It took a long time for me to break through my stigma around mental illness. Enter Carrie Fisher, who joked about her bipolar disorder with abandon one second and explained it with clarity and compassion the next. I’m sure I’ve encountered other conversations about mental illness before her, but Carrie Fisher was the first person I can remember who acknowledged her struggle with mental illness explicitly, without apology and in such a public way.
I don’t think I’ve ever willed a celebrity to survive as hard as I did Carrie Fisher. When news of her heart attack broke and it was reported that she was in critical condition, my stomach dropped. It was 2016, and I just didn’t have it in me to believe that things weren’t going to go to shit. But it was Carrie, and if anyone would defy the odds, it would be her.
When the news came later that she didn’t make it, I was gutted. Carrie Fisher spent her life tearing down the stigmas around mental illness. She faced addiction and fought it. She taught countless girls how to be brave, and then she became our quirky space mom once we were old enough to follow her example and start saving ourselves.
I’m still unlearning the mindset that mental illness is a result of personal failure, a concept Carrie spent her life debunking.
When I was 15, I went through a pretty difficult period with my faith. I couldn’t seem to access any of the good things that are supposed to come from a relationship with God. I didn’t feel connected to God, and I certainly didn’t feel like all was well with my soul.
I now recognize that I was simply going through a depressive episode, but at the time I was convinced that it was a test of my faith. I welcomed this depression because I believed it was a trial that would bring me closer to God.
This is a pretty common teaching in a number of branches of Christianity. Mental health and emotional turmoil are often seen as a lack of or test of faith. You’re meant to pray harder and wait for God to show up. You can imagine the kind of messed-up results a teaching like this has. The worse I felt mentally, the more angry and ashamed I became. I had to have been doing something wrong. Distance from God is especially terrifying in the Christian context.
“Hell is real.” Highways in the Bible Belt are littered with this reminder. “Repent and be saved,” “Jesus is the way,” etc. The list goes on and varies in the specifics, but the sentiment is constant: unless you follow this very specific and narrow path, you’re fucked, big time and for eternity.
The church’s doctrine taught me to fear and wait, but Carrie taught me that fear is just a side effect to push through. The church presented mental illness as a shortcoming or trial. Carrie believed those struggles indicated a shit hand in life, yes, but they didn’t have to break or define you.
When the only option is to believe a specific doctrine or spend eternity in a place of torment, you do everything in your power to maintain belief in that specific doctrine. This doctrine can lead to the belief that mental illness isn’t simply an unfortunate result of life, but something that needs to be driven out. But as anyone who has experienced it can tell you, you can’t pray depression and anxiety away.
In all the mess that has been the state of the world recently, I’ve been thinking about Carrie. I think she would have had some royally epic takedowns of Trump, but she would also want us to be braver and kinder to ourselves. She talked about her mental illness in a way that is almost unfathomable to me. She didn’t try to downplay the need to treat it or address it, but she never seemed to blame herself. Or if she did, she made sure not to let us know.
Carrie told us to “stay afraid, but do it anyway.” There is so much to be afraid of, especially now. But she knew that that fear is not a reason for inaction. I used to believe that my mental illness was something I had to wait out, that it came from some higher power and I could do nothing about it. I know now that that’s not the case.
It is still frightening, though. Having to sift through beliefs I held for so long and figuring out what is true and what is not is terrifying. Talking about mental illness? Horrifying. But I’ll do it anyway.
Danielle writes the Thursday column on finding your home. Contact her at [email protected].