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Carrie Fisher’s most important work? Speaking out on mental illness

The beloved actress’ most enduring legacy

Wizard World Comic Con Chicago 2016 - Day 4 Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Wizard World

Carrie Fisher, who died at age 60 following a heart attack, was known to many fans as the bun-haired Princess Leia and little else. But the actress had a career that spanned a variety of media, from movies to TV shows, from books to plays. Fisher touched lives through her work in Star Wars and other major projects, but it was what she did off-screen that really established her as one of our most cherished icons.

Fisher struggled with mental illness for much of her life, something she was outspoken about at a time when depression, anxiety and other diseases were heavily stigmatized. It took Fisher years to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and even longer for her to accept it, as she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2000.

“I thought they told me I was manic depressive to make me feel better about being a drug addict,” she said, one of her first times speaking publicly about living with the disorder. “It’s what you think. If you could just control yourself … You had an indulged childhood … You were a child of privilege … I don’t know, that’s what I thought. You’re just a drug addict.”

Fisher’s struggles with addiction were public knowledge in the 1980s, and a stint in rehab marked a turning point for her in myriad ways. She wrote a novel about the experience, Postcards from the Edge, her first of several books; and she began to come to terms with living with a disease not yet well understood by the masses.

“There is treatment and a variety of medications that can alleviate your symptoms if you are manic depressive or depressive," Fisher told USA Today two years later, after receiving an honor from the Erasing the Stigma Leadership awards for “speaking the truth about mental illness.” “You can lead a normal life, whatever that is.”

What made Fisher such an influential advocate for mental health awareness wasn’t just her willingness to speak on the subject, however. It was how she talked about her manic depression that set her apart: with a sardonic, darkly comic tone that made her battles sound normal, not tragic.

Wishful Drinking, her 2008 memoir about the highs and lows of her days as a Hollywood starlet, is the best example of how Fisher became one of the most outspoken and crucial celebrity voices in the discussion around mental health:

So having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything (okay fine, not acting, but what about a tiny little award for writing? Nope), I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. I’m apparently very good at it and am honored for it regularly. Probably one of the reasons I’m such a shoo-in is that there’s no swimsuit portion of the competition. Hey, look, it’s better than being bad at being mentally ill, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?

Even in her efforts to make light of her diagnosis, however, Fisher was upfront about the hard work involved in going about daily life with bipolar disorder. After experiencing a manic episode while performing on a cruise ship in 2013, she spoke to People about the experience, and how her relationship to mental illness was more tenuous than she made it seem.

“Over the years, writing about [having bipolar disorder] did help me to be able to talk about my illness in the abstract, to make light of it,” she said, still recovering from the incident at the time. “That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous. But what happened was I lost the serious relationship with it. It is not an entertainment. I’m not going to stop writing about it, but I have to understand it.”

Fisher’s public commitment to understanding the uphill battle with her mental health was inspiring to those who faced similar issues and had not yet found the confidence to speak up about them. With an estimated 43.6 million adults suffering from mental illness in the U.S. — and millions more Star Wars fans — that one of film’s most memorable stars had no regrets about sharing her struggles with the world is, by far, one of her most enduring legacies.

Correction: Fisher’s first novel was titled Postcards from the Edge. We’ve corrected the story above to reflect this.

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