Saturday, December 31, 2016

Star Wars, Bipolar, Carrie Fisher, and Me

It’s been days now since the announcement that her life was in peril, and on December 27th the news was broadcast far and wide: Carrie Fisher, best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, had died of a heart attack at the young age of sixty.

Less than 24 hours later, her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds, followed her in death; after saying she ‘wanted to be with Carrie,’ she reportedly closed her eyes and died of a stroke.

Even Hollywood couldn’t script such a tragedy. My heart aches for the family left behind.

I found out the news of Carrie Fisher’s passing after waking up from a nap. Groggy, I stumbled into the living room and I saw my husband had taken a Princess Leia item from a shelf and placed two candles by it. He didn’t have to say a word. I just knew.

My first response was, “Oh, no.” Then I wept like an inconsolable child.

Six year old me was sobbing for the loss of her childhood icon: at age six I used to make my mother do my hair up in the Leia style every day and I spent all of my playtime running around in a white nightgown my aunt had given me because it vaguely resembled Leia’s dress pulled on over my regular clothing. 

Neighborhood boys and I spent hours escaping from the imagined borders of the Death Star in our back yards. I wanted to be Princess Leia but more than that I wanted to be a Jedi.

To say Star Wars was an obsession for me is understatement. I poured over the thick novelization of the movie at age seven; and I lived in the books, comics, story tapes, and through the toys and merchandise for years of my troubled childhood. Star Wars was a safe world to go to; a world where girls could be strong and people listened to them, unlike in my world of ‘sit down and shut up.’

By the time I was twelve and Return of the Jedi came out, I had grown my hair down past my hips and I wore it in Leia braids every day. Sometimes I’d style it into the long flowing waves with a braid across the top that she wore when she was at the Ewok village. I’d write in “My Jedi Journal” and ponder the quotes from Yoda in them, trying to learn, trying to find something to ground myself to in a world that felt so out of control. "Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things."

It was at the age of eleven that my life as I’d known it completely fell apart. My young (60 years old) maternal grandfather died January 30 1982: twelve days later, my maternal great grandmother would die as well. That left my mother without her father and her grandmother, lost days apart, and my own grandmother without her husband and mother.

The adults in my life simply came unglued.

My mother suffered a breakdown from which she has never recovered. In many ways, we lost her then, too.

I remember making phone calls to friends of family to tell them of the deaths; something no eleven year old should have to do. I was the one who accompanied my grandmother, whom I was extremely close to, to the bank to go through the safe deposit box. And when she sat in the car shaking and saying she couldn’t do it, I held her hands and said, “We’ll do it together.” And we did. We did everything together.

That year my parents sold our house and we moved into my great grandparent’s old farmhouse where Grandma lived; if you’ve ever seen The Money Pit, you would understand what the first three years of living in that house was like. 

Everything had to be gutted and redone. I found myself chasing off a grabby workman with a wrench in my hand once; I slept in the middle of the house on a pull out couch with no space, no quiet, no privacy at all for more than a year.

Once the renovations were done (all seven bathrooms and five kitchens included) I finally had a space of my own again, and I spent as much time locked away in it as I could. Reading Star Wars fan club magazines (called Bantha Tracks back in those days) and dreaming of life in a galaxy far, far away.

I even wrote Mark Hamill a letter the year I was 12, talking about the deaths in the family and how Return of the Jedi had helped me through it all. I received an autographed photo in return. It meant the world to a child struggling to live with an adult support system that had completely crumbled from the foundation up.

But my sorrow over losing Carrie Fisher is about so much more than my childhood. It is much more, in fact, about my adulthood.

All my life I have been mentally ill, but I was diagnosed late, (my parents didn’t believe in going to therapy or psychiatrists) in my early twenties, as having Major Depression, OCD, and anxiety. Unfortunately this was largely the wrong diagnosis and would lead me to years of being given the wrong treatment, and not enough treatment at all.

Fast forward to 2011, when at age 40 I came completely unhinged in a story best told another day (or in another lifetime, I haven’t decided yet) and finally ended up diagnosed with Bipolar 1, OCD and PTSD.

