“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” Carrie Fisher tells Diane Sawyer on PrimeTime Thursday.
Fisher, the actress who turned Star Wars’ Princess Leia into a superheroine, tells Sawyer her manic depression creates such a roar of energy in the brain that she is left with uncontrollable mood swings and frenzied thoughts, and suffers sleepless nights.
A Neurobiological Brain Disorder
“I used to think I was a drug addict, pure and simple — just someone who could not stop taking drugs willfully,” says Fisher. “And I was that. But it turns out that I am severely manic depressive.”
It has taken her 20 years and a mental breakdown to say these words publicly. “I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”
Manic depression, a chemical disorder also called Bipolar Disorder, is a type of mood disorder that is characterized by unpredictable mood changes, known as manic and depressive episodes. In a manic phase, one may experience excessive energy and irritability, heightened mood, decreased need for sleep, exaggerated self-confidence and may engage in recklessly pleasurable or dangerous activities; depressive episodes may be characterized by severe lows, loss of energy, inability to concentrate and persistent lethargy. While there is no cure, it can be managed with medication such as mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anti-psychotics as well as psychotherapy.
“The world of manic depression is a world of bad judgment calls,” says Fisher. “Just every kind of bad judgement because it all seems like a good idea at the time. A great idea … So if it’s talking, if it’s shopping, if it’s — the weirdest one for me is sex. That’s only happened twice. But then it’s wow, who are you?”
She tells Sawyer, “You can’t stop. It’s very painful. It’s raw. You know, it’s rough … your bones burn … when you’re not busy talking and trying to drown it out.”
Turning to Drugs
The daughter of movie star Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Fisher grew up surrounded by Hollywood’s glamour. But when she was just a toddler, her father abandoned his family and ran off with a family friend, Elizabeth Taylor. Fans were scandalized. His family was openly shattered. And the little girl who adored him masked her bruises with moxie.
When she was 17, Fisher stole the show in the film Shampoo. Two years later, she starred opposite Harrison Ford in Star Wars. By the third Star Wars movie, she was using pills heavily to sleep at night and about to begin a four-year drug binge with no lid on it. When she was in her mid-20s, doctors told her she had a form of mania. But she didn’t believe it.
“I thought they told me I was manic depressive to make me feel better about being a drug addict,” she says. “It’s what you think. If you could just control yourself … You had an indulged childhood … You were a child of privilege … I don’t know, that’s what I thought. You’re just a drug addict.”
In 1983, Fisher married singer Paul Simon. “One of the things I really liked about Paul,“ she says, is that “any words that have a certain rhythm are very soothing to me. Before I got into drugs, I was into books. And I was into the ways you could say it … Because otherwise it was just me, inside of all that. And that was something that I thought Paul did … He conveyed those worlds and those rhythms. And he could take you there.”
But neither the marriage nor the calming rhythms lasted. At one point, she says she was taking 30 Percadin a day to try to mellow out her manic state. Fisher, who has written about her drug addiction in the best-selling book Postcards From the Edge, was hospitalized two years ago. “I had a psychotic break. I was in lock-up for two weeks,” she says. “I continued as an outpatient for five months. And I belonged there. I wasn’t there by accident.”
Today, thanks to doctors, time and six different medications taken daily, Fisher is healthier and has written a made-for-TV movie entitled “These Old Broads,” about a wife who is betrayed by her husband who runs off with one of her glamorous friends. The movie stars Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Maclaine, Joan Collins, and, ironically, Elizabeth Taylor as the other woman.
“I outlasted my problems,” says Fisher. “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. Better me than you.”