America has lost a princess. When Carrie Fisher passed, most Americans were quick to point out the impact Fisher had on cinema in the pivotal Star Wars role of Princess Leia; in theater, with her quirky one woman show; and in print, with numerous bestsellers laced with wit, humor and candor.
But the mental health community has lost its queen, a vocal, ruthlessly honest and vulnerable advocate, who normalized mental illness and provided a hopeful example of a person living with bipolar disorder and working her recovery. One of Fisher’s greatest lines came in a 2009 interview with the Associated Press when she said, “We are only as sick as our secrets. That just makes me really healthy.”
An example of the heart that would ultimately fail her: Singer-songwriter James Blunt told me he was introduced to Fisher in London and described to her the album he hoped to create. At that point in his career, he was broke and without options. Fisher put him up in her Los Angeles home and allowed him to stay rent free until “Back to Bedlam” was born.
James described it as one of the most creative, life-affirming experiences he’d ever had, a generosity he hadn’t experienced previously. She asked for nothing in return. There was good food, great humor and Fisher even placed a cardboard cutout of her character of Princess Leia outside James’s guest bedroom.
“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
Fisher had long conversations with James about the trauma he’d experienced as a British officer in Bosnia and encouraged him to unearth emotions he’d never felt or written about before. The source of those conversations and the depth of the love and friendship had a profound impact on Blunt and his music.
Say what you will about radio killing a great album, but the songs that were recorded in Fisher’s bathroom (yes, there was a piano in the bathroom) remind me of how creativity and mental illness so often walk side by side, one informing and nudging the other, ever so gently, “Open up. Open up.”
Writer Mary Karr described people who live with mental illness as perhaps having “more bandwidth.” Others have described it to me as “living without a shield.” Both descriptions hint to the quality intuitive people have when they are open to others’ emotions as well as their own. Understandably, these people often live with more pain than those who are shielded or those who lack bandwidth, but they are also our witnesses, our futurists, our singers, poets, and scientists. They are often, but not always, our geniuses who see patterns others cannot.
There is a great debate in the mental health community as to whether people with high degrees of creativity are prone to mental illness. I land on the side of the people who have witnessed the fire, the genius, and the downfall of brain disorders if the illness goes untreated. But Carrie Fisher modeled a middle way—an honest approach to minding her own strengths and vulnerabilities. She lived and loved deeply. It turns out Obi-Wan Kenobi isn’t our only hope. We are.