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  • Saying Goodbye to an Icon and Lessons Learned

    Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, has had an opinion or thought on the loss of Carrie Fisher suddenly last week to a heart attack. Myself included. However, before taking my thoughts public I needed time to process the loss, what it meant and what message was getting lost in the coverage.

    Carrie was an OG mental illness advocate. She spoke openly and frankly in a time that was unpopular to do so.  She wrote with right balance of passion, gravitas and humor regarding the subject. She talked about her disease, her addiction struggles and her experiences with ECT. She talked about her family relationships for better or for worse.

    “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. “ (November 2016)

    She was (and still is) everything I yearned to be, as I related to her story on so many levels. For starters, I once fancied myself Princess Leia as most little girls in the late seventies, early eighties did. However it runs much deeper than that. I saw pieces of my story run parallel to hers. The period in which we are unable to accept the illness, the drinking, the ECT. The courage to say, “hey, I’m having a relapse and shit happens”.

    When I found my feet, my voice, and gained confidence in both myself and my abilities, she spoke to me once more. “Stay afraid. But do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow”. (April 2013)

    Her death stings me. It hurts more than the loss of Robin William’s laughter. Carrie was everything I wanted to be and now in death, everything I hope I’m not. She lived her life exactly the way I hope to live the remainder of my days. Her death, while it has called to attention the differences in heart disease between men and woman, has the ability to shed light on a greater issue: the decreased mortality of those with serious mental illness. 

    Mary Lou Sudders, the Massachusetts Secretary of Health recently remarked those with serious mental illness have a decrease in mortality of 25 years compared to their peers. If we expect to live until 85-90 years of age, then Carrie was right on schedule at age 60 according to that statistic. Countless studies published in journals highlight this issue along various themes. What all the data agrees on is cardiovascular risk is the highest and cardiovascular disease is the most common co-morbidity / cause of death.  Journals agree providers miss the mark in treating co-morbid illnesses in the mentally ill whether it is difficult to suss out a real versus somatic complaint, patient misinterpretation of symptoms, or bias against the patient for their psychiatric diagnosis to begin with.

    I am stung by Carrie’s death as it is too soon. It is my reality without vigilant care on my part. It is my reality unless I insist my PCP and my psychiatrist work as a team. It is my reality unless I change very stubborn habits. I have a lot to live for. And I intend to savor every year I have.

    Perhaps the best way to honor Carrie is talk about mental illness and medical co-morbidities.

    “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”.   (December 2000).