Fishing for Sanity
Carrie Fisher had a long and storied career in Hollywood. Born into royalty she played the iconic Princess Leia in the beloved Star Wars series. More noted was her rapier wit and clever writing. She bravely and honestly disclosed her struggles with mental illness, disclosing bipolar disorder and substance misuse. She became an advocate for both, so why is the culture shocked to learn from her autopsy there were drugs in her system?
American culture is stuck in the erroneous belief that mental health is something that is correctable by a 30 day stint in acute care rehab. The truth is, mental health and addictive disease is like other chronic health problems, it’s with us forever and can be managed but there really isn’t an end point. With diabetes we seem to understand that people will manage there disease but tipping in and out of impairment will happen, and it’s a constant and endless process to stay within range of maximum health. With mental health, we expect perfection, a light switch mentality of a lesson to be learned. Why didn’t Carrie stop doing drugs? How could she? Is the rote refrain of those who can not disentangle from the lie that mental health is a lesson to be learned, that people who are drug users are selfish brats. (To be fair, they often are).
Cancer, well managed and treated effectively can still shorten lifespans. Valiant effort, advocacy for others and top level care is no promise of casting it aside. It’s not different with mental health. People with bipolar illness are vulnerable to a host of issues throughout their life course, one being substance abuse. The shock with Carrie Fisher isn’t that she struggled, the shock is the American expectation of perfection. Someone who has struggled with drug abuse was using drugs? Imagine that.
Is there a lesson here? Indeed there is. As long as we have the expectation that people with mental illness will be perfect we are living in dishonesty. That never helps any issue. Being realistic and honest is critical to the success of battling mental illness. The dishonesty and expectation fuels shame and secrecy. When we inject the expectation of perfection we add another hurdle to self reporting and asking for help. It’s really hard to stabilize mental health, do we need the additional challenge of binding people with shame?
We don’t really know what was happening with Carrie Fisher, clearly there was a problem. The autopsy revealed information about her current drug use. Years of struggle likely contributed to her untimely death. What’s disheartening is the message that this outcome tarnishes her contribution to mental health advocacy. That belief is oversimplified. Would we say of someone who worked hard to help cancer patients who died of cancer their help was hallow? Absolutely not and we need to reframe our fundamental beliefs about mental illness. In my view, well done Ms. Fisher. Sad to see you go before your time, we were all cheated of your brilliance but thank you for bringing to light the struggle of millions.
Author: Joe Schrank, Editor-in-Chief