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Carrie Fisher Made It OK to Talk About Mental Illness

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On December 27, we were hit with the news that Carrie Fisher had sadly died. As soon as word spread, people around the world began sharing online how she had touched their lives and quite simply what an amazing person she was and will continue to be in our memories.

From around the age of 11, I’ve looked up to Carrie Fisher. She, among a few other inspirational men and women, has had an effect on my life. But this year, which I see as the one of the worst we’ve ever had, has taken several of these inspirational people away from me. And I seriously cannot process this.

Carrie Fisher is the main reason I actually don’t mind standing up and saying, “You know what? My brain doesn’t work the same as other people’s. It’s ill, and you guys are gonna have to live with it.”

Carrie Fisher was the first celebrity I ever followed who did as much as possible to advocate for those with mental health issues and to remove the massive stigma of mental illness. As an outwardly rational and emotionally detached person, I had so much difficulty coming to terms with the feelings and thoughts associated with the labels put over my head by people I did not know. At just 13 years old, a woman at a CAMHS unit told me I have an anxiety disorder and recurring seasonal depression, and although she said it differently, her basic message was that I’m going to just “have to live with it.” Back then, I had more conversations with counselors than friends, and I did not cope well at all. I didn’t have many people to comfort or soften the blow.

So when I saw the leaflet of “notable people with mental disorders” pinned onto the noticeboard in the counseling rooms at school, I immediately told my then counselor I wanted to read it, and she lent it to me for the day. Inside two names popped up that I recognized: comedian and writer Caroline Aherne (who also died this year) and Carrie Fisher. (In those days, I only knew her as Princess Leia, and Angela from “Family Guy”).

However, since then, I’ve read extracts from her books, her tweets, and watched the numerous speeches and hilarious interviews available online. Slowly more and more, she became an advocate for the things I wanted — namely, to be recognized as me, not by my labels.

I was always astounded that such successful, creative, and funny people could still feel “broken” and live on without things falling apart. Because I genuinely used to think having any sort of label meant I couldn’t live a normal life. Carrie Fisher totally transformed this view. Not only did she cope with mental illness for most of her life, and the judgment of others surrounding it, she had a successful career, and on top of this she used it as a tool to help others in the same boat.

She did not have to, and she was not obligated to, but she chose to out of decency and humility, and there is no doubt in my mind that it must have added to some of the stress in her life because as we all know living with mental health issues is not easy, and additionally, once a celebrity publicizes her issues, the world often cross-examines her. I see that every day on my social media feed, and I can’t imagine the strength it must take to bear all to a world of close-mindedness.

Carrie Fisher continued throughout her life to help us be us by joyously living in the face of mental illness. Sometimes, she did this just by giving us a laugh. Other times she did so by giving us a personal heartfelt speech or written passage.

Just this year, Harvard College gave Carrie Fisher its Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, noting that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.” And I’m so glad they did so; she deserved that recognition, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that even posthumously, everyone knows what a brilliant human being this woman was and what she has done for the mental health community.

She once said, “I don’t want my life to imitate art, I want my life to be art” — and art it was.

I, along with the other 450 million people with mental illnesses around the globe, will be forever grateful for what you’ve bequeathed this planet. You helped give us an identity other than a label. And your actions will go on to inspire others to continue to do the same.

Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher.

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Thinkstock photo by Gage Skidmore

Originally published: December 28, 2016
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