On Wednesday, Carrie Fisher wrote her final advice column.
She didn’t know that her letter to Alex would be her last. She didn’t know, that on a plane from London to Los Angeles on Friday she would suffer a heart attack that would kill her three days later.
Her last words, publicly that is, were the ones dedicated to Alex through her Ask Carrie Fisher column on The Guardian.
And what words they were.
Alex wrote to Fisher for help after receiving a bipolar diagnosis. Fisher was diagnosed with the same disorder when she was 24. She dedicated much of her life to talking, talking, talking. Reducing the stigma, making other sufferers feel less alone, making non-suffers feel more compassion.
Alex wanted to know how she “found peace” while living with such severe mental health struggles.
“Right now, it’s tough. I’m doing the best that I can,” Alex wrote. “I see my doctor regularly. I’ve tried different medications. But trying to deal with my mental illness and meet all of my responsibilities at school, work and home feels like a terrible balancing act. Some days I juggle everything better than others, and sometimes I let everything drop. It feels like only a matter of time until the things that I drop shatter irreparably. Have you found a way to feel at peace when even your brain seesaws constantly? I can’t see very far down the line from here and I hope that you can give me some insight.”
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Fisher was impressed.
She battled with her diagnosis before coming to terms with it. It was a long time after doctors visits and overdoses and dark, dark places that she was able to accept her condition.
“You’re lucky to have been diagnosed as bipolar and accepted that diagnosis at such a young age,” she wrote. “I was told that I was bipolar when I was 24 but was unable to accept that diagnosis until I was 28 when I overdosed and finally got sober. Only then was I able to see nothing else could explain away my behaviour,” she wrote.
In a 1995 interview with Diane Sawyer, she spoke about the same journey.
“I used to think I was a drug addict, pure and simple — just someone who could not stop taking drugs willfully,” she said. “And I was that. But it turns out that I am severely manic depressive.”
Back to Alex, and Fisher suggested finding a community of people with similar mental health problems. Fisher hated support groups herself. But, after a while, she realised her enjoyment was not the point.
“Initially I didn’t like the groups,” she wrote. “I felt like I had been banished to sit with a group of other misfits like myself to sit still for an hour. But then someone said, ‘You don’t have to like these meetings, you just have to go, go until you like them’.”
“That took me by surprise,” she continued. “I didn’t have to like something I did? Wow, what a concept. I thought I had to like everything – so I would wait to be OK with something and if I didn’t get there it was permission to give up. But if I didn’t have to like it – if I just had to effectively put my head down and move through some uncomfortable feelings till I got to the other side – what a notion! My comfort wasn’t the most important thing – my getting through to the other side of difficult feelings was. However long it might seem to take and however unfair it might seem, it was my job to do it.”
Most of all though, Fisher’s words were of encouragement.
“The truth is, I’ve never done what it sounds like you’re doing: balancing school, home and work,” she wrote. “I left home and school. So as difficult as it seems like it can be, you’re ahead of the game. You’re doing more than I did at your age, and that’s courageous.”
“You don’t have to like doing a lot of what you do, you just have to do it. You can let it all fall down and feel defeated and hopeless and that you’re done. But you reached out to me – that took courage. Now build on that. Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side. As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.”
Throughout her life, Carrie Fisher did a lot for a lot of people.
She helped small girls realise their potential.
As Princess Leia, she showed girls that women can be involved, part of the action. A main character – one of only two women in the first Star Wars film. A decision maker. The centre of the plot and just as brave, important and vital as a man.
“I got to be the only girl in an all boy fantasy, and it’s a great role for women. She’s a very proactive character and gets the job done,” Fisher told CBC News.
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Carrie Fisher sent the right messages to women.
“Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They’re the temporary bi-products of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either,” she once Tweeted.
Carrie Fisher was a powerful role model for those suffering mental illness and addiction.
When the Herald Tribune asked her what she thought about people self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, Fisher’s advice was honest:
“People are going to have to do what they have to do. You can’t tell people. I understand the impulse — you want to be anywhere but here,” she said. “If you’re really uncomfortable emotionally, you want to make your skin just that much thicker. Your fantasy is what drugs and alcohol will do for you.”
When the same interviewer asked her what she would say to people who are struggling with mental illness and afraid to follow their dreams, Fisher’s answer was surprising:
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action,” she said. “You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”
In her letter to Alex on Tuesday, the letter that no one realised would be her last, Carrie Fisher continued this legacy.
She was everything she’s always been: Honest. Helpful. Insightful. Heartfelt. Caring. But, most of all, real.