Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, #2016 yet again snuffed out another bright star in the galaxy, but for many fans Carrie Fisher will live on in their own light. I will remember Carrie Fisher not only as the fierce, heroic Princess Leia in Star Wars, but also as a mental health advocate who spoke about her battle with Bipolar Disorder. I can tell you many of my mentally ill friends looked up to her and admired her, because she was one of us.
Fisher has been unusually outspoken for years about her mental health battles, something many fans mourned when Fisher died at age 60 on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack several days earlier on an airplane. The actress talked candidly about bipolar disorder and her treatments and how they affected her life. She acknowledged there was still a stigma when talking about mental health, but she wanted to help fight it.
“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,” Fisher told ABC News.
My story is a little different. Though I am no longer ashamed about being diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder and having been hospitalized multiple times, I have felt shame and embarrassment about being so ill and disabled. I dislike feeling vulnerable and weak, and I also felt guilty and unworthy of sympathy. I was living in the Bay Area when I was first hospitalized, I was no longer able to work, and I soon ran out of money to pay for my health insurance and treatment. I didn’t want to go home so I borrowed money from my parents.
But my recovery was slow and after a year, I found myself in an unfortunate situation. My therapist called 911 and had me transported to Santa Clara County Emergency Psychiatric Services. It was awful and scary. There were a couple men wearing orange jumpsuits whom I presumed to be inmates. I heard screaming from the back room, which one of the nurses told me was sounds from a movie. I totally did not believe him. There was a man who was probably psychotic muttering and preaching about the light of the universe, aliens, God, and other weird supernatural stuff. And an Asian man who was screaming that he didn’t belong there and demanded to be let out. We were prohibited from crossing the red line on the floor. The Asian guy was eventually put in restraints and locked in a room, all the while he was screaming. I asked a nurse for an Ativan because my anxiety was so bad, and EPS released me after nine hours in what felt like a holding cell.
County psych hospitals are the worst. After I was discharged, I realized I couldn’t continue like that. Bouncing from hospital to hospital, worrying about money, how I was going to pay rent on my overpriced studio apartment, my medical bills and therapy, and feeling guilty that my parents were paying for my expenses. Obviously, I needed to move back home and continue my treatment here. I didn’t feel guilty or ashamed when my mom and relatives came with my uncle’s truck to help me move, or during the six hour drive in my car where we almost had an accident because the medication I was taking at the time made my brain slightly foggy and I swerved into the other lane.
It wasn’t until I stepped into my parents’ house that I felt the shame, embarrassment, and guilt. I remember how the carpet was so white and clean, how the mahogany furniture was such a deep, rich brown, and everything looked brand new, classy, and expensive. All the plants were green and thriving. There is so much history in this house that I felt like I was dirty. Like I had come from a place that was the antithesis of everything my parents’ had worked for, a better life for their children, the American Dream. I would never fulfill their dreams, and they wouldn’t be able to tell their friends I was successful. They sure as hell wouldn’t volunteer for the life of them that I am disabled and mentally ill. Instead, they tell their friends I’m a writer and have a Master’s Degree, etc. Though I’m sure people wonder why I’m not working.
Anyway, nowadays, I don’t care who knows I have a mental illness, and if someone asks me up front what I do for a living, I tell them I don’t work and I’m on disability. If they want to know why, I tell them I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Most of the time, they don’t know what to say or they don’t really want to know. But it doesn’t matter. It is what it is. And the thing I hate most than being ashamed is being dishonest and feeling like a bad person as a consequence.