Carrie Fisher, Chronic Illness, and Having a Sensayuma

When I learned that Carrie Fisher had died early yesterday, I did what most people who know me would expect: I sat in front of this laptop and I cried. “It’s what I do.” Now…see if  you can sense the connection between me and the following “celebrities”: Note that I’m not a celebrity whore. I’m somewhat selective about what and who gets me to put out emotionally. So Carrie Fisher (the latest inspiration), Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Williams tore into me because they had a few things in common that make them resonate with me. No, I don’t read supermarket schmatas. I don’t obsess over Brad and Angelina. In fact, I really don’t give a good fuck about them except that Pitt’s made a few truly remarkable movies.

But if you guessed “drug addict,” “alcoholic,” and “manic-depressive,” good on you, you win! You stayed awake through class and you get an A that earns you precisely zilch.

My personal stake is not news here anymore. I’m a recovering alcoholic, I have bipolar disorder, and I have sympathy–and empathy–for people in those special corners of hell. I’m certainly not “normal”: don’t insult me by suggesting that I am. I have an occasionally vitriolic temper, and for years I obliviated myself with alcohol. I’ve never made a serious suicide attempt (what’s a frivolous attempt?) but there’s always a first time. Nobody knows when despair might beat out the desire for self-preservation, and get me to treat myself with special forms of hostility.

If you take alcoholism and bipolar disorder, then add them to chronic pain, you’ve got the makings of a pretty wicked cocktail. Some really nasty shit lives in those little vials, bottles, and envelopes. Combine them, and it’s a bit like stepping in front of a slightly moving railroad car.

I don’t remember precisely when Carrie Fisher outed herself as a drunk, druggie, and crazy lady, but it’s been awhile by now. She’s not the only person to send out postcards from her particular edge–lots of us have done that–but her special “charism” was to use her fame to spread the word about addiction and mental illness to the greater population. Hey, gang, there’s some nasty shit out here that can really terminate you with extreme prejudice.

What made me love her, and what makes me grieve for her now, is not the fact that she was a “substance abuser” and somewhat cray-cray–it’s that she presented her life as a really bizarre schtick with a million punchlines, all of them told on herself. Carrie took us into her very real vision of Hell and made us laugh while she did it.

I’ve had to learn that presentational style. Or did it come naturally?–I don’t know. I don’t have much of a sense of humor. I can be (and have been) a crybaby and rageaholic. That’s a part of me that I truly hate because it makes me hateful even to myself. Particularly to myself.

There are some serious and powerful ways to step back from a precipice. One is pets: dogs. cats, rabbits, whatever…something that forces us to love something besides our own misery. The other can be the kind of humor in which Carrie Fisher specialized. It can be self-mocking, sarcastic, and even nasty. It can take in our families, our work, and our other relationships. Remember Fisher’s one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, with its cutting descriptions of her father and mother, most notably how her father, the singer Eddie Fisher, consoled the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor, “with his penis.” If we can stand apart from what eats into us, we can reduce its ability to sink its teeth into our guts. We can lessen and even break its grip on us. And that is quite something. It’s a gift I’ve had to discover I have and learn to cultivate it. I’m not always successful, but sometimes the sense of detachment just appears and enables us–even me!–to laugh at things that may not be at all funny.

For all that, today I still feel grief and sadness for Carrie Fisher, a pained and wonderful lady who has become (and will remain) an example of how a transcendent spirit can get us through what might otherwise be unbearable. Rest, Carrie. And thank you for your gift of laughter.


About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.
This entry was posted in addiction, bipolar, depression, disease, pain. Bookmark the permalink.

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