Carrie Fisher Taught Me To Confront Mental Illness

by Emma Riley

It was Christmas Day, about 10 years ago, when my brother accidentally unwrapped one of my presents — and I his. Our parents had mixed up two of our gifts, but there was no mistake who the gift belonged to when my brother unwrapped a box set of Star Wars DVDs. He liked Star Wars, but I loved it. After all, I was the one who wore my hair in Princess Leia buns and was unstoppable in Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I read the spin-off book series, knew more lines from the original three movies than was entirely socially acceptable, and loved the adventure and excitement that was not just Star Wars, but most of science fiction.

My enthusiasm for science fiction was far from uncommon in my family: my brother and I were raised on a powerful mix of Star Wars and Star Trek. At the time, my childhood felt like a whirlwind of Vulcan salutes and lightsabers. Yet, in Star Wars, I found representation that spoke to me on a much more personal level than even Star Trek. In my dearly departed Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia, I found that a strong, independent woman could join in on the adventure and fight on behalf of her galaxy.

When news broke Tuesday that Carrie Fisher had passed away following a massive heart attack, I — like so many others — was devastated. The year 2016 has been terrible, and this latest tragic death felt like the last straw. Not only has this been the year of the horrifying 2016 presidential election, but stars ranging from Gene Wilder to Prince, Muhammad Ali to David Bowie to George Michael have all been lost too. But Carrie Fisher's death struck a personal note with me that these other deaths had not: Princess Leia had been my role model as a strong independent woman, and Fisher herself had been my role model as a woman living openly with mental illness.

Princess Leia was brave and bold, but Carrie Fisher was all that and more in spite of — or perhaps because of — her mental illness.

I don't remember exactly when I found out that Carrie Fisher had bipolar disorder, but I do remember feeling an unbelievable sense of belonging when I realized that someone on screen, someone who went on great adventures, and someone I looked up to like none other was like me.

I wasn't officially diagnosed with my anxiety disorder until my early 20s (stigma prevents many of us from seeking treatment), but mental illness plagued me from the time I was a toddler. As a result of the poor balance of serotonin in my brain, adventure was hard for me. I didn't like leaving home — for sleepovers or camping trips, not to mention college — and I most definitely did not like change.

These situations did not just "stress me out," as they did other people. They were debilitating. I would cry for hours or days before any trip (not from sadness, but sheer anxiety), my pulse would speed through the roof at doctor's offices or during tests, I was shy and quiet even though I had plenty to say, and I was extremely reluctant to try new things or meet new people. With my mental health in such a state, it seemed unlikely that I would ever go on grand adventures like the daring characters in science fiction films and shows. I would be restricted to a life of little change and no excitement.

If it had not been for role models like Princess Leia, I don't think I ever would have begun to challenge myself —and eventually seek treatment — to confront my mental illness. But fortunately, I was a writer who loved stories — and I could imagine a future for myself in the lives of characters. I wrote my first "book" when I was 10 years old; it was what I like to call a mashup of Star Wars and The Parent Trap: two twin girls meet at "laser-sword" camp, discover that their father is the evil dictator of their galaxy and their mother the missing queen, and set out with the help of their camp counselor to save the galaxy. I saw myself as one of the twin sisters, a Princess Leia figure in my imagination, and invented a world where I could go on great adventures too.

Princess Leia's strength and independence inspired me on the page, and in real life. As I worried my anxious head about leaving home or trying anything new, I reminded myself: What would she do? None of my fictional heroines would be frightened by a little adventure, a little change, something new. They would face it boldly, with confidence and curiosity. As difficult as it was, I tried to emulate them. Even as I cried or shook from anxiety, I went places, I did things, I tried to live as normally and bravely as possible. With the help of Princess Leia, I went on sleepovers, to summer camp, to college across the country, and then to study and live abroad.

But Princess Leia's courage might not have been enough to truly change my life if not for Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia was a strong character, but Carrie Fisher was a living, breathing, vulnerable, and compassionate person. Princess Leia was brave and bold, but Carrie Fisher was all that and more in spite of — or perhaps because of — her mental illness.

Fisher struggled with her bipolar disorder, and resulting depression and addiction. Yet, unlike so many of us who live in (understandable) fear of the world discovering our health status and judging us for that, Fisher lived openly with her mental illness and became a true advocate for reducing stigma. Her openness was a part of my own decision to seek treatment and start speaking up about mental health. I started medication, my anxiety reduced dramatically, I began living a fuller and happier life, and I became less guarded and fearful about my mental illness and more willing to speak with others so they too might find healthy treatment options.

I will miss Carrie Fisher; 2016 has taken a truly courageous woman from us. Fortunately, stories preserve lives as well as any elixir. Fisher will live on in those who find strength in her own life as an advocate, and in her legacy as Princess Leia. I, for one, will continue asking myself "What would she do?" when tackling new challenges or facing new adventures. But this time, I certainly won't be asking that question solely about a certain fictional princess. I'll be thinking about the very real life and legacy of Fisher herself.

Fisher clearly understood the power of storytelling and representation; in her own words: "I always wrote. I wrote from when I was 12. That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me." I will try to continue to live by her model.

Images: Lucasfilm; Giphy