Many of you would have seen this powerful montage above, created by British Graphic Designer Chris Barker, of celebrities who’ve died over the past year. Even if you hadn’t, you’d be aware that 2016 seems to have had more than its fair share of famous people dying.
2016 in a nutshell
Taking a global view, 2016 has been categorised by many as a pretty bad year. Partly because of the loss of these artists – I know I haven’t managed more than about 15 minutes before another George Michael song pops into my head. What a glorious voice (and so much more) – he will be missed.
But also because it seems to have had more than its fair share of unexpected results (politically and in sporting outcomes), the plight of so many people has been overwhelming, especially in war torn areas, and there’s ever increasing problems environmentally. While the year hasn’t all been bad (yay, Western Bulldogs!), there’s definitely been a lot of focus on more negative aspects. And so many people have been looking forward to the end of 2016 (because it will all be better next year? Maybe …)
It feels to me that, while no one seems to have answers, there is an ever increasing volume of thoughts, words and images that attempt to provide them. More than ever, it’s been a year of opinions, data, advice and theories. I find it too much – I don’t know what to do with it all.
I’ve been stumped, and lost for words.
And, yet, I want to share too – because that’s the way we connect, right? But, opinions don’t seem to be right, somehow.
So, I thought I’d share an anecdote. One about why one death – that of Carrie Fisher – has impacted me specifically, but also why I am not so much sad that she’s gone as grateful she was here.
Our ‘family’ extends beyond cousins, uncles and aunts and grandparents. It also includes a handful of close family friends who, growing up, were always part of any family event, big or small. This includes one of my father’s best friends, who we loved being with us. For the purpose of this post, let’s call him ‘David’ – although that isn’t his name.
Sometime during my primary school years, David started to become unwell. No one was quite sure why – or if they were, they didn’t speak of it until it couldn’t be ignored. Then, it was attributed to something he might have picked up on a holiday in South America (apparently some disease from insect bites or something – it was never made clear). To me, it meant we never knew whether we would be seeing him or not, and I did miss his presence.
And, when we did see David, we didn’t necessarily know which David we’d be seeing. He could be the life of the party, and full of hilarious stories – sometimes these stories were quite alarming but still, they were entertaining – or he could be almost silent for the entire event. He was never unkind, or aggressive, but his moods swung from extremely upbeat to flat. And he changed physically over the years – bloating to the point that his internal organs were struggling, his joints were struggling to hold him, and at times, he was reliant on a wheelchair.
I later learned that he’d been in and out of hospital over more than a decade (in fact, he still is), being tested with all sorts of medication, electo-convulsive therapy, and other interventions that I don’t know about, to address what he was eventually diagnosed with. He was diagnosed with manic-depression disorder (now called ‘bipolar disorder’). In those early days, this was not something to mentioned. Even now, I’m hesitant to name him (obviously our family knows – but do I want to spread this more widely? Is that what he and his family would want? We’re not sure, so, no, we won’t).
He was fortunate in some ways – he was able to keep working sporadically, sometimes with several months gap, but still – it helped. But emotionally and socially … it was hard, even without considering the impact of the disorder itself. .
The impact of ‘star’ power – coupled with bravery, honesty and compassion
Bipolar disorder still isn’t something that is spoken about widely. However, the stigma of mental illness is, I think (hope?) starting to be broken down. And I think that, along with the extra research and awareness raising, the breaking down of the stigma is partly a result of more people being prepared to be open about it.
I’ve never been a Star Wars fan (in fact, I’ve never managed to sit through even one of the movies). I am a fan of Carrie Fisher’s though, and not only from her roles in ‘When Harry met Sally’ through to the series ‘Catastrophe’ (which if you haven’t seen, you must!). I’m a fan more so because of what she has done with her fame – her ‘star’ power, if you like.
People like Carrie Fisher, due to her profile, have been able to share what bipolar disorder is like to live with. To show that while the disorder could be debilitating at times, the people living with it were still the people we’d always known. She helped to humanise it – and in doing so, she helped people like me overcome our confusion about what to do, how to help, those we love, like David – and how to not help but just be.
I cannot imagine how devastating her death is for her daughter, brother, and all who knew and loved her, especially given her mother’s death the next day. However, I’m not in that category. I don’t have the same connection to her – and so for me, when I think about Carrie Fisher, I feel gratitude – for her work on the screen but also the way she lived her life.
Carrie Fisher’s death this week has been a reminder to me that, even when someone’s been in your life for ever, you never really know when that time might end. And so it’s a prompt, into the new year now, to rekindle my relationship with David – who I’ve neglected recently. It’s been a good reminder. In addition, her openness has contributed to others taking tentative steps forward – because the rest of us are more open and accepting. As we should always have been – but maybe haven’t been.
And for that, I’m grateful.
(Image from Oliver Jeffers – it’s close enough to Christmas, isn’t it? I just loved it – and it’s message – ‘Now that it’s dark, we will turn the lights on’. Yes, we will! Happy new year!)