Mental Challenges

What Carrie Fisher Taught Me About Embracing My Bipolar Disorder on My Own Terms

Lauren Pinnington

Photo: Getty Images/Andy Kropa; Graphic: W+G Creative
Who has inspired you? Challenged you? Shaped you? In honor of Women's History Month, we're recognizing the women who made us who we are today. To all who came before, the mothers, grandmothers, mentors, teachers, and trailblazers... thank you.

Dear Carrie,

Instead of exchanging basic pleasantries, I would rather defer to your preferred greeting of showering people in the handfuls of glitter lying in wait in your pockets. As a socially anxious person myself, I think this is a genius icebreaker and a whimsical nod to your very real magic. I like to imagine those tiny particles of shimmering color nestled in our hair or wedged between fibers of our clothing, to be discovered with a knowing smile several months later.

I think you wanted to make an impression on people, Carrie, and wanted to do so on your own terms. I imagine you wanted to love and be loved and you might have occasionally conflated this with weakness. I would guess that you wanted to be recognized as an actual human person, rather than wish fulfillment tethered to a certain movie franchise. I imagine you feel this way because I do, too—and I feel a deep kinship with you. I know firsthand that the cruelties of mental illness can make you question so much.

Before I was fortunate enough to meet you in person in 2016, it was my boyfriend who introduced us via the small screen. I was in my mid-twenties, living in a haze of depression while I worked horrid temp jobs with rigid corporate structures and mandatory socializing that made me so uncomfortable, I felt physically ill. It would be half a decade before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, our ever faithful shared affliction, and I didn’t yet have the right words to describe the high highs and low lows that I mistook for a personality. At the time, the comforting escapism of film and television felt like a reliable makeshift Band-Aid in lieu of correct care.

After falling in love with capable, acerbic Leia (and who wouldn’t?), I longed to understand the woman behind the buns.

In the past, I had never been particularly interested in watching the Star Wars movies, but when a loved one is as passionate as my boyfriend was about them, it's infectious. After falling in love with capable, acerbic Leia (and who wouldn’t?), I longed to understand the woman behind the buns.

To my surprise and your great credit, you were also an author just like me—or, just like I hoped to be. Your prose was so smart and consistently hilarious and I devoured every one of your books. If you can make me belly laugh—the guttural sound that escapes after reading something so precisely observed on the wonders and absurdities of life—I’m yours forever.

(Speaking of laughter, let me share my most beloved anecdote. At a book signing for The Princess Diarist in London, you asked about my plans after a freshly inked copy had been returned to my greedy hands. I looked at you and said stoically, “We’re probably going for drinks,” and you chortled so loudly at what I imagine was the sheer Britishness of my answer.)

Your way with words inspired me to revisit that imaginative and dramatic only child who loved to write stories and make magazines about ‘90s pop stars with neon crayons and shiny stickers. Why hadn’t I written a single word in my twenties? Why did I abandon something I knew I was good at and would have been a calming, creative outlet? Oh right—untreated mental illness.

However, when I turned 30—now properly diagnosed and hyperaware of my own mortality—I started writing again. A few essays, just for myself, about pop culture and a short story or two. Then I got published. Like, my words were exchanged for actual money and I felt confidence take tentative shape inside my esteem-starved brain. I understand that you never thought of yourself as much of an actor and that part of your career was more of a lark, but you cared deeply about writing because you knew in your bones it was what you were meant to do and how you wanted to leave your mark on the world. It was with this knowledge that I allowed myself to admit that was exactly what I wanted, too. It was always your honesty as an artist that resonated most. I don’t subscribe to the notion that great pain yields great creativity, but rather, it takes a special talent to shine in spite of it.

I understand that you never thought of yourself as much of an actor and that part of your career was more of a lark, but you cared deeply about writing because you knew in your bones it was what you were meant to do and how you wanted to leave your mark on the world.

You approached the realities of bipolar disorder the same way you tackled everything in your life: with humor and candor. Would you bristle at my sincerity if I told you that your public transparency gave me strength? I felt like, as long as you were part of this club, then I might be okay belonging to it. I don’t want to be defined by a label a medical professional was paid to give me, but I owe it to myself to talk about it (or not talk about it) at my whim. You taught me this.

Remember the part in your Wishful Drinking memoir where you talked about how the only awards you ever won were for being mentally ill? “How tragic it would be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year,” you wrote. A dark but keenly executed quip and I think about it all the time. I think about humor as a literal lifeline in all the darkness and what it looks like to be so fiercely yourself. I continue to carry this with me, Carrie. Thank you.

Your friend,
Lauren.

Looking for more Strong As Her? Check out these letters from chronic illness advocate Nitika Chopra and Emmy-Award-winning broadcast journalist Mara Schiavocampo

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