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.
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.