Six months after the world mourned Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office released additional information about the death of the 60-year-old actress, advocate and author. The detailed autopsy, made public on Monday, June 19, revealed that Fisher had traces of cocaine, methadone, heroin and MDMA in her system at the time of her death. The coroner’s office could not determine the exact role these drugs played in the heart attack that ended her life on December 27, 2016.
While the results of this report may be shocking to many who only knew Fisher for her role as Princess Leia, they came as no surprise to the family, friends and fans who were familiar with her lifelong, public struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. Despite these struggles, her drug use at her time of death hasn’t tarnished her legacy of honesty, empathy, eccentricity and wit; It speaks to the bravery and openness she displayed in the face of her addiction.
Early Struggles Shared by Many
Carrie Fisher’s battle with mental health began in her teenage years, but it wasn’t until age 24 that she was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. By then, she had been taking drugs like Percadin (an opioid) and cocaine (a stimulant) for years to regulate the fluctuating highs and lows that came with her condition. This inevitably led to a dependency on these and other substances. At the peak of her addiction, Fisher was taking 30 Percadin a day. She ignored her diagnosis at first, believing it to be a poor excuse for her self-perceived moral failings as a drug user.
A near-fatal overdose four years later served as the wake-up call she needed. Fisher accepted the reality of her mental health condition, and realized she was self-medicating with substances. “Drugs made me feel normal. They contained me,” she later told Psychology Today in 2011. “You don’t even get high. It’s like a job, you punch in.”
The actress wasn’t alone in her battle with mental illness and addiction. Drug use and bipolar disorder often go hand in hand: Approximately 60 percent of people who are manic depressive end up abusing drugs and alcohol at some point in their lives. Co-occurring disorders, or mental health issues present with addictions, can be particularly difficult to treat and diagnose.
The close connection between substance use and bipolar disorder also speaks to something Fisher raged against for the rest of her adult life — the societal stigma of mental illness and addiction. People struggling with mood disorders often never seek the help they need to avoid judgment. Instead, many take drugs to cope, and those who do seek help often keep their condition private. Both behaviors can ultimately make a co-occurring disorder worse, or at the very least, more difficult to deal with.
A Lifelong Battle Brings Lifelong Advocacy
Born to screen legend Debbie Reynolds and famed singer Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher was never afforded the luxury of anonymity throughout her struggles, but never sought its comfort, either. She could have chosen to fade out of the public eye and kept quiet in the way that many celebrities do when dealing with inner turmoil. After her role in the Star Wars franchise, people would have loved her anyway.
But instead of sinking into a legacy of bronze bikinis and futuristic buns, Fisher spent her life bravely and openly speaking about her addiction and mental illness. She used her stardom to bring these issues into public consciousness, often in unconventionally witty and refreshingly honest ways. Her semi-autobiographical novel and subsequent film that she wrote, “Postcards from the Edge,” recounted her battle with addiction and mental illness while in the limelight. Fisher wrote several other books — some fictional, others memoirs — that further explored her lifelong troubles.
“Over the years, writing about [having bipolar disorder] did help me to be able to talk about my illness in the abstract, to make light of it,” she told People Magazine in a 2013 interview. “That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous.”
Fisher was given several awards for her mental health advocacy, including one from the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2001 and Harvard University in 2016. She continued to act, write, direct and even edit scripts for popular films like “Hook,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “Sister Act,” and “The Wedding Singer.” While her tremendous accomplishments alone proved that people with addictions and mental illnesses can be open about their struggles and still lead fulfilling, successful lives, she sought to confront this stigma directly.
“There is treatment and a variety of medications that can alleviate your symptoms if you are manic depressive or depressive,” she said in a 2002 interview with USA Today. “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.”
Fisher’s advocacy and openness about her addiction and bipolar disorder continued until her death. In a guest column she created for The Guardian — playfully penned “Advice from the Dark Side,” — young people wrote in and asked her for advice. In her final column, a teenager named Alex asked her how she was able to come to terms with her mental illness. Characteristically, Fisher responded with candor and compassion:
“We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic — not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. 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.”
Carrie Fisher may have ultimately died because of her illnesses, but she died a hero because she used her lot in life to help others.
Since the recent details of Carrie Fisher’s death were released to the public, family members, fans and friends have come forward to honor her life and legacy.
Fisher’s only daughter, Billie Lourd, released a statement on Friday, June 16, acknowledging her mother’s addiction and confirming its role in her death. “My mom battled drug addiction and mental illness her entire life. She ultimately died of it,” Lourd said. “She talked about the shame that torments people and their families confronted by these diseases. I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles. Seek help, fight for government funding for mental health programs. Shame and those social stigmas are the enemies of progress to solutions and ultimately a cure.”
Her sister, Joely Fisher, echoed these sentiments. “She spent a lifetime well documenting her dance with demons. It’s a shame we can’t hear her own words regaling us with this final kick line,” Joely said. “Do not let this change the way you feel about my brilliant sister. She was a lot of things to a lot of people, but never a liar. She lived hard, let her rest. She is a hero for all those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction.”
Carrie Fisher never let her demons push her into silent submission. She fought throughout her life, always remaining vocal about her struggles. Her death is not a defeat. It’s a testament to how difficult the struggle with addiction and co-occurring disorders can be, even for a princess and general. May the force be with you, Carrie Fisher.
If you suffer from addiction and a co-occurring disorder, relief is closer than you think. There’s no shame in asking for help, only bravery. At The Recovery Village®, caring professionals can connect you to comprehensive treatment for both conditions. Contact us today to learn more.