You know how I always seem to be struggling, even when the situation doesn’t call for it?
When Carrie Fisher was nineteen, she started work on Star Wars and had a three-month affair with Harrison Ford.
When I was nineteen, I had a meltdown on the way to Disney World after I found a hole in my tights, came home, was diagnosed with depression, dropped out of university, and spent months on my mum’s sofa, wrapped in a slowly-unravelling brown blanket.
If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.
The Princess Diarist covers the making of Star Wars in 1976 and Fisher’s life before and after playing Princess Leia. It’s her third memoir: impressive for someone with ECT-induced memory loss but probably inevitable given her talent for turning every twist of fate into entertainment.
She first did it with Postcards from the Edge, a novel about a Hollywood actress who’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict with a famous (and famously pushy) mother, a description which also applies to Fisher herself. One day, a couple of months after my meltdown, I spotted a battered copy on my mum’s bookcase. It was a revelation.
At the start of the book, the protagonist, Suzanne Vale, almost dies after accidentally overdosing on the drugs she was using to self-medicate her mood swings. But she never sinks into self-pity. Her rehab diary begins, “Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?”
I’d been reading books like Prozac Nation and Malignant Sadness, personal stories about mental illness and recovery. They were helpful to some extent: they reassured me that I might one day feel less like an exposed nerve; might be able to fall asleep without needing someone to hold my hand and remind me not to think. But they also reflected how numb and hopeless I felt, amplifying my despair.
Postcards, on the other hand, introduced me to the idea that even though mental illness is terrible, it doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. In fact, sometimes it’s the only option. When your life is going well but your brain chemicals tell you everything is awful and no one likes you, it’s at least a little ironic.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve got my nose pressed up against the window of a bakery, only I’m the bread.
I read Fisher’s other novels, Surrender the Pink and Delusions of Grandma, soon after. (The Best Awful, a Postcards from the Edge sequel that didn’t live up to the original, wasn’t out yet.) They’re more muted and don’t switch perspectives the way Postcards does. But they’re still wise and funny and touch on some of the same themes: mental illness, addiction, the difficulty of building and sustaining relationships.
At the time, I was writing short stories about young women so weighed down by misery all they could do was flop about on chairs or sofas, tears coursing down their cheeks. Fisher’s books taught me not everything has to be spelled out. Rather than telling us that Dinah Kaufman, the heroine of Surrender the Pink, is unhappy, we learn that every morning, “she would set about mustering some kind of perky resignation to propel her out of bed.” Similarly, I didn’t have to constantly perform depression for others—to look drab, to cry in front of them—so that they understood how bad I felt.
This allowed room for misinterpretation: sometimes I’d laugh and one of my friends would say they were glad I was better, as if my mood disorder had suddenly vanished. But it also allowed room for healing, as depression gradually became less all-consuming.
The thing about having it all is, it should include having the ability to have it all.
Fisher was unsurprisingly frank and funny about her own mental health in her first memoir, 2008’s Wishful Drinking, which was based on her successful one-woman show. She talks about what it was like to grow up in Hollywood with famous parents, actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher (“We had three pools … you know, in case two broke”), the media circus when her dad left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, Fisher’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the little-understood treatment that works for her: electroconvulsive therapy. She helps to subvert the stigma around this treatment by making it clear that—contrary to popular opinion—this wasn’t scary or abusive; it saved her life.
In her next memoir, Shockaholic, which was released in 2011, she continued to mine her experiences for humour, including ECT. “I can’t begin to tell you how many friends have asked me what it felt like waiting for that first shock,” she writes.
And all I could answer was, ‘I don’t remember a fucking thing. For all I know, they could have dressed me in a ball gown, surrounded me with dancing dolphins, and married me off to Rush Limbaugh.’
It’s not all irreverence, though: she also includes a moving essay about reconciling with her dad before he died. She forgave him for his many parenting (and life) mistakes, in part because he was repentant, and in part because she understood that they had many of the same biochemical issues.
Instant gratification takes too long.
