How We Need to Look at the Results of Carrie Fisher’s Autopsy

carrie fisher autopsy

After nearly six months, the answer is in: when Carrie Fisher—the iconic actress and author—died, she was high. To be specific, an autopsy revealed that she had cocaine, heroin and ecstasy in her system. (She was already taking Prozac, Abilify, Lamictal and oxycodone.) While she officially died of sleep apnea and the coroner’s report concludes that it’s impossible to establish “the significance of the multiple substances that were detected in Ms. Fisher’s blood and tissue,” she was obviously on a boatload of drugs.

It is very easy to rush to judgment and criticize Fisher posthumously for becoming such a public face of addiction and then ending up a loud example of how recovery doesn’t work. We tend to blame addicts, particularly famous ones, when they succumb to the disease; we’ll collectively distance ourselves no matter how passionately we claimed them when they were alive.

carrie fisher autopsy

Part of this issue, to me, has to do with our perception of celebrity and part of it has to do with our perception of addiction. I began my career working in celebrity reporting, for People, Us Weekly and Premiere, and therefore had a front row seat for the bizarre relationships we have with our modern-day royalty. We revere them—and yet we can’t wait to take them down. When you’re in the media, of course, the big hits come when you can take them down; readers and viewers have only so much interest in the reverence.

Exacerbating this issue is the fact that the public at large seems to feel like they own celebrities; one glance at social media feeds on the days that news broke about the respective deaths of Prince and Bowie—where everyone felt compelled to share the personal experience they had with that celebrity, even when the personal experience was simply listening to their music—demonstrates that.

The problem with owning a person we don’t know is that we then feel justified in feeling disappointed by them—like their choices were a personal betrayal to us. The prevalence of social media has only increased that problem; when celebrities were protected by representatives who only allowed them to reveal PR-approved information, our relationships with them didn’t feel real. When we’re reading the words a bold-faced name has written for our consumption—in Fisher’s case, hilarious tweets and a lot of photos of her dog Gary—we truly feel like we own them.

Of course, we don’t own anyone—not the people in our day-to-day lives and certainly not the people we only know because they’ve created entertainment that has touched us.

Frankly, it’s none of our business how they died.

And yet it’s become our business.

Since that’s the case, there’s no point in lamenting the situation. Many of us in recovery are taught to not regret but to accept and see what we can learn from those things we don’t like.

In this case, we can learn a highly unpalatable yet impossible-to-avoid truth: most addicts relapse—according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 40-60%. As we learn over and over again, celebrities are far from immune. I happen to believe that the challenge when you’re famous is hundreds if not thousands of times greater. After all, one of the major tenets of recovery is that you need to accept the fact that you’re not special—that, in fact, you’re just like millions of other addicts out there. This is hard enough to accept when you’re not famous. But if you’re someone who’s constantly being treated like you’re special, fighting that reality must be no easy feat.

And so Carrie Fisher—a woman who has, in many ways, given me a career because she was the first person to air her cocaine-addicted laundry to the masses—died the way the majority of addicts do. It’s tragic and yet fitting that her less-than-pretty truth has carried on even after her death.

Let’s hope that discovering why she died doesn’t overshadow the fact that she’s the one who’s given hundreds if not thousands of us permission to share our struggles. We can’t forget that it’s in many ways because of Fisher that so many of us are even talking publicly about addiction and mental health now. As a result, we need to continue to regard her as a hero of recovery and not someone who failed at it.


  1. Thank you.

    Your respect and admiration of Carrie always comes through when you broach this subject.

    And your perspective has a lot of merit. If nothing else, the autopsy report should demonstrate the daily struggle of addiction; it isn’t something that is simply “beaten” once – and then moved on from. No matter your means, strength of character, or public image – addiction is a devastating disease that can bring even the most celebrated among us to their knees – or lower.

    Carrie was an advocate and can continue to be even from beyond – if we all understand and implement the right perspective.

  2. As a person in recovery the death of Carrie Fisher and her mother, although tragic, helps me stay sober. Only those in recovery understand in their core being the struggle Carrie must have gone through before deciding that picking up was her best option. I see both their deaths as part of the same tragedy. As someone who deals with addicts everyday, their story is not uncommon. As a man who has been fortunate enough to get many things back in his life,and many things he never had before, Carrie’s passing reaffirms the fact that jails, institutions and death can befall anyone who is unfortunate enough to be addicted to drugs or alcohol.Though her passing serves to help me I wish it were not so. We cannot expect the public to understand how many she helped in life and death.

  3. Thanks for this Anna. I completely agree that the circumstances of Carrie Fisher’s death shouldn’t overshadow her amazing life and body of work.

    It baffles me that so many people in recovery consider relapse a total failure and remaining abstinent from drugs and alcohol the primary measure of a successful life.

    The truth is, relapse is always an option for addicts and sometimes we don’t have the choice to come back. Carrie Fisher is just an unfortunate example of this.

    History is full of amazing addicts to have made valuable contributions to society. Now they have a new queen!

  4. It’s been a mistake to write relapse-sufferers out of our history. Ebby was Bill’s sponsor (in AA) but he didn’t die sober so he doesn’t count. Hank P is at least as critical to the writing of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous as Bill W. But he died drunk so he had to be revised out of our historical narrative. Much of the Big Book was borrowed from Richard Peabody’s Common Sense of Drinking which was on almost every early AA’s bedside or coffee table. But Peabody was rumored to have drank again shortly before he passed away so no credit can be given to this discredited contributor to our history and present-day way of life.

    So, let’s stop here. To discount relapse is to succumb to our own fear of our own morbidity. Alcoholism/Addiction is widely considered a disease isn’t it? Well relapse is part of disease. Disease is chaotic, random and unfair. We want it to be within our control – being right with the world or god or whatever, doing our recovery dutifully – we want these things to assure a recovery uninterrupted. If Carrie Fisher had Cancer and went into remission and ate a plant-based diet and exercised and helped others and then died of Cancer anyway, would her life be a success or a failure?

    Let’s get over this worship of uninterrupted recovery because it’s what we want for ourselves and we suppress the reality that we dread the alternative. AA’s core value taught us that one day at a time, today’s recovery is all we have. We forget that every time we celebrate 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years of being clean and sober we contradict our one-day-of-sobriety is all we have values. It’s not wrong to celebrate sobriety but it is wrong to demonize relapse as a fault or flaw in one’s recovery.

    Many great things have been told to me (that gave me hope) by people who didn’t stay sober. Many groups I attend were founded by AAs who didn’t stay sober. I’m not going to forget these people. Instead, I’m coming to terms with the reality that today is all I have; continued recovery isn’t something I’m entitled to.

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