As we cross the line into the New Year I am aware that we receive the biggest gifts in the most unexpected ways. Two days after Christmas marked the premature passing of Carrie Fisher, at age 60. She succumbed to a heart attack while flying back from London the previous Friday, and never recovered. Her life has often been defined in the way Hollywood deals with celebrities: the daughter of famous parents, the one-trick-pony shot at stardom as Princess Leah in the original Star Wars, and the stereotypical fall into the abyss of addiction and rehab now de-rigueur to stay on top of the promo-news cycle, an art recently perfected by Brittany Spears and others.
But don’t be fooled: She was much, much more than that. For starters, she went on to write books. One of them, “Postcards from the Edge” became a best seller and was made into a movie starring Meryll Streep. She stayed involved in the entertainment industry often behind the scenes in the endless process of building partnerships and collaborations, and making tangible the outcomes of a career dedicated to building relationships. More importantly, she found it in her heart to stay close to her mother – the really famous one – and to forgive her father for the pain and suffering he inflicted on the two of them. And even more importantly, as we know, she struggled with bipolar disorder and substance abuse – dual diagnosis in our industry jargon. Yet I believe that in many ways, and no matter what Hollywood says, she gained a much higher stature than either one of her parents – a paradox, yes, but not very hard to explain.
Carrie Fisher is an inspiration to all of us. She showed the extraordinary courage to be outspoken about her struggle and an advocate for others. She was a pioneer later joined by Patrick Kennedy, Glen Close and now others who use their fame and money in the fight against stigma. But more than the advocacy, I find inspiring that Carrie didn’t let her dual diagnosis stop her from living a rich and productive life.
Yet, the sobering reality is that she is now gone, apparently 20 or more years before what her life expectancy should have been – except it wasn’t. Her life expectancy was actually 60, despite her fame and the relative proximity to affluence, even wealth, and a glamourous life style. Shorter life-span is the curse of people who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse: It’s a fact; they live, on average, twenty fewer years than those who don’t. The research on this topic is conclusive while the reasons vary, but they do have common denominators that include a fragmented health care system that stubbornly refuses to see the whole person and is built on the foundation of fifteen minute appointments.
Carrie’s life was a gift to the world while she was among us, and she will continue to guide our work now that she is gone. We must pursue this endeavor of reducing stigma, improving access to therapy and medications, integrating medical and behavioral services, supporting the people we serve in their quest to stop smoking and using other substances, and exercising and eating healthy foods – the true hallmarks of prevention and wellness. We must do these things even if we don’t get paid to do some of them. Health is a package deal.
Farewell Princess Leah!!! The Force is with you!
Enrique Juncadella, Ph.D. (a.b.d.), Director of Behavioral Health Homes (BHH) in our Norwich and New London locations.