Carrie Fisher: Our Stigma Fighting Icon

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Carrie Fisher: Our Stigma Fighting Icon

By Katie MacBride 06/28/17

The notion that a relapse of some kind negates the recovery accomplishments and impact on society at large is ridiculous.

Image: 
Carrie Fisher at a Star Wars Premiere
Carrie Fisher showed me and the rest of the world what honest recovery looks like.

Shortly after noon on Monday, June 19th, my phone started vibrating with text messages. “Did you hear about Carrie Fisher? So sad, right?” I had heard about Carrie Fisher, or so I thought. Certainly the saddest thing anyone could be referencing was her death following a cardiac arrest on an airplane in late December. As the news alerts poured in, I understood the renewed interest: the L.A. County Coroner released a toxicology report noting that Fisher had died with cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy in her system. Actually clicking on the link revealed that “trace amounts” of those drugs were found and didn’t necessarily have anything to do with her cause of death. But, because she had been open with her history of addiction and bipolar disorder, the dramatized revelation that a cocktail of drugs had been found in Fisher’s system made for clickbait gold.

For millions of people who struggle with addiction and/or mental health conditions, Carrie Fisher was a stigma-fighting icon. The publication of her novel Postcards From the Edge about a young woman in Hollywood struggling with addiction was understood as largely autobiographical. By the early 80’s, Fisher was talking openly about her previous drug addiction and mental health challenges.

Wishful Drinking, Fisher’s first nonfiction book, in which she addresses her addiction and bipolar disorder, was published the year I got sober. Like Fisher, I had been diagnosed with a mood disorder–-in my case depression–-in addition to the (more obvious) addiction. It was January 2008: As I was plowing through what would be my last bender, I heard the news that Heath Ledger had died of an overdose. Earlier that month, Britney Spears had been forcibly removed from her children and home by paramedics. The nation seemed transfixed by the substance use and mental health challenges of celebrities. Public discussion of substance use disorders and mental health were dramatic, fatalistic, and splashed across every newspaper, magazine, website and cable news channel.

It was in this cultural atmosphere that someone gave me a copy of Wishful Drinking. I had been out of rehab for less than a month. I had never seen Star Wars and knew Fisher only as Meg Ryan’s best friend in When Harry Met Sally. Immediately, after picking up the book, however, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. Fisher wore her addiction and bipolar disorder –-as well as her various attempts and methods of treating those conditions–-like a badge.

She painted in detail the challenges of living with the a mental illness: trying to find the right medications, the endless debate about if the side effects of any given drug are worth things like being able to get out of bed in the morning. She was also frank (and funny) about the power of addiction, the pain of that paralyzing moment when you realize that you cannot live with or without the substances to which you have become addicted.

These admissions may seem trite in our media landscape of so-called “oversharing,” but Fisher’s honesty about the challenges she faced with mental health and substance use, as well as her determined trudge through treatments, all while maintaining her humor and compassion, was something special. In those days of early sobriety, and in the nine years since, Fisher showed me and the rest of the world what honest recovery looks like. Carrie Fisher (and her family) knew that she struggled with addiction and that she was doing her damndest to do what she needed to do to make it through the day. That is all we can or should expect from our recovery role models.

But despite all of Fisher’s honesty and bravery, the L.A. Coroner’s news was splashed across our myriad news outlets. Trolls with comments too ridiculous to reprint here challenged the validity of Fisher’s efforts to eliminate the prejudice against people with addiction and mental illness. And why? Because the toxicology report indicates a self-proclaimed drug addict had used drugs? With what other disease or condition would we do that with?

There are two primary schools of thought around substance use disorders–-one that it’s a disease and the other that it’s a behavioral disorder–-and in either case, the notion that a relapse of some kind negates the recovery accomplishments and impact on society at large is ridiculous. Is the depressive patient any less of a mental health advocate because they’ve recently gone through a depressive episode?

This attitude reflects a narrow minded attitude about recovery that must be addressed.

Having a complex and changing relationship to substances doesn’t negate a person’s advocacy for compassion and treatment for people with substance use disorders. Just as Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson’s experimentation with LSD doesn’t negate the fact that millions have found recovery through that program. And while I feel compelled to again underscore that trace amounts of these drugs make it impossible to know how heavy or prolonged the substance use was, it shouldn’t matter. Addiction is defined by the compulsive desire to use the drug despite the adverse consequences of doing so. If Carrie Fisher was using drugs addictively it is indicative only of the complexity and difficulty of recovery, *especially* when there’s a co-occurring mood disorder.

We cannot meaningfully deal with this epidemic unless we are willing to broaden our collective understanding of addiction and mental health. The Associated Press recently took steps in this direction with the revision of their guidelines for writing about addiction. The reaction to Carrie Fisher’s toxicology report, however, indicates how far we have to go. Further, as Anne Thériault notes, focusing on the implications of trace substances in Fisher’s system shifts the focus from the more medically pertinent issue of sleep apnea, which is listed among other factors as the cause of Fisher’s death.

Because whether or not there were drugs in Fisher’s system, the result is the same: we need to do so much more to address substance use disorders and mental illness in this country. We need to reduce the stigma around these issues, as Fisher did, and champion affordable healthcare. One need not look further than the statements from Fisher’s own family in the wake of the Coroner's report for confirmation. In response to the news, Fisher’s daughter released a statement saying, “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... 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.” Fisher spoke openly and honestly about how powerful addiction can be and how difficult living with these conditions is. She stepped into the spotlight, opening herself up to discrimination and misconceptions so that others might have an easier time seeking help. Nothing could diminish the legacy she left behind and it’s a gift for which I am forever grateful.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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