How Carrie Fisher Helped Me Stay Sober

by Abby Higgs

I'd started reading Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking in 2010 — two full years before I finally came to the conclusion that I just might have a problem with depression and addiction. At the time, I was popping upwards of 100 milligrams of Adderall in my mouth per day, washing the pills down in early evenings with beer after beer after beer. I stayed up most nights without even thinking of sleep, opting instead to listen to Christmas carols on repeat to keep my mood light as I created horrific collages dedicated to my favorite pop stars in the confines of my bedroom.

Mind you, I was 31 years old at the time; I was not some fledgling artistic teenager in the throes of depression and addiction. I was, and had been for quite a while, a full-grown adult. With responsibilities, no less. Somehow, amid these benders, which had become rather commonplace — they happened about three to four times a week — I managed to show up for grad school classes and my job as an assistant special education teacher in the meantime.

As I read Fisher's memoir amidst all this, I detested the candor and humor with which she described the outrageous, sometimes dire phenomena of her life situations and diagnoses in Wishful Drinking . I attributed her “enlightened” perspective on mental illness, for example, to the likelihood that she had been treated, and was still being treated, by some of the nation’s best mental health professionals and facilities. In short, I felt she was happy because she could literally afford to be. So I resented her.

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few),” Fisher wrote in her 2008 book, based on her one-woman stage show by the same title, “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.” She also wrote that she felt “very sane” about how “crazy” she was.

I scoffed. How dare she be so happily hilarious now? I thought. What makes her think she’s earned the right to be a mental health advocate, aside from being a household name? How dare she compare her own psychiatric disorder to the mental aftermath soldiers experience when they come home from war?

I was never, by the way, an overtly patriotic person. Quite the opposite. But there I was, finding fault in Fisher’s writing, shaking my head and tsk-ing at passage after passage like my grandmother does when she notices a new tattoo on my body.

One particular passage in Wishful Drinking irked me more than everything else Fisher divulged. “Happy is one of the many things I'm likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime,” she admitted. “But I think if you have the expectation that you're going to be happy throughout your life — more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time — well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.”

This, for perhaps obvious reasons, bothered me to no end. What condescending drivel from a Hollywood baby with millions of dollars to spare, I thought. I hate when celebrities try to devise their own corny aphorisms. It was in this fashion — harrumphing and castigating — that I read my way through the entirety of Fisher’s book.

You may be wondering why, then, I continued to read it, given my distaste and disagreement with most of the book’s contents. Here’s the thing: I did that with all of the recovery memoirs I read. And I read a lot of them — Augusten Burrough’s Dry, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and Koren Zailckas’ Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood — to name just a few. I took in each of these autobiographical accounts of addiction and depression with eager skepticism, ready to pounce and refute their varying descriptions. Embellished lies, I would think. All made up for the benefit of a paycheck. (Learning that I was somewhat correct about Frey’s memoir only fueled my hostility for these specific works of literature.)

But then I quit drinking and doing drugs — and all in a rather anticlimactic manner. My decision to do so did not involve my arrest, my hospitalization, or the loss of someone or something dear to me. Those things had already happened numerous times before in my life; they had never prompted me to even consider getting clean. But one night I just up and emailed a friend, mid-drug-addled collage-making craze, and admitted that I probably had a problem.

Still, after coming to this conclusion and making it known to someone else that I needed help, I was reluctant to get sober. I tried doing so a couple times on my own in the months that followed, without success. So I finally opted to go to outpatient rehab and to regularly attend support programs like AA. And it was in these venues that I gradually came to realize the importance of humor for recovering addicts. I learned it was not only common for those of us kicking habits to wisecrack while discussing our past substance-fueled travails, it was necessary. How else could we convey the oftentimes horrific situations we’d experienced without adding a little light to the darkness of their harrowing memories?

I'd never done my laundry, dressed myself, or cleaned my room not high and drunk since childhood, so tackling these tasks sober felt damn near impossible, tantamount to destroying the Death Star in one lucky shot.

It was also during this time that I also grew comfortable with the collective term “we” when referring to myself and others in recovery. As in, “we alcoholics and addicts.” I was now one of them — a legitimate member of what some jokingly referred to as the “coolest club nobody really wants to join” (AA, or the sober community as a whole).

At one point in rehab, another patient brought up Carrie Fisher’s book. She talked about how much she was enjoying it right then — especially given its humor and honesty. “It’s nice to know that someone as completely different from me as possible knows exactly what I’m going through,” the woman said. “Plus, she’s funny as hell.”

With the same reluctance I experienced upon getting and staying sober, I decided to give Wishful Drinking a second chance, this time opting to soak in its contents audibly — from Fisher's own mouth. I downloaded the e-book and listened to it as I tried to perform random household chores, which were incredibly difficult for me at this stage in early sobriety. I'd never done my laundry, dressed myself, or cleaned my room not high and drunk since childhood, so tackling these tasks sober felt damn near impossible, tantamount to destroying the Death Star in one lucky shot. But it could be done, I learned — with Carrie Fisher’s help, in my case. She was right there, relaying her own anecdotes in my ears as I tried to match pairs of socks without crying.

I loved Wishful Drinking the second time around. For one, Fisher managed to describe — to seemingly locate and pull out of me — the very reason I took drugs and drank to excess in the first place. “I mean, that's at least in part why I ingested chemical waste — it was a kind of desire to abbreviate myself,” she admitted. “To present the CliffNotes of the emotional me, as opposed to the twelve-column read.”

I couldn’t have relayed this sentiment better. I still can’t. I’d always felt that my life was just too big, too complicated, for others to handle — let alone myself. Substances lessened this burden for me — they made it easier for me to be honest (or so I thought) when I needed to, while providing the necessary salve for me to simultaneously compartmentalize and bury the traumas of my past.

And in spite of the wild experiences about which Fisher divulged with unflinching openness, she wrote in a way that wouldn’t allow the reader to feel sorry for her. She was not, unlike some big names in the nonfiction/memoir genre, out to shock readers; rather, she was there to assure them that they weren’t alone in whatever twisted position they might have found themselves trapped. At least, that’s how Wishful Drinking felt to me, the second time around.

I learned of Fisher's death yesterday in an airport store; a television screen flashed numerous images of her, one of which was the cover of Wishful Drinking. I started to cry. There I was, buying hand sanitizer and Imodium, clad in clean clothes, matching socks, holding a $20 bill I'd managed to save in my wallet for over a week, being told by a TV that one of my biggest recovery inspirations was dead.

You know what's funny about death?” Fisher wrote, “I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing in airports and I think, ‘Aww. They've just been told.’”

I was sobbing in an airport because I’d literally just been told, “Carrie Fisher has left us.”

Images: Abby Higgs