Throughout the winter of 2016, my brain had the capacity to obsess over exactly two things: mental health and Star Wars. In late November, I was unable to anticipate anything that wasn’t either opening night of Rogue One or my first appointment with a psychiatrist.
Here was the timeline.
On Wednesday November 30, I performed my essay “Hope is the Thing with Lightsabers” for the first time at a Star Wars-themed live lit show. It was awesome.
On Thursday December 8, I performed stand-up comedy in character as R2-D2, roasting other SW characters. It was awesome.
On Monday December 12, I saw a psychiatrist for the first time since college, and she delivered me a tentative diagnosis of Bipolar II. It was less than awesome.
On Thursday December 16, Rogue One came out. IT WAS AWESOME.
And on December 27, Carrie Fisher died, and nothing was awesome.
I know that I am preaching to the fan choir when I protest how much Carrie Fisher, and by extension Princess Leia, means to me. Of course, of course, of course, Princess Leia is a feminist icon. In that role, Carrie Fisher flipped the archetype of the damsel-in-distress on its ass. Princess Leia was a new kind of heroine for little girls to adore and idolize, and we will never not appreciate her for that.
Carrie Fisher was also the first familiar face that I could put to mental illness. When I was in college, before I was ready to really investigate what might be wrong with me, my mother gifted me Carrie’s book Wishful Drinking. That book proceeded to blow my mind like it was Alderaan.
In the first place, it never occurred to me that a “crazy” person could also be a person whom I admired. A person who was good. All I knew of “crazy” people was what I had seen on Law & Order. I just knew characters who didn’t take their meds, and then committed horrific crimes as a result. That’s what I thought mental illness was.
In Chapter 8 of Wishful Drinking, Carrie reveals that she spent time in a mental hospital. She writes, “My diagnosis was manic-depression. I think today they call it bipolar– so you might say I swing both ways.”
A few lines later: “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather– independently of whatever’s going on in your life.”
That wasn’t something that I had to imagine. That was something that I had been experiencing since I became a teenager. That was something that felt like it was growing stronger and more in control of me every single day.
Two thoughts occurred to me as I read that chapter.
1) Am I bipolar?
2) Do I have something in common with Princess Leia?
That second thought made the first thought infinitely easier to swallow. That second thought helped me through my first college counselor abruptly telling me, “Well, you’re depressed,” which scared me away from seeking help for another two semesters. The idea that maybe I was a little bit like Princess Leia helped me through that time I almost seriously considered swallowing too many NyQuil capsules before music class, and instead walked into the wellness center, whereupon my new counselor immediately called the registrar to get me excused from class that week.
The thought of strong, fierce, funny, beautiful Princess Leia got me through being handed a piece of paper that read “Bipolar II Disorder” on December 12, 2016. She was with me when I swallowed my first pill the next morning, and felt like I wanted to die from shame.
Here’s the second thing I really got out of Wishful Drinking. Carrie Fisher is ridiculously hilarious. She is also a brilliant writer. She is phenomenal in so many ways that have nothing to do with Princess Leia. Like so many Star Wars-obsessed kids, I grew up only seeing Carrie as Leia. I knew nothing of her work as a writer. When I read Wishful Drinking for the first time, I was pursuing my degree in Creative Writing, focusing on Creative Nonfiction. I wanted to become a funny writer who was able to mine the depths of her soul for comedy.
I wanted to be Carrie. I still want to be Carrie. I want to wear my mental illness on my sleeve with courage and bravado and humor and vulnerability.
In Wishful Drinking, Carrie writes, “There are a couple of reasons why I take comfort in being able to put all this in my own vernacular and present it to you. For one thing, because then I’m not completely alone with it. And for another, it gives me a sense of being in control of the craziness. Now this is a delusion, but it’s my delusion and I’m sticking with it. It’s sort of like I have problems but problems don’t have me.”
I write this blog because it makes me feel less alone. I write this blog because it helps me work through all the things racing through my brain. I write this blog because I want to entertain and make people laugh. I write this blog because I want to tell the truth about myself. I write this blog because I don’t want to feel like my illness is keeping me hidden away in the shadows.
Last year I attended Star Wars Celebration Europe in London, and I was fortunate enough to make it into the last Celebration panel that Carrie would ever attend. The memory of sharing a room with her, albeit a gigantic, gaping one that was crammed with thousands of other sweaty, hyper nerds, will always fill me with gratitude. I am so grateful that Carrie Fisher shared her whole story with us.
I hope she knew how many of us she helped. How many of us she probably saved.
At that Star Wars live lit show on November 30 2016, I read my essay about what Star Wars has meant to me throughout my life. I wrote about Leia and Rey. I tiptoed around it a little bit, but I also tried to put into words for the first time that Star Wars is a thing that helps quiet my thoughts of suicide.
When the show was over, I had a few young women approach me. One of them told me, “Hey. Same.”
And I felt less alone.
Last week I made breakfast, put on my BB-8/Mickey Mouse ears, and settled in to watch the livestream of Star Wars Celebration Orlando from my living room. Despite being alone, I couldn’t help but cheer out loud and clap as various Star Wars icons took the stage for the “40 Years of Star Wars” panel.
As the panel wrapped up, George Lucas and Kathleen Kennedy spoke about Carrie. Carrie’s daughter Billie Lourd came onstage next to speak about her mother. And finally a curtain drew back to reveal John Williams himself. After the applause for him died down, he began to conduct an orchestra in “Princess Leia’s Theme.” If you missed it, it’s beautiful, and you can see it here.
Carrie Fisher was once my only hope. She was the first crazy person I knew, and so I clung to her, desperate to conflate my own identity with hers. What I realize now, though, is that the real power of Carrie’s honesty is that it opened a door for me. Behind that door was a willingness to consider that something serious might be up with me, and then a willingness to seek out help.
Now I have a therapist, and I have a psychiatrist, and I have a network of friends with whom I feel safe in sharing even my darker feelings and fears. I have this blog. I have a lot of avenues of hope. On a good day, I have hope and confidence that I can live out my life in a way that I think would make Carrie proud. I will be open and loud and funny and honest. I will remember that I am not alone out there, and I will remember the power in the discovery of a familiar, friendly face being truthful about their pain.
In the Author’s Note of Wishful Drinking, Carrie writes, “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.”
Hey, Carrie. Same.