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Star Wars, Stigma, and Carrie Fisher

Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., is a Psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in providing psychotherapy for Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and Depression ...Read More

Last week on Broadway, I saw the hilarious show ”Wishful Drinking,” based on Carrie Fisher’s eponymous memoir.  Fisher stars in this one-woman show and brilliantly covers – among other things – what it was like to grow up in Hollywood.  She explains the intricacies of Hollywood dating, starting with her parents, icons Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and moving on to the fellow Hollywood celebrities who married, and divorced, and remarried them.  Fisher speaks about her on-again-off-again relationship with Paul Simon, and about being idolized for her role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars Trilogy.  She’s still haunted by her infamous space hair bagels memorialized on everything from action figures to bed sheets to bars of soap.  After all, who else do you know that has a Pez dispenser with their face on it?  

Fisher talks about some pretty heavy stuff in her show and manages to be incredibly humorous about it: For instance, her waking up next to a friend who had died of an overdose, or her experiences with Alcoholism and Bipolar Disorder.  At one point, she was “invited” to a mental hospital, as she puts it.  Fisher also was nominated for Bipolar Woman of The Year, and jokes that she was always hoping to win an award – for her acting, that is.  At the very beginning of the show, she states her motto: “If it wasn’t funny, it would only be true.”

            What struck me the most was just how openly she shared about these experiences.  Particularly her talking about her mental illness and substance use, no matter how humorous, got me thinking.  

I see a lot of people who come to our clinic just after they have been diagnosed with a mental illness for the first time; Very frequently it’s the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.  This thing can be a lot to wrap your mind around.  Often, it takes a while for someone coming out of a manic or a depressed episode to process “What the hell just happened?”  and “How do I deal with this?”  There are so many questions about “What does this mean now?” and “Where do I go from here?”

It is sometimes hard enough for the person who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder to find answers to those questions for themselves.  In addition, what comes up very frequently is the question about what and how much to share with the people around you.  Many people struggle with trying to explain the disorder to family members and with conveying what that experience of having Bipolar Disorder is like.  It’s hard to figure out sometimes, how much do you tell people, and how do you word it?

What’s also hard is the question of whom to tell.  What do you say to your friends if you were in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks?  Do you tell them what happened? How would they react?  Or, say, if I start dating someone…. Do I have to tell them?  At what point?  Many people struggle with the balance of wanting to be authentic and at the same time not wanting to be judged.

Things tend to become even more complicated when work is involved.  There is on the one hand the question of what to tell work and on the other hand how to handle paperwork, going on leave, or going on disability.  Finances are involved, career paths, and relationship with employers and supervisors.  There is still, unfortunately, so much stigma attached to having a mental illness.  These decisions about whom to tell what can be tough, and every situation is so different that it is sometimes a challenge to try to use your best judgment.

My hope is that there can be a growing dialogue about these questions. My hope is also that, in talking about mental illness, celebrities like Carrie Fisher can help fight the stigma. And it wouldn’t have to be in a galaxy far, far away. This one would do just fine.

Photo: Fran Moff Tarkenton

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