Inside Carrie Fisher's Revolutionary Openness About Her Mental Illness: 'She Changed the World'
"Celebrities have such a huge reach that when they show us the problems that they're having, that's what can help us the most," a bipolar disorder expert tells PEOPLE regarding Carrie Fisher
For countless people suffering from various forms of mental illness, Carrie Fisher played a more important role than Princess Leia.
Fisher, who died at 60 on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack last Friday, offered a beacon of hope to people struggling with their mental health. The Star Wars actress was remarkably open about her struggle with bipolar disorder, which did essential work to chip away at the illness’s stigma.
“Losing your mind, which is what happened, is a terrible thing,” Fisher told Diane Sawyer on 20/20 in 2000. “But once it’s gone, it’s fine. It’s completely fine because there’s no part of you left that knows the rest of it is missing.”
Fisher let people know that it was okay if their brain’s chemistry was a bit off, and they didn’t feel like they fit in because of it.
When news of her death broke, fans who’ve struggled with mental illness took to Twitter to honor her advocacy, sharing what her words meant to them.
As the hashtag #InHonorOfCarrie trended, people revealed their illnesses on Twitter.
Dr. Terence Ketter, a professor of psychology at Stanford and chief of their Bipolar Disorder Clinic, tells PEOPLE how impactful it can be for a high-profile artist like Fisher to be so open about mental health struggles.
“Ms. Fisher was an important advocate in terms of decreasing the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder,” Ketter says. “One of the things she did was medicalize the problem and not see it as a character flaw. Making bipolar disorder like any other medical disorder decreases stigma. And linking it to creativity – but not romanticizing it – helps show that there might be some kind of a silver lining.”
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985, the actress also had a long struggle with substance abuse. Fisher explored her own issues with addiction in her 1987 bestselling, semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge.
“I never could take alcohol. I always said I was allergic to alcohol, and that’s actually a definition to alcoholism — an allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind,” Fisher told the Herald-Tribune in 2013. “So I didn’t do other kinds of drugs until I was about 20. Then, by the time I was 21 it was LSD. I didn’t love cocaine, but I wanted to feel any way other than the way I did, so I’d do anything.”
In Fisher’s interview with Sawyer in 2000, she revealed she used to think she was simply a drug addict.
“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she said. “I used to think I was a drug addict, pure and simple — just someone who could not stop taking drugs willfully. And I was that. But it turns out that I am severely manic depressive.”
Despite her many hospitalizations and the highs and very low lows of her disorder, the Star Wars actress exuded strength that was inspiring to many.
“I outlasted my problems,” she told Sawyer. “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.”
WATCH: CARRIE FISHER’S LEGACY
While doing the work of surviving, the actress sought help when she needed to — and encouraged others to do the same. Fisher was always accompanied by her loyal service animal, a French bulldog named Gary. They took care of each other.
“Gary is mental also. My mother says Gary is a hooligan. Gary is like my heart,” Fisher told The Herald Tribune in 2015. “Gary is very devoted to me and that calms me down. He’s anxious when he’s away from me.”
In a 2002 interview with USA Today, the actress fiercely defied the notion that people with mental illnesses can’t live full, productive lives just like anybody else. She also normalized taking medication —again — by virtue of simply talking about it. Taking medication (or the prospect of it) can be a source of shame for many, and Fisher said: It’s okay.
“There is treatment and a variety of medications that can alleviate your symptoms if you are manic depressive or depressive,” she said. “You can lead a normal life, whatever that is. I have gotten to the point where I can live a normal life, where my daughter can rely on me for predictable behavior, and that’s very important to me.”
To Julie Fast, a leading bipolar disorder expert and author who has the disorder herself, Fisher’s willingness to share both the highs and lows of her life was revolutionary for millions of people.
“She changed the world,” Fast tells PEOPLE. “There was a connection with her because of her openness that I’ve never seen with anyone else except Patty Duke. They were so human and kind in describing their mistakes, and it helped those of us with bipolar not feel so stupid or worthless or unable to succeed.”
Fast adds, “Celebrities have such a huge reach that when they show us the problems that they’re having, that’s what can help us the most. That’s why everybody loves her so much. Not only did she talk about how well she was doing, she talked about the lows. It can make such a difference for people with bipolar disorder. When we saw Carrie Fisher in a movie, we were like, ‘Woohoo!'”
Joanne Doan, the publisher of BP Magazine, says that Fisher has been “groundbreaking” for the bipolar community.
“She’s inspired our community to be able to look in the mirror – free of this ridiculous shame and stigma that surrounds a chronic brain illness – and go out there and live fulfilling lives,” Doan tells PEOPLE. “Her legacy will live forever.”
In a 2013 interview, Fisher told PEOPLE that the key to survival is reaching out for help when you need it and to never, ever feel embarrassed for it.
“The only lesson for me, or anybody, is that you have to get help. It’s not a neat illness. It doesn’t go away. I’m just lucky this hasn’t happened more. [In the future] I don’t know if there are setbacks or steps forward. I’m not embarrassed,” she said.
In Fisher’s final advice column for The Guardian, which was published less than a month before her death, the actress answered a question from a reader about coping with a recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
“Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic — not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival,” she wrote. “An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. That’s why it’s important to find a community — however small — of other bipolar people to share experiences and find comfort in the similarities.”