Remembering Carrie Fisher

Michael Zahler – actor, singer and friend of MHA – shares his reaction to the news of Carrie Fisher’s passing with a piece that he wrote for an upcoming project. Zahler recently co-led a training for MHA staff on Transgender and Expansive Youth, and we are grateful for his heartfelt insight, commitment and voice.

Carrie Fisher has been on my mind since news of her heart attack. I admire her so much as someone who has fought long and hard for mental health awareness using her own experience.

I am reposting this now, as an "In Memoriam" I hoped would not have to be. The world has lost a great person whose creativity and bravery inspires me and countless others. We've lost an ally, and now we must remember, and pay it forward in tribute. May she be at peace.

Live hard. Fight hard. Love hard. #carriefisher

It was winter, shortly after my own release from the hospital. I was taken to see Carrie Fisher’s one person show, which dealt with her experience with mental illness. My dad, bless his heart, with loving intention, thought it would be inspiring for me, perhaps cathartic, to see someone of note claim their story. I went with him to Studio 54 to see her do just that.

At one moment, later in the evening, Ms. Fisher asked the audience if anyone in the house had ever been “invited” to a psychiatric hospital, and if they could please raise their hand. I saw two hands in the lower section of Studio 54 shoot up, high in the air, and without hesitation. In the upper level, two hands similarly raised. They were asked to introduce themselves by first name. They did.            

From his seat next to mine, my dad turned his head toward me. Would I raise my hand? I stared forward. Arms crossed.            

Ms. Fisher dubbed the foursome of raised-hands “The Beatles of Mental Illness” because, of course, there were four of them, like in the band. Laughter from the audience, and applause throughout the house.

Afterward, outside Studio 54, my dad asked me why I hadn’t raised my hand. I told him I wasn't ready. He understood. I felt deflated by the experience, though the show was really wonderful, that moment had hurt my heart.            

It is seven winters, seven springs, seven summers, and seven autumns before I am able to raise my hand, so-to-speak, all in New York City, and through various phases of experience. It strikes me now as fitting that it would be so. I’m told there is significance in the number seven years. I’m told it completes a life cycle. I’m told that every seven years, the cells of our body regenerate entirely, creating, essentially, a new Being. I don't actually know if that's true. Perhaps it is so, as certainly, these many years later, I find myself somewhat unrecognizable.            

At Ms. Fisher’s performance, I didn’t yet know that one day I would wish so to have raised my hand that evening, nor could I have ever imagined such a thought. To truly claim my story, and not only claim, but treasure it, was way too far away.

Still, when I  look at myself now, there he is, and was, now, and every season in between. The same eyes that stared back from the mirror somewhere down the hall, behind those locked doors, terrified, lonely. The same face that stared through several layers of glass, both plexi and tempered, into a world from which it wanted out, then. The same hands that attempted night after night, after lights-out, or perhaps it was even in the light of day, to peel away the glue that lined the bolts that sealed those windows, in some futile attempt to perhaps open one. Then what? Well, who knows?

Just as therapies for mental wellness can never erase one’s self, neither really does time. Not even the magic seven years. Memories are real. Time can transform, yes, but it will not erase. The farther one drives from experience, somehow, the closer the experience seems to linger. 

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” That’s for sure. And just as when we’re driving far, far away, the scope of actual distance is protective. If objects behind and around us are closer than they appear, certainly we will be more careful to avoid them. Wrong. We will not avoid them at all. We will stare at them directly, in some epic mind-game with ourselves, and remain essentially static: The Paralysis of Fear in Motion.             

My memory is closer than it appears. I cannot drive away from it. I see it in my Rear View, right and left sides too. It informs every decision, every meeting, any and all connection I make. I don’t drive from it. I don’t drive toward it. I drive with it. It comes along wherever I go.