On December 27, 2016, the world found out that actress and advocate Carrie Fisher died after a heart attack/cardiac event. A few days ago, on June 17, 2017, media reported that coroners found “multiple substances” in Carrie Fisher’s blood when she died. Every report I have seen says that Carrie “may have ingested” different drugs, possibly cocaine, ecstasy, and others.
What I find really frustrating is how the media keeps sensationalizing this story and creating headlines such as “Carrie Fisher had cocaine, other drugs in her system when she died.” The reality is, Carrie Fisher probably died due to complications of her illnesses of mental illness (and I include addiction in that), sleep apnea, and heart disease. Knowing what was in her system does not change anything about her death. It actually does not matter what was in her system when she died, at least not for anyone except her family who should always have updated medical information so they can follow hereditary conditions, which heart disease and mental illness both can be.
For some reason, every time a person with mental illness dies due to their illness, we try to spin it as a failure on the part of the person. We do this by assuming that it makes any difference if drugs were in their system or not, or if they died by suicide, or if they died from an accident during a manic episode. Many of the comments people have made about drugs possibly being involved in Carrie’s death are, I believe, disgusting. I have heard some version of the following comments:
“Addicts don’t care about anyone else, they just do what they want and leave everyone else to suffer.”
“I thought she was better and had fixed her problems. Obviously she chose addiction instead.”
“I can’t look at her the same anymore, she did not fight like we thought she had.”
“See, she’s not as great as everyone said she was.”
“I still love her.” (Which implies that just because she used drugs there was reason to stop loving her.)
I love the image above by Karen Hallion of Princess Leia with the words from Hamilton:The Musical because as a mental health advocate, Carrie taught me not to throw away my shot. She taught me not to give up on recovery and to always fight for my life every day, because that is what she did, even in the face of public stigma. She was scrappy and fierce and used every shot she was given to help people with mental illness. Just because she died from her illness does not mean she threw away her shot, and it makes me mad that other people think it does. Clearly many people do not know what it is like to live with a chronic illness that is deadly, especially not mental illness. Everything we do is a fight for our life, every day. If I die from my mental illness, I hope my son and family know that I never threw away my shot.
I don’t understand why our work, our struggle, our insights, our lessons, and what we have to offer the world are invalidated when we do not end up “better” or “cured.” We don’t look down on people with other illnesses that have relapses or recurrences. We don’t think someone who is free from cancer for ten years and then dies because the cancer came back is worthless. We do not act like the ten years of lessons that they taught us and wisdom they shared is meaningless because the cancer came back.
Some illnesses never end, you manage them. People manage diabetes for their whole life and may write about it, teach us life lessons they have discovered from living with diabetes, inspire and bring hope to other people living with diabetes. If they then die from their illness, that does not negate the lifetime of what they shared with us.
This insistence that we need to see her differently, as worth less now because she may have had drugs in her system, make many of us with mental illness feel unsafe. Why would we get help and start treatment if doing so means that if we are not cured, we will be treated as less-than? Why would we ever speak up again if we know that the only way our voices will be considered is if our illness is “cured?” It is like we are being told our life only matters if we “get better.” Carrie shared her story to fight those stigmas and she would be appalled (but probably not surprised) at how many people think that finding drugs in her system matters at all.
If you care about people with mental illness, don't buy into the media hype. Instead, reach out to friends and family members you know who have mental illness and ask them how they are doing. What people with mental illness really need is people to help them; friends, family and coworkers to understand and not stigmatize them; and better mental health care.
I like to think that Carrie might say that yes, her illness took her life, but that doesn’t change anything and it especially doesn’t mean you stop fighting. You live the best life you can and F*@k anyone who judges you or thinks you are not trying hard enough. She would probably also say to share her story because we need to raise awareness about the complexities of mental illness.
As her daughter, Billie Lourd said: “She talked about the shame that torments people and their families confronted by these diseases. I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles. Seek help, fight for government funding for mental health programs. Shame and those social stigmas are the enemies of progress to solutions and ultimately a cure. Love you Momby.”