We all have those few days a year, outside births and the major holidays, that we hold close to warm our hearts in times of great sorrow. Days where we're reminded of moments we cherish, ones that made our journey of life truly unique to any outside perspective. October 21st is one such day for me because, on this day, we celebrate the birth of Carrie Fisher. It is also a day where I'm reminded of the significant impact this beloved icon has had on the course of my life.
As much progress as society has made, there's still an unshakeable stigma surrounding mental health and how it should be treated. From the politics of Washington D.C. to what we see in movies and television, it seems a clear answer on how to understand and empathize with those living with mental health issues is always so close, but just far enough away to keep the stigma alive. Like so many upon receiving a life-changing diagnosis, I didn't know what to do when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It's like being told that from now on, you'll have to constantly be afraid of yourself.
In that sorrow, someone did eventually come along, propping me up from my self-imposed prison: #CarrieFisher. She was an actor I'd only known at the time for her role in the Star Wars films and as the daughter of Halloweentown's Debbie Reynolds, but her arrival in my life came as if it were destiny or the work of a guardian angel. Actually, it was just a commercial for her HBO special, but it sounds better the other way. Wishful Drinking (after her memoir of the same name) detailed the chaos of her life, including her relationships, her work, and most importantly, her ongoing battle with bipolar disorder.
The First Step Is Acknowledgement
This had to be a sign, right? How coincidental was it that this special was airing at a time when I needed someone to guide me through this new diagnosis? If anything, perhaps I could learn from it. Perhaps I could learn to curb my own methods of dealing with this diagnosis by turning them into something more constructive. Little did I know, there was so much more to be dealt with, to worry about than I could've ever foreseen. Courage is a big part of getting through a life with a bipolar tag slapped next to your name.
As Fisher put it in her Guardian advice column in November 2016:
“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.”
To put in plainly: It sucks. It sucks every single day. What I had to do was decide whether or not that would keep me from living any kind of a happy life. Notice I didn't use the word "normal." There's no such thing as normal. Fisher showed me that. She also showed me it was possible to find humor in it all. That part is key, too.
The Next Step Is Breaking The Stigma
The special ignited a desperate need for more information. And who better to get it from than Fisher herself? I quickly devoured the memoir, and then read the follow-up, Shockaholic. But what exactly did these do for me? It showed there is a life outside of the labels, the stigma, the fear and the desire to be normal. She made it clear there is no shame in a mental health diagnosis like mine. As she put in her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking:
“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). 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.”
I thought to myself, "Damn right, it takes balls." It becomes so much of a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning anyway, that when pushed to the limit with the consuming uncertainty of what you're going to be like when you do, it can feel so impossible at times. Being able to keep myself up, keep myself moving, and remain grounded in the reality we all live in is truly something remarkable given the tempest raging about behind the curtain of the mind.
After That, Acceptance And Getting Help Is Important
There is another side to the bipolar coin that can even be harder to accept: we need help. This is a battle that can't be fought alone. The support of loved ones, peers, friends, counselors and medication makes all the difference in the world; that's another important lesson I learned from her. Without it, I don't know if I would've ever sought out the help I needed. Fisher explained it perfectly in 2001 at a rally in Indianapolis to increase state funding for mental illness and addiction treatment:
“Without medication I would not be able to function in this world. Medication has made me a good mother, a good friend, a good daughter.”
So here I am today, chasing my dreams and pursuing my passions. Do I take my medication every day? Yes. Do I like it? No. Are there still days where it feels impossible to get out of bed or impossible to go to bed because my mind won't wind down? Hell yeah. Though it feels like eternity, a tomorrow will come where the pain will be gone. Without the advice, the words, the actions, and most importantly, the humor of Fisher, there'd be no me as I am right now. I'm still afraid, I won't lie. But I no longer let that fear stop me from living my life.
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”
Am I exactly where I want to be ten years after this diagnosis? Not at all. But because of the tools I learned from Carrie Fisher, I'd say I'm definitely off to a pretty good start.