The Death of an Advocate
I couldn’t stop weeping yesterday.
Every new photo, tweet from one of her co-stars, or thoughtful personal statement from a Facebook friend would bring me to fresh tears. Even though I am still avoiding reading articles, think pieces, and obituaries my grief for Carrie Fisher pounds through me like the migraine that is sure to come, since crying is a trigger for me. And so is strong emotion.
I realize that it may seem like a stretch to make a celebrity death a migraine issue. Prince’s tragic demise hit close to home for many of us, since it was revealed that he’d been struggling with and hiding a chronic pain condition for years and died as an indirect result; Carrie died of a heart attack. However, throughout her life, she was an outspoken advocate for mental health, writing and speaking about her issues with bipolar disorder and addiction with a refreshing forthrightness that made me feel not only like it was okay to be me, a creative adult addled with migraine and depression, but also that maybe I could write and talk about my experiences too. That I could be as vocal and honest as she always was.
Carrie Fisher worked hard to fight the stigma of mental illness, and as we all know stigma is a huge issue for the migraine community too. A quotation of hers among the many circulating right now is “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that. I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.”
Bring it on. Bring on the migraine, because I’ve survived this long and I will continue to. Bring it on, because I will talk about it and write about it and post about it and tweet about it. Bring it on because each individual who feels free to share their experience with pain and illness increases awareness and understanding, and helps people realize that yes, awesome famous people suffer. And normal everyday people suffer. And those suffering in silence may feel validated. And those misinformed about what migraine disease or bipolar disorder or any other stigmatized condition can do, what those illnesses are really like, may have learned something because a revered pop culture icon decided to share, unabashedly, her difficult truth.
I saw The Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in with my family when I was seven. I played Star Wars with my brother every day, Princess Leia to his Luke Skywalker. Of course I wanted to be Leia, wearing my hair in braids, brandishing her visage on tee shirts. In elementary school while anticipating the release of Return of the Jedi I had no idea how unusual it was for my favorite movies to have such a strong, fearless female character to emulate, more a warrior than a princess. Yes, she was beautiful, but in one of her very first scenes she stared unflinchingly right into Darth Vader’s helmeted face and informed him with steely eyes that he would regret holding her hostage. It would become clear that she was less afraid of him than any of her male counterparts were.
Carrie Fisher was a warrior herself, and a multi-talented one with much more to offer than adorable hair buns, a blaster, and a metal bikini. But rather than continuing to be bitter about the role that defined her, she decided to embrace it, much as she did the experience of growing up as Hollywood royalty. Additionally, not only did she address the issues of mental illness and addiction, she also took on sexism, body image, aging, and the double standards of the movie industry.
As a person with a chronic illness, I find the distraction of entertainment, of movies and television shows and music and books, to be essential to my emotional well being, and the loss of one beloved icon after another is beginning to take its toll on my heart and mind. Beyond the fact that Carrie was an advocate for mental illness and portrayed my favorite character in all of pop culture, she was an immensely talented and prolific writer of novels and memoirs. Like Harper Lee, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and George Michael, she provided hours of material to immerse myself in while in moderate pain, not able to be out in the world but still awake, restless, bored, and tired; wanting to be distracted and amused. The creative works of the artists we’ve lost this year, and in years past, of course do survive to be enjoyed over and over again. But the sudden loss of Carrie Fisher feels different, much more personal. Though her latest book, The Princess Diarist, does have the prescient feel of releasing her last big secret to the world, she had more to say. She had more to do, more sequels in which to be General Organa, more episodes of Catastrophe, more red carpets to walk with Gary, her “very famous” service dog. She had more to teach us. And there is nothing wrong with grieving someone you may have never met, but who changed your life by helping you learn to be comfortable in your own skin, with your own mind and voice.
Princess Leia inspired me to be fearless. Carrie Fisher inspired me to be an advocate. And not an ordinary advocate, but one able to rise above judgment and dismissal with sassy, irreverent humor and a positive but defiant attitude. May all of us who battle daily with our own internal Darth Vader continue to fight, to start a revolution, and become generals, with huge grins on our faces and, when necessary, our middle fingers in the air, because there can be no better way to honor the brave, beloved princess who has left us to live among the stars.