As she recounts in The Princess Diarist, when Fisher started work on Star Wars, she didn’t yet know she had a predisposition to mental illness and addiction. In fact, despite her unusual upbringing, she’d led a sheltered life. She’d only had one boyfriend, and Star Wars was her first real job. “My life had started, all right,” she says. “Here I was crossing its threshold in a long white virginal robe with the hair of a seventeenth-century Dutch school matron.” She was so green that she responded enthusiastically to that hairdo because she was scared she’d be fired for not losing ten pounds before filming started, as she’d been instructed.
One of her priorities on set was to have an affair, because she thought it was the kind of thing sophisticated people did, although she didn’t have anyone in mind and wasn’t sure how such a thing might happen. “I knew that I was going to be awful with men,” she says. “Partly because of the way my mom had been, with her two divorces and one separation in the pipeline.” It’s true Reynolds wasn’t the best role model when it came to relationships. It wasn’t her fault that Eddie Fisher cheated on her or that her second husband lost her money. But it might not have been appropriate to let fifteen-year-old Carrie make out with a gay man from the chorus of her Broadway show, nor to suggest that if the two of them had sex, “I’ll watch if you like so I can give instructions.”
Harrison Ford was thirty-three, married with two young children, and oblivious to how much pain he was about to cause. One night, the two of them went for dinner with Mark Hamill and his friends and then, drunk on wine and the rare gift of Ford’s attention, Fisher took him back to her flat for “a sleepover”. After that, they spent time together every weekend. And if you’re looking for more detail, you won’t find it here – either because Fisher can’t remember, is too discreet, or doesn’t want to embarrass Ford. “If we didn’t spend a bunch of time talking or playing Monopoly, then we must’ve done more physical things. Long walks, waterboarding, things of that nature,” she elides.
She does reveal that the marijuana she and Ford smoked made her paranoid, which is evident in the diary extracts she includes in the book, page after page of beating herself up because she doesn’t feel good enough. (“I am totally at his mercy. I suffer through the silence, imagining that he is suffering my company. That I am merely an alternative for nothing better to do.”) It’s heart-breaking, and it’s relatable, too. But it would have been better in moderation, treated with the self-deprecation that time can bring.
I think of my body as a side effect of my mind.
Fisher doesn’t write much about coming back to play Leia in The Force Awakens, perhaps because for her this wasn’t so much a return as a continuation: the role defined her life, her image, and her opportunities. That means she always had an income—she signed photos at conventions when she was low on cash—but also that she regularly had to confront what she represented to fans.
Once, strange men told her that they fantasised about her chained up in a gold bikini. Later, they let her know that because she’d aged and gained weight, they didn’t find her attractive anymore; that she’d let them down. “I wish I’d understood the kind of contract I signed by wearing something like that,” she writes, “insinuating I would and always will remain somewhere in the erotic ballpark appearance-wise, enabling fans to remain connected to their younger, yearning selves.”
It’s nearly twenty years since I was nineteen, and in that time, I’ve been diagnosed with ME/CFS as well as depression. It’s an illness that causes debilitating exhaustion, pain, and a lack of stamina, and I’ve gained weight as a result. I too know what it’s like to be told people hate the way I look. But at least I only have to put up with cruel comments from relatives and occasional internet randoms, not an entire fandom.
That’s the thing about Carrie Fisher: any experience you’ve had, she’d been through something more extreme. Parents caught you smoking pot? She got a “say no to drugs” talk from Cary Grant. Stacked shelves as a teenager? She was a backup singer on Broadway. Think your family Christmas is awkward? She once spent it with Michael Jackson. While she was privileged in many ways, most of us can take comfort in the fact that our lives could never be as off the wall as Fisher’s. But she’s more than just a cautionary tale.
When you’re young and have mental health problems, you think you can lie on a sofa for a while, falling apart, and one day the parts of you that are broken will click back into place and you’ll spring up, ready to take on the world. But you might not. You might have to pull yourself up, put yourself back together, and find a way to move forward, broken parts held together with Blu Tack and Sellotape. People who’ve been down the same path and kept going, and kept their sense of humour, light the way. Carrie Fisher is one of them.
I think that’s what maturity is: a stoic response to endless reality. But then, what do I know?
(All italic sentences are quotations from Postcards from the Edge or Fisher herself.)
Diane Shipley is a journalist and writer born in Australia and based in the UK. She enjoys books, TV, podcasts, photos of miniature dachshunds and spending too much time on Twitter.