Debbie Reynolds on Carrie Fisher and Bipolar

Some quotes from Unsinkable: a Memoir

I haven’t read the whole book, just the chapters on Carrie. Not gonna either, I’ve had enough of their family anecdotes *grin*

IN DECEMBER 2000, ABOUT SEVEN weeks before These Old Broads first aired, Carrie did an interview on ABC’s Prime Time in which she told Diane Sawyer—and an audience of millions of viewers—that she had a mental condition that, in its most extreme state, would lead her to need hospitalization. This was not exactly news to anyone who’d read or seen Postcards from the Edge. Carrie’s best-selling book and hit movie were at least a decade old by then. But I have to admit, it was a little strange to watch Carrie chat with Diane as if she were talking to a doctor, openly discussing her mishaps and hospital stays. Not every parent with an addict in the family gets to turn on the TV and see her child telling a newscaster how she took thirty Percodan a day to regulate her moods.

Carrie described how she’d named these moods “Rollicking Roy” and “Sediment Pam.” Roy takes her on incredible highs during which her mind races so much that she can’t sleep, sometimes for days. Pam stands for “piss and moan.” Pam stands on the shore and sobs. She’s in charge of Carrie’s low moods. As Carrie explains it, Roy is the meal and Pam is the check, and anyone who has stayed awake for days is likely to wind up psychotic. Which is what happened to my daughter.

I don’t think many people these days need me to explain manic depression, or bipolar disorder, to them. Those readers who do can find it in Carrie’s brilliant book or watch the DVD of her show. She’s done so much to educate people on the subject. Instead, I want to tell you what it’s been like for me to have a child I love completely who has a biological condition that cannot be cured, only recognized and treated. To do that I need to go back about forty years, to when Carrie was thirteen or fourteen and her personality changed.

She became reclusive. One day she’d be friendly with someone, and the next day she didn’t want to see that person anymore. Around this time, all our lives were changing due to the breakup of my second marriage, to Harry Karl. It was difficult to keep track of the emotions the family was experiencing, and I thought some of Carrie’s conflicts with me were just natural teenage rebellion. There are different kinds of mental conditions, and some people who have them are more affected than others. I’d worked with the Thalians for years, raising millions of dollars for mental health treatment and research—it’s ironic that this was my charity. But it didn’t occur to me that my daughter might need professional help at that time.

Carrie’s bipolar disorder wasn’t properly identified for a long time after I first noticed a change in her; it wasn’t a common diagnosis in the ’70s and ’80s, as it is now. Mood swings that I felt were normal in a young girl later became known as symptoms of a serious condition. Even though I had access to the best doctors in the mental health field through my work with the Thalians, none of them could tell me anything conclusive about Carrie’s behavior. And none of us could imagine that she would be on this journey for decades.

Rosemary Clooney admitted in the late 1970s that she struggled with manic depression. Several scientists connect the condition to the creative part of the brain, which explains why a higher percentage of performers, writers, and other creative types seem to suffer from it. In Wishful Drinking, Carrie lists many famous people who were bipolar. Women are also more likely to be bipolar than men. It is difficult for everyone it touches. **current research says bipolar affects cis men and women equally**

Originally Carrie believed she was just a drug addict, but finally she came to understand that her body has a chemical imbalance that cannot be dealt with solely by abstaining. It can be controlled with the help of psychiatrists and medicine, and Carrie has been fortunate to have great doctors. Bipolar disorder is progressive: as time passes, depressions can become increasingly severe. It’s a constant battle. A few years ago, Carrie experienced a deep depression that made her (as she put it) not necessarily feel like dying, but feeling a lot like not being alive. This can be normal for some bipolar sufferers, but it was new to Carrie, and it scared her. Carrie has so much courage. She always ventures forward to seek the newest treatment, refusing to give up. So a few years ago, she decided to try electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

ECT is not the horrifying shock treatments inflicted on Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Rock Hudson in Seconds and Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream and, going all the way back, Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit. ECT is a new frontier in the treatment of bipolar disorder, done under light anesthesia so Carrie can recover as soon as she comes home, the same day as the procedure. Now when the lows become intolerable, Carrie gets ECT. She has written about all this in her book Shockaholic.

There are no long-range studies on ECT yet. We have to trust that the doctors administering these brain treatments are doing what’s best. It’s new territory for them as well as for my daughter. Todd and I have spoken to the doctors about the effects of this treatment. Carrie works every day to fight her demons. No one else can do it for her, but we support every step that Carrie takes. We try to do everything we can to help her not get depressed and to remain strong. It’s hard for everyone, but it’s hardest for Carrie.

Still, it’s heartbreaking to watch someone you love struggle so. As a mother, I find the hardest thing for me is to love my daughter and not to intervene in her life. I want to do everything humanly possible to keep my girl out of pain, to pick her up when she’s down. If I could, I would suffer for her.

Over the years, many professionals have told me to practice “tough love” with my daughter—to reassure Carrie that she is loved and then cut her off. I can’t do this. So many of my friends had children in similar situations and did what the doctors instructed. George C. Scott lost his son to drugs, as did Carroll O’Connor. Their tough love didn’t matter once their children were dead. It’s not natural to outlive your child. This has always been my greatest fear. Like countless others, celebrity families are touched by substance abuse. Being famous doesn’t protect you. Every family has to decide how they will handle their child who needs help, even when that child has grown up. Carrie is my child, and I love her with every ounce of strength I possess. If love alone could cure our children, they would always be well. Since it can’t, I will do whatever I can to make her life less difficult. Too many mothers have lost their children, for thousands of different reasons. I don’t know if I could survive that. I’m so grateful to Carrie for working so hard to stay well when sometimes it might seem easier to give up.

Every day I worry about my children. When I wake up, I wonder where Carrie is and how she’s faring. Todd has these concerns too, but I do the lion’s share of worrying. I’m sure that’s normal for most mothers. Carrie is blessed to have her daughter. Billie loves her and needs her, and Billie’s love anchors Carrie. It gives her strength. She and Billie work through everything and are in a great place. **Billie is Carrie’s daughter**

At the end of Wishful Drinking, Carrie states, “At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of.”

I’ll end this chapter with a fervent Amen to that.

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battlescarred, bright, bewildered, bent, blue & bipolar

4 thoughts on “Debbie Reynolds on Carrie Fisher and Bipolar”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Recently had it out with my mom because she thinks she can save me with Jesus. Nope. Not how it works. Sigh… this was refreshing and I know my mom is just worried.


  2. Debbie Reynolds had a wonderful love and respect toward her daughter. My mom said she didn’t care what happened to me while she was living. Being bipolar for 28 yrs that hurt so. No addiction not any serious trouble to her but being alive


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