes, I had my own personal rituals (screaming in the ocean on hearing of her heart attack), but then I had a good friend – a fellow writer and broadcaster – sent me a message on the day of her death, asking for a one-on-one beer at the quietest pub we could find, to share feelings of her loss and reflect on our own stories once more. We talked about setting up a possible cultural resource for those newly diagnosed with the disorder, a hint towards further public campaigning (indeed, Fisher herself had a similar set of resources on her website already). We hugged it out.
Fisher has left us with so many leads as to how to handle the disorder and care for each other. She has left us with a significant body of literature on the subject, in the form of semi-autobiographical novels and memoirs; ‘Postcards From The Edge’ and ‘Wishful Drinking’ perhaps being the best examples of those respective forms of work. There are countless interviews on late night talk shows (the best might be with Craig Ferguson, who was equally open about his struggles with substance addiction). There are memes explaining her definitions of the illness. There are more than 2000 tweets, some of them in the most cryptic form, but nearly always entertaining. No one with any form of Bipolar Affective Disorder would ever likely complain about a lack of productivity! (Although don’t assume that the disorder makes you naturally talented or your writing any good, as that’s a dangerous qualitative game you don’t want to play; Fisher was a great writer of one liners, and an extremely talented Hollywood scriptwriter, but even she wouldn’t really hold up in a debate about comparative literary quality). Most astonishingly, just a month before her death, she published an advice column in ‘The Guardian’ written to a young woman, newly diagnosed with Bipolar, in which she wrote:
We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic – not “I survived living in Mosul during an attack” heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. That’s why it’s important to find a community – however small – of other bipolar people to share experiences and find comfort in the similarities… As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.
Most importantly, it would seem, she provided us with a way to reach out and talk to each other, a radical act for what is, almost by definition, an internalised and painfully isolating illness.
I wrote most of what is contained in this little, informal missive on the morning of her death, before I decided to walk away from the thoughts and take some time by myself. I thought to myself that Carrie would have wanted me to treat myself that way on the overwhelming news of her passing and that there is really the heart of it for me, forevermore somewhere in the back of my complex mind, I’ll be thinking: I think Carrie would want me to treat myself that way.
About Sam Twyford-Moore
Sam Twyford-Moore is the Creative Director of The Melbourne Agency and the founding host of The Rereaders podcast. He is the former Festival Director and CEO of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. In 2014, working with Asialink Arts, he curated and managed the international writers’ tour ‘Island to Island’ connecting emerging Indonesian and Australian writers in a train journey across Java and Bali.
This commission was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.
The Write-ability program is a partnership between Writers Victoria and Arts Access Victoria made possible by the generous support of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and Grace Marion Wilson Trust.
CC: image of the actress Carrie Fisher, member of the jury in the 70 Edition of Venice International Film Festival 2013. Photo by Riccardo Ghilardi.