Princess Leia: Warrior for Mental Health

Photo Credit: Actress Carrie Fisher (right) and daughter Billie Lourd (left) in costume for The Last Jedi, taken by Annie Leibovitz. 24 May 2017. Vanity Fair.


 

Last week, I went on a much anticipated date with my husband to see the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. I have a reputation for falling asleep during late-night movies, so my husband was pleased that I stayed awake for the whole movie. I really enjoyed it.

Going into The Last Jedi, I knew this would be my last chance to see Princess Leia on screen. Carrie Fisher having passed away one year ago last month (soon after The Last Jedi‘s filming), this would be her crowning performance. In December 2016 Hollywood—and the whole world—lost a witty, talented actress and screenwriter who was ever full of character…and incidentally helped tweak many of her own lines in The Last Jedi to make the dialogue more light and fun.

The storyline of this epic film holds special meaning to me in the context of the actress’s personal life story. Soon after The Last Jedi begins, we watch as Rebel fighters undertake a dangerous mission to destroy a First Order dreadnought (I’m still not sure exactly what a dreadnought is, but it was apparently a huge deal to the Rebel Alliance). This mission is carried out, however, at a very high cost in Rebel lives—and against the express wishes of their leader, General Leia Organa. It was a passionate though somewhat hot-headed Captain Poe Dameron who led the Rebel mission, and it is the same captain who must then face General Organa and try to defend his actions after the technically successful, though deadly, mission is completed. Their dialogue is telling. Poe insists that the mission was a success:

Poe: There were heroes on that mission!

The General replies, censuring the young captain in light of all of the brave lives that were lost:

Leia: Dead heroes. No leaders.

Throughout the rest of this episode, we watch as General Organa renews her faith in Poe, training him to be a true leader for the Resistance. Moreover, after countless more incidents involving smart strategizing, fierce fighting, and a good dose of the Force, the Rebel Alliance eventually prevails in escaping the grip of the First Order. And in this context of the Rebels’ ultimate victory—and the fire this lights in the “downtrodden and oppressed” of the universe—those “dead heroes” of Poe’s dreadnought mission did not perish in vain. This ultimate victory gives special meaning to their loss. At the movie’s end, we watch the Rebels—though few in number—come off victorious against the First Order, while Leia reassures these warriors that the Resistance has everything that it needs to rise again.

                                                                                     

Those who are familiar with Carrie Fisher’s personal story know that outside the Star Wars storyline, Carrie was a warrior in her own right: a warrior for mental health. Just a month before her death, in her regular advice column in The Guardian, Carrie responded to a reader named Alex who suffered—like she did—from bipolar disorder. Alex was clearly suffering, as he writes, “Have you found a way to feel at peace when your brain seesaws constantly? I can’t see very far down the line from here and I hope that you can give me some insight.” Full of wisdom and compassion, Carrie responds:

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. [1]

Carrie knew intimately of the pain and suffering described by that Guardian reader. It is a pain that only those who have experienced mental illness can truly understand. Every bit as real as physical pain, the emotional pain that comes with bipolar and other mental disorders can be so intense that it becomes difficult to survive—all the while being completely invisible to everyone around, and impossible to measure in any empirical manner. This is the pain that Carrie knew, and this is the pain that has torn apart and ultimately stolen away the lives of countless warriors of mental illness.

For decades before her death, Carrie led the fight against the stigma surrounding mental illness—through her openness with her own personal battles.[2] In her 2008 memoir, Carrie explains, “At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”[3] Additionally, Carrie openly admitted at various times to her previous (though not her contemporary) usage of illicit substances in her very complicated struggle to survive her illness. As Carrie told Psychology Today in 2001, “Drugs made me feel more normal. They contained me.”[4] Carrie’s drug use—though initially a voluntary choice on her part—became a terrible addiction she would fight her whole life, due to the extreme emotional vulnerability created by her illness.[5]

In the end, Carrie’s own life would be counted among the fallen in the war against mental illness. On December 23, 2016, on a flight from London to Los Angeles, Carrie suffered a heart attack and stopped breathing just before landing. She was revived by CPR until paramedics arrived on the scene, after which she spent four days in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Los Angeles—but failed to recover. Carrie left this life on December 27, 2016 at the far-too-young age of 60.[6] While sleep apnea was determined to be the official cause of death, drug intake was identified as a contributing factor. Indeed, the actress was found to have varying amounts of multiple illicit drugs in her body at the time of death.[7] And though the precise cause of her death would never be absolutely confirmed, Carrie’s daughter, Billie Lourd, elucidated, “My mom battled drug addiction and mental illness her entire life. She ultimately died of it.  She was purposefully open in all of her work about the social stigmas surrounding these diseases.”[8]

And so, Carrie was fighting to the end—fighting her mental illness, and likewise fighting the drug addiction to which she had fallen victim decades earlier. Yet even in her untimely death, the Princess was fulfilling her mission of eradicating the shame associated with mental illness: If a person so widely known and esteemed as America’s Princess could ultimately lose her personal battle with mental illness (and the drug addiction that seemed to attend it), this must be a fierce battle indeed.

