Princess Leia, Depression and Me
What I have in common with the princess – and it is not her fetching hairstyle
-Candace Cavanaugh Buehner
Back in the day, I was never a big Star Wars fan – loved Harrison Ford (pre-Calista), thought R2D2 was inexplicably cute, but that was about it. Grease was my movie of the 70s, and if thousands of girls back then were twisting their hair into side-part buns as an homage to Princess Leia, there were just as many like me who faked an Australian accent just so that we could try to sound exactly like Olivia Newton-John.
Then, the other day, when I was killing time while my children were dismantling the Thomas the Tank Engine display at our local Barnes & Noble, I happened upon a book that made me look at Princess Leia in a new light. The book, Wishful Drinking, is the first foray by Carrie Fisher – aka Princess Leia – into the world of nonfiction writing. It’s about Fisher’s ongoing battle with depression, a struggle that ultimately led her to the extreme remedy of electric shock therapy (now known as Electroconvulsive Therapy, or “ECT”) in an attempt to find relief.
Just in case you didn’t know, Carrie Fisher was a 1950s movie princess – as she describes it, her parents (singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds) were the original Brad and Jen, undone by the fetching Angelina of their time (i.e, Elizabeth Taylor). Fisher had the lineage and the talent to make fame a reality, and in 1987, she capped her remarkable Star Wars acting success with a novel called Postcards From the Edge, a thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical story of an actress with a drug problem and a wicked sense of humor. Three more books followed, interspersed with sporadic acting jobs, but we didn’t see a lot of Carrie Fisher for a while – and when we did, she was, well, kind of plump, and not very Leia-like.
Then, in 2000, she explained to Diane Sawyer that the reason for the weight gain and her in-and-out Hollywood presence was complicated. Basically, she explained, she had been waging a horrific struggle to overcome the chemistries of her own mind, which had colored her life in light or dark hues, depending on whether Roy (her name for the manic part of her personality) or Pam (the Debbie Downer depressive side) were in charge that particular day.
Drugs – both legal and otherwise – did not work that well for Carrie Fisher, and she ultimately sought ECT as a sort of last resort. It served to obliterate parts of her mind (quite literally), but per Wishful Drinking, it also appears to have given her a sort of peace: she is able to function, to love, to work, and to live in a way that before, might not have been possible.
Thankfully, I do not have manic depression. No, the chemical shenanigans played by my mind are much more of the garden variety, where the first frisson of anxiety joins its friend “What if THAT happened?” in quickly becoming a cacophony of “You’d better make sure it DOESN’T happen, sister” followed by the inevitable party-crasher, depression, when inevitably I realize that I am, sadly, powerless to control the world.
I’ll never forget the kind Indian doctor at the local university health center, where I went my second year of law school crying, sobbing, explaining to him that I didn’t know why I was worried, I just WAS – and I could remember feeling that way since I was little and had really nothing to worry about other than, perhaps, when I would next be able to once again view “Grease”. The doctor listened patiently, suggested I might have “generalized anxiety disorder,” and prescribed for me a mild antidepressant.
That day changed my life. The dosages have been altered as years have gone by, but a brief period when I went “off” of the medication (slowly, just like the doctor ordered), and promptly was reacquainted with the “Oh, no, THIS is what it used to feel like” sensation, made me realize that for my particular biological makeup, medication is a necessary part of life.
For Carrie Fisher, what was necessary was a lot more extreme, of course (although, as she notes in her book, people like Ernest Hemingway and Lou Reed had ECT – who knew?!). But her frankness in discussing her illness can only help to de-stigmatize the idea of mental issues as a weakness to be overcome through sheer will or vitamins (thanks, Tom Cruise).
By the time I was done with Wishful Drinking (it’s only 163 pages long, mind you, with lots of pictures) the Thomas display was re-assembled, my boys were ready to go home – and I had a new appreciation for Princess Leia.
I still would love an Australian accent, though.
Candace Cavanaugh Buehner lives and works outside of Detroit, Michigan, where there are many people these days in need of antidepressants, unfortunately.