Comedy, the saying goes, is tragedy plus time. For Carrie Fischer, the actress and author best known for her role as Princess Leia, this maxim is a golden rule. On Saturday, April 20, Fischer spoke at the Sarasota Opera House about growing up in Hollywood, her struggle with substance addiction and life with bipolar disorder.
Known for her caustic humor and wit, Fischer candidly detailed her experiences with substance abuse and bipolar disorder, two issues that she believes to be interrelated.
“When you’re bipolar, using is very appealing,” Fischer said. “It helps you get away from your emotions.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 2.6 percent of American adults have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is characterized by two distinct phases: mania – which causes feelings of euphoria, restlessness and high energy levels – and depression.
Fischer said that, in her experience, seeking and adhering to treatment plans can be complicated by the symptoms of the disorder itself.
“No one suffers from mania,” Fischer quipped. “When you’re manic you want to go everywhere, do everything. Everything sounds like a good, except taking your medication.”
Fischer, the daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fischer, has struggled with addiction since her teens and, prior to her diagnosis, believed that her substance use was the cause of her intense behavioral swings.
“When I was a kid, Elizabeth Taylor used to lock her medicine cabinet before I came over,” Fischer recounted. “When you’re a celebrity people except that you’re going to be more eccentric. Its frowned upon, but its acceptable.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), it is estimated that nearly one-half of those with a diagnosed mental illness struggle with substance abuse.
However, after completing a rehabilitation program in her twenties Fischer realized that something was amiss.
Fischer said that when she was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder she walked out of her psychologist’s office.
After trying a host of medications, Fischer opted to try Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), a controversial treatment option which hopes to derive therapeutic benefits through the electrical inducement of seizures in anesthetized patients.
Fischer, who now undergoes ECT once every six weeks, described her experience with ECT as overwhelming positive despite the effects the treatment has had on her short term memory.
“It’s either the ECT, LSD, or A-G-E,” Fischer said.
Writing, Fischer said, has provided her with a productive outlet and relief from her symptoms.
“There’s something soothing about the writing process,” Fischer said. “If I write it down, then I don’t have to think it anymore.”
Since her diagnosis, Fischer has become a successful writer and performer, renowned for her acerbic wit and biting honesty.
“If my life wasn’t funny, then it would just be true,” Fischer said. “And that’s unacceptable.”
Fischer is currently writing a new book as well as producing a television program based on her book “The Best Awful” for HBO, as well as appearing on “Family Guy” and performing one-woman shows.
She has also become a prominent advocate for mental health issues. In 2011, Fischer lobbied the California legislature to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with mental health disorders.
“The emotions affect the body,” Fischer said. “Just as someone would except that, if you’re ill, it would affect your emotions. The brain is a part of body, the last time I checked.
“I know people who can’t [get insurance] because its too expensive,” Fischer said. “It seems like it would be a better deal for the person as well as the community if people could receive affordable treatment.”
Fischer lauds the role of community in the management of mental health disorders.
“Acceptance, self-education and community are key,” Fischer said.
Fourth-year Erica Herzig said that it is important to have well-known public figures advocate for mental health issues.
“It’s impressive when people are willing to talk about disorders, in general, especially when its someone as influential as Carrie Fischer,” Herzig said. “To see her talk about something intensely meaningful is really inspirational.”
Miriam Lacher, a licensed mental health counselor and one of the hosts for the event, said that it is important for those with bipolar disorder to remember that they are not alone.
“They have to talk to somebody,” Lacher said. “Somebody they can trust. It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, but talk to somebody and do not keep it hidden.”
Although people with mental health disorders often feel isolated and hopeless, Lacher said that it is important for patients to reach out and talk to others about the difficulties they are facing.
“The problem for a lot of people with mental illness is the end up feeling, hopeless and helpless and without options,” Lacher said. “There are always possibilities and options. Reaching out to at least one other person to talk about that, to find a different path.”
Although living with bipolar disorder has been difficult, Fischer does not regret the ways that the disorder has undoubtedly shaped her life.
“There’s no use in thinking that way,” Fischer said. “There is a good side to everything, if you just look long enough.”