Says Billie, about her mother’s mission:

She talked about the shame that torments people and their families confronted by these diseases. I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles. Seek help, fight for government funding for mental health programs. Shame and those social stigmas are the enemies of progress to solutions and ultimately a cure. Love you Momby. [9]

These are words of wisdom, spoken by a daughter who had personally witnessed the ravages of a very real, though invisible, war.

                                                                                     

Actor Mark Hamill recently revealed that the next, Episode IX, of Star Wars was to be the one that focused on the character of the Princess, General Leia Organa. However, due to Carrie’s passing, and because of the director’s decision to give proper respect to the Princess by allowing Episode VIII—her last actual performance—to be the last time viewers would see her on the screen, the Star Wars plot would be modified accordingly.[10] And so, we can expect the Princess in some manner to fade gracefully out of the Star Wars storyline and out of the ongoing war against the First Order. Yet it seems certain that her presence will loom large in the hearts and minds of the warriors still on the screen.

At the same time, the Princess has faded gracefully out of the scene of the ongoing war against mental illness. But her presence looms large, and must remain in the hearts of the warriors who continue in their onward fight. Carrie Fisher is a fallen warrior, one who fought to the end with grace and great courage. But like the heroes on that first mission in The Last Jedi, the life of the Princess was not meant to be lost in vain. Instead, the downtrodden and oppressed of this world—those who fight very real battles every day for their very survival—can look to the Princess for inspiration to continue moving forward in their fight.

In the Princess’s own words: “Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side. As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me what you can do.” [11]

 


Notes

[1] See Weaver, Jane, and Linda Carroll. 2016. “Carrie Fisher was a ‘bright light’ for people struggling with bipolar disorder.” Today. December 27. Accessed January 8, 2018. https://www.today.com/health/carrie-fisher-bright-light-people-bipolar-disorder-t106461.

[2] See ABC News. 2000. “PrimeTime: Carrie Fisher Interview.” ABC News. December 21. Accessed January 8, 2018. http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=132315&page=1. Carrie shares about her struggle with mental illness and drug addiction, in open detail. She proclaims, “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital.” In great courage, Carrie states, “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. Better me than you.”

[3] This quote comes from Fisher, Carrie. 2008. Wishful Drinking. New York: Deliquence Inc.

[4] See Ma, Lybi. 2001. “Interview: The Fisher Queen.” Psychology Today, November 1. Accessed January 8, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200111/interview-the-fisher-queen.

[5] See ABC News, “Carrie Fisher Interview” http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=132315&page=1. Carrie was diagnosed as a manic depressive (bipolar disorder) by her mid-20’s, but she wouldn’t believe the doctors: “I thought they told me I was manic depressive to make me feel better about being a drug addict,” she says. “It’s what you think. If you could just control yourself … You had an indulged childhood … You were a child of privilege … I don’t know, that’s what I thought. You’re just a drug addict.” Note that in sharing Carrie’s story, I am not in any way justifying her drug use, nor am I advocating or excusing drug use in others who suffer from mental illness. If anything, those with mental illness can learn from Carrie that trying drugs even once could put them on a pathway that leads to devastating consequences. There are better solutions out there! For more on the extreme dangers of drug use for those dealing with mental illness, see Mozingo, Joe, Soumya Karlamangla, and Richard Winton. 2017. “Carrie Fisher opened up about her demons–and knew she wouldn’t have a Hollywood ending.” Los Angeles Times, June 20. Accessed January 8, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-carrie-fisher-addiction-20170620-story.html.

[6] See Puente, Maria. 2016. “Carrie Fisher dies after heart attack on flight from London.” 12 News – Connecting Arizona. December 27. Accessed January 8, 2018. http://www.12news.com/news/carrie-fisher-dies-at-age-60/379196307.

[7] See Miller, Mike, and Jodi Gugliemi. 2017. “Carrie Fisher had heroin, cocaine in system when she died, report reveals–As daughter Billie releases emotional statement.” People. June 19. Accessed January 8, 2018. http://people.com/movies/carrie-fisher-toxicology-report/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Shamsian, Jacob. 2017. “Mark Hamill says Carrie Fisher was supposed to be ‘more prominent’ in the final ‘Star Wars’ movie.” Business Insider. October 9. Accessed January 8, 2018. http://www.businessinsider.com/star-wars-episode-ix-mark-hamill-says-carrie-fisher-was-meant-to-have-bigger-role-2017-10.

[11] See Weaver and Carroll, “Carrie Fisher was a ‘bright light'” https://www.today.com/health/carrie-fisher-bright-light-people-bipolar-disorder-t106461. These were Carrie’s final words to be published in her advice column in The Guardian, less than a month before she died.

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