There’s something of a dichotomy when it comes to the coverage of celebrity mental health. Sometimes, celebrities are castigated: they’re “troubled” if they’re lucky, “crazy” if they’re not. Or they’re deified, almost: softly lit photos accompanying stories about their “struggle”, celebrities said to be “admitting” to taking antidepressants or being hospitalised, as if poor mental health is an error of judgement for which they’re now atoning.
This is particularly the case for women: you only have to look at press coverage of Amy Winehouse or Amanda Bynes’ struggles with drugs and alcohol to know that. Women are allowed to be mad, yes, but in a particular way: we are allowed to be quiet and sad, to be melancholic and passive, maybe to lie in bed and cry, as long as we blow our noses and fix our make-up afterwards. There is a shorthand for women who do not fit this narrative, and one that silences them accordingly: they are, succinctly, “a mess”.
So, then, it is even more remarkable that Carrie Fisher spoke so openly, so loudly and for so long about her own mental health problems. Diagnosed with bipolar after an accidental overdose in her late twenties, Fisher was determined to talk about her diagnosis both in interviews and in her own writing.
“I think I do overshare,” she told NPR. “It’s my way of understanding myself. It creates community when you talk about private things”.
She didn’t care what you thought about her, mental illness or otherwise: she just wanted to be honest. She wanted to be true
The nature of bipolar, of course, and of addiction, means that Fisher herself could never subscribe to the set of rules that govern how women are allowed to be mentally ill. And she wouldn’t have wanted to even if she had been able to.
She was loud about it, for one, but also funny and defiant. She’d talk about sex, and drugs, addiction, mania, despair. She’d do it frankly, and honestly: so matter of fact. She acknowledged that being ill was a struggle, that it was hard – you just have to read her book Wishful Drinking to understand how addiction impacted her – but she never felt sorry for herself, never talked about mental illness in a sentimental or self-pitying way.
And she talked about treatment! For once, someone famous talked about treatment! It wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, ambiguity about the journey of mental illness with no meat, no detailing of the simultaneously superhuman and utterly boring effort it takes to get and stay well. Being stable is a process, and not in a fun way, not in the X Factor way: being stable is a long, hard, painful, tediously ongoing process.
She didn’t lie about that: she talked about group therapy, solo therapy, medication. She talked about electroconvulsive therapy, which worked for her in later years, and she was honest about it. She wrote about how it erased her memory: ironic, she said, considering she was losing parts of her mind in order to not lose her mind. No treatment is perfect, and she didn’t shy away from sharing that.
There, in this frankness, lay Carrie Fisher’s true potency, her true and unrivalled radical power. She didn’t care what you thought about her, mental illness or otherwise: she just wanted to be honest. She wanted to be true. She wanted to live as authentically as she could, and for her that involved being open about bipolar and addiction, it meant taking the things that caused her pain and distress and turning them into things that everybody, even the most mentally healthy, could relate to. She made being mentally ill funny; she made being mentally ill cool.
Nobody’s life – especially one as rich, accomplished and interesting as Carrie Fisher’s – can be reduced to their mental health, and nor should it be. We are more than our diagnoses, after all – “I define it, rather than it defining me,” as Fisher said herself. But by being open and defiant and yes, cool, about addiction and mental illness, Carrie Fisher taught us not only that it’s completely okay to be mad and weird and loud about it too, but that those narratives never, ever have to be defined by anyone else.