I remember one of my first thoughts when they called me Bipolar was thinking, “That’s what Carrie Fisher has.”

I knew that because Fisher had been open about her mental health struggles for so long. She (along with Patty Duke, I realize now) put a recognizable, beloved face to a terrible disease; and I thought, “If Carrie Fisher can find a way to live with this thing, maybe I can too.”

Not that I haven’t had my darker moments. I’ve been there, in the pitch black trying to see my hand in front of my proverbial face. Carrie Fisher found a way to make these darkest moments funny, even if sometimes painfully so because of her brutal honesty. I am still fighting to take back my sense of humor from the disease that erased it from my soul one day, one mood swing, one med change at a time.

But I’m not giving up on the idea that I can find a way to turn tragedy into comedy, even if dark comedy, in the times ahead. I’m tired of crying over Bipolar. I know there will be days when that is unavoidable because we, with this disorder, feel so deeply sometimes you can’t escape the tears.

But there are other times when laughter could provide a healing of sorts that I am so longing for, and so I’ve decided that 2017 is going to be the year I try to wrestle my sense of humor back out of the cold, bony little fingers of Bipolar.

There are so many stories I could tell about what I’ve been through with mental illness, I don’t even know where to begin. So I’m going to take it one day at a time, one post at a time when I have something worthwhile to say; not that this blog will become all Bipolar stuff: I am hoping to still talk about writing and life in general. But when something is such a huge part of your life, as Bipolar is in mine, it is difficult not to talk about it frequently.

And I WILL speak about it now even more, because we’ve lost our champion; the one who always spoke up for us. 

In losing Carrie Fisher, the Bipolar community has lost someone precious and sacred to us; someone who tread the path before us and made it safe(r) to talk about these issues. 

But don’t be misled. The stigma, the punishment in the manner of lost jobs, broken relationships, and abandoned friendships are still dangers to anyone who dares divulge that they suffer from this brain disease. And that’s what it is, folks. It’s a brain disease, and those who fight it should be treated with the same dignity, kindness and compassion as folks who are stricken by other brain diseases or illness of any sort. The stigma of mental illness must be fought on every battlefront, and we must pick up the torch and carry it now, because our beloved General has fallen silent.

I’m ready to continue talking about what it’s really like to live with Bipolar, to be honest about the ups and downs and the toll it takes on me and those who love me. 

I’m ready to continue on down the path that Carrie Fisher blazed for us. And I need help along the way. We need not only those who suffer from Bipolar to speak out, but friends, family, and the public in general to get behind the message that Bipolar is not a choice, it’s a disease and those who have it fight it as best they can every single day.

Living with this disease is an act of courage. I don’t say that to sound arrogant; it’s just the truth. Deciding to get up every day and battle on takes more fight than I ever imagined I had in me. It would be so much easier to give up. Or to obliterate what brain cells I have left with booze or whatever to try to slow the speed of a racing mind. But I’m trying to hold on to the brain cells I have left, so I won’t do that either.

Nope, I stick to the prescribed meds, religiously. Even when they change on a dime and leave me feeling like I’ve been smacked around by a large animal. Despite the weight gain, despite the other side effects, the tremors and the exhaustion and all of it. I take my meds because I want to be as 'better' as I can be. And that is a decision I make over and over again starting every morning.

I hope that by carrying on speaking out about Bipolar disorder and stigma that I can somehow, in some tiny way, honor the legacy of a woman who led us forward from the darkest times when Bipolar had to be a secret and showed us the path toward the light.

I will speak out because I can: because I know there are still so many who, for various reasons, must still conceal their battle and fight it alone. I want to add to the chorus of voices speaking out for those who can't.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to really accept that she’s gone. That’s the problem with losing someone who is a hero to you, so much larger than life, they seem like they should be invincible.

But heroes fall, and it’s up to those of us left behind to pick up where they left off.

Will you join the cause, and help us fight stigma against mental illness?

I hope so. Because I believe in my heart that picking up that torch and running with it is just what Carrie Fisher would have hoped—would have known we’d do in her absence. We just can’t let her down.

The Force will be with her, always. May it be with us all.

Thank you for everything, Carrie Fisher. You will always live in my heart.