By Kimberly Zapata
Usually, I’m relatively unfazed by celebrity deaths. Don’t get me wrong — I have empathy for the family of those affected. For the colleagues, loved ones, and friends left behind. I feel for their loss. But for the most part, my life is not impacted; my life remains unchanged.
The same cannot be said for Carrie Fisher’s passing. This one touched me deeply, in unexpected ways.
Because the truth is, Fisher was more than “just a celebrity,” or “another Hollywood actress.” More than just the star of one of my all-time favorite movies: Star Wars. She was a mother and a writer. A recovered addict, and a fighter. A mental health sufferer, and mental health survivor. And, like myself, Fisher was a mental health advocate.
She spent decades speaking out against the stigma and working to reshape our collective mental health care conversation. And while there are so many things I want to say right now — while there are so many things that need to be said — the only thing I can seem to muster is “thank you.”
Thank you, Ms. Fisher, for being such a powerful woman. A strong woman. A brave woman. And an inspirational woman, both onscreen and off. As “our princess” and as a person. Thank you for sharing your stories with us, and your struggles with us — even in the face of backlash and criticism. Even in the face of adversity and endless scrutiny. Thank you for using your position and your voice to not only make a difference, but to remind others struggling with a mental illness or addiction that they are not “bad” or “crazy,” they are not hopeless, and they are not alone. And thank you, Ms. Fisher, for being one of the most outspoken mental health advocates of my generation. For being one of the most outspoken mental health advocates of my life.
When news of Fischer’s death broke on December 27, 2016, countless articles flooded my Facebook feed — and most celebrated her incredible body of work. Fans remembered everything from Fisher’s iconic portrayal of Princess Leia to the memorable (and hilarious) way she took on Marie in When Harry Met Sally. Others spoke about her first bit part in the 1975 film Shampoo, where she played the daughter of a Hollywood actress. But away from the spotlight, Fisher struggled with mental illness, though alcoholism and addiction masked her symptoms for many years. In fact, Fisher didn’t receive a proper diagnosis — of bipolar disorder — until she was in her mid-20s.
“When I got sober, I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m an alcoholic or an addict… that’s what’s wrong with me,” Fischer told the Herald-Tribune in 2013, “I don’t need therapy.’ But a year later, I had to turn myself into the brain police.”
Soon after, Fisher came to terms with her diagnosis and became an outspoken advocate on all fronts, opening up about her struggles with addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness in her 1987 novel Postcards on the Edge. While the book was a dramatized version of her own experiences, thinly veiled behind characters with different names, it was so well-received that it was later adapted into the 1990 film by the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.
Of course, all of this may not sound profound. Not to many. (There are countless books, websites, and people dedicated to the subject of mental health care, and who are working hard to #StoptheStigma every day.) But it was, especially when you consider the timing because Fisher came forward during the height of her career, in a time when mental illness of any kind was still highly stigmatized. In a time when you wouldn’t dare tell your colleagues, your boss, your best friends, or even family about your “problem;” and she did so without fear.
Fisher didn’t give a damn about what her critics may think or what the public perception might be. Instead, se spoke out openly, honestly, with grace and with candor.
“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she told Diane Sawyer in a PrimeTime interview back in 2000. “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.”
And thank God she did, because her words not only made waves, they helped to educate and inform. They’ve helped change the conversation surrounding mental illness, reminding the world of what it truly is: an illness. One caused by a combination of biological, physiological, and environmental factors. Her words helped those who are struggling feel like people, and not just a list of symptoms. Not just a diagnosis.
Throughout my own life, Carrie Fisher — and so many other outspoken advocates like her — helped me feel comfortable in my own skin, and my own mind, even when I wasn’t.
Even when I was lost within it.
You see, when I was 15 years old, something changed. I changed; and before long, my mind — the same mind which once helped me fly imaginary pirate ships and rocket ships and play princess when I was little; the same mind that helped me believe I was a blaster-wielding princess, just like Leia — turned against me. And not in a subtle way. She turned suddenly and darkly, and just as I believed the pretend adventures we once had were real, I believed each and every negative word she now said: I believed that I wasn’t good enough, and that I would never be good enough, for anyone. I believed that I was a failure. A hopeless, unloveable failure. And I believed my life was meaningless. I believed my friends, and the entire world, would be better off without me.
I was lost and hopeless, trapped and anxious, and I wasn’t eating. Like Fisher, I wasn’t sleeping. Instead, I would lay awake listening to the “voices” in my head. The voices of depression.
The good news is that it didn’t take me long to receive a proper diagnosis. Well, not nearly as long as Fisher, but the shame of being diagnosed with a mental illness — of being diagnosed with an “it’s-all-in-your-head” sort of illness — was so strong that I avoided treatment for years . I stopped going to my psychiatrist, and instead of getting help, I got better at acting. I got better at lying. I got better at hiding, from my friends, my family, and myself.
For an entire decade, I struggled in shame and silence.
But when postpartum depression struck and I was fantasizing about death instead of my newborn daughter, something had to give. Something had to change. And so, I not only got help but I spoke up. I admitted to myself, my family, my colleagues, and my friends that I had an illness, a mental illness, and that I had said illness most of my life.
Shortly afterward “coming out,” I began writing and speaking. I began telling my story to anyone, and everyone, who would listen. I made mental health advocacy my mission, and my day-to-day work. But it wasn’t by chance; it was because of the words of brave and courageous advocates like Fisher, who weren’t afraid to do the same.
So thank you, Carrie Fisher — because you helped shine a light on mental illness in a brilliant, poignant, and dignified way. Your works, and your words, helped to shape lives, change lives, and to save lives. And your actions — and the actions of people like you — are the reasons I am a mental health advocate today.
They are the reasons I will never again be afraid to speak up and share my truth.
A version of this story originally appeared on Babble.