‘Drugs make me feel more normal. You don’t even get high. It’s like a job, you punch in.’
Carrie Fisher battled bipolar disorder and substance abuse for 45 years until her death in 2016. The Star Wars actress, famed for her role as Princess Leia, was diagnosed with the condition in her 20s after a drug overdose left her battling for her life.
Bipolar disorder, is characterised by extreme mood swings which include episodes of mania and depression, often severe, and can last for several weeks, months or even years. The mania phase of bipolar disorder may include feelings of elation and self-importance, having great ideas and grand plans, being distracted and full of energy. It can also include not eating and not sleeping and extreme risk taking. Symptoms experienced during the depressive episodes may include feelings of despair, worthlessness and hopelessness, a loss of interest in everyday activities, having difficulty concentrating and remembering things, difficulty sleeping and suicidal thoughts. The pattern and frequency of the episodes vary, some people may have episodes of depression more often than mania, or vice versa. It is also possible to experience a ‘normal’ mood between the two phases. Some may experience a mixed state whereby they have symptoms of depression and mania at the same time.
The actress was medicated for her illness, sometimes reluctantly for fear of it disrupting her creativity, but suffered a lifetime of drug dependence alongside her condition.
Around 60% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are known to have used drugs or alcohol in an attempt to relieve themselves from some of the symptoms of the condition.
Carrie passed away in 2016 at the age of 60, four days after having a cardiac arrest on a flight heading for LA. The coroner’s report said the actress had alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine and ecstasy in her system.
‘I was lying to doctors and looking through people’s drawers and medicine cabinets for drugs.’
Her drug dependence stemmed from her desire to control her illness and turn off what was going on in her brain. The decision to use drugs is often a response to stress. Drugs and alcohol are frequently used in an attempt to self-meditate against the symptoms that occur alongside the manic or depressive phase of bipolar disorder. Mind-altering substances trick the brain into believing they are needed in order to feel OK. A lifetime of drug misuse, plus the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) Carrie underwent caused her to forget parts of her life.
Carrie is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Debbie’s success as a talented actress, who had a 70-year career after being catapulted into the limelight after playing the leading role in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), was a cause of recurring conflict to Carrie who wondered how she could measure up to her mother’s talent and success. Even Carrie’s fame didn’t stop her anguish, believing her mum was trying to compete with her.
Just a few days after Carrie’s death, her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died of a stroke at the same hospital 24 hours after her daughter. Carrie’s ashes were buried with Debbie’s coffin in a Prozac tablet-shaped urn.
A role model for mental illness (bipolar disorder)
Throughout her life Carrie spoke openly about her illness and even used it as inspiration for some of her creative work. This also meant her illness and addiction, like her stardom, was public and many followed her lifelong journey, some criticising it, some admiring her honesty and some living with the condition finding a reassurance in Carrie’s voice.
As well as being a successful actress, Carrie was a prolific writer who also worked as a ‘script doctor’ on many Hollywood films and produced several novels including her memoir Wishful Drinking where she tells of her battle with addiction and life with bipolar disorder.
People in the public eye, like Carrie, have a unique opportunity to educate and inform the public if they choose to speak out about their illness. This may encourage others to speak about their mental health and increase the volume of discussion around mental health and ill health thus reducing the stigma that still persists around conditions such as Carrie’s.
They can be an inspiration to others who are living with similar mental health conditions, showing that they are not alone and demonstrating that people living with a mental health disorder can be successful in their life and in their work.