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Interview: The Fisher Queen

The actress and writer Carrie Fisher deals with manic depression, her drug use, and her personal life.

"How manic am I?" asks Carrie Fisher as she climbs around her hillside with a potted plant. Dressed in a sleek black suit, she positions the shrub in an empty spot. "How's that?" she asks. Later, she points to a horticulture article highlighting a garden in a rainbow of color. "That's what I want." She confesses that lately, while she's writing, she looks at her garden and gets up to readjust the trees and flowers that are yet to be planted. The garden is her latest obsession.

Fisher has a lot of obsessions. At first glance, she doesn't seem any crazier than the rest of us. But when she pulls out her medications, you tend to think twice. All the little capsules and tablets—prescription drugs to tame her bipolar disorder—are organized in a weekly container. "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday," she mimics that famous scene from The Godfather.

She takes nearly two dozen pills a day. But when she blows off her dosages, the result is havoc. Once, she embarked on a weeklong escapade that ended in a tattoo parlor on the west side of Los Angeles. Her manic side drives her to impulses. "The impulses become edicts from the Vatican." Fortunately, for her sake, two of her friends accompanied her to the tattoo parlor. "They were concerned about me." And with good reason.

Some years ago, the writer and actress suffered what she calls a "psychotic break." At the time, she was experiencing a deep depression—just getting out of bed to pick up her then eight-year-old daughter Billie was a major feat. She was also improperly medicated. All of which landed her in the hospital. While there she was riveted to CNN, convinced that she was both the serial killer Andrew Cunanan as well as the police who were seeking him. "I was concerned that when he was caught, I would be caught," she recalls.

Her brother, filmmaker Todd Fisher, feared that he was going to lose her. "The doctors said she might not come back." Awake for six days and six nights, she recalls hallucinating that a beautiful golden light was coming out of her head. Yet the confusing thing about her mania, says Todd, is her ability to remain articulate, clever and funny. Todd says she launched into Don Rickles-like diatribes, "ripping everyone who came into her room."

Ex-partner Bryan Lourd, who has remained a friend, was by her side. She said to him, "She's in the chair, she let me out. I have to talk to you. I can't take care of Billie on my own."

At the hospital, she couldn't bear seeing her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, and asked that she not visit. Today, the two remain close—Reynolds now owns the house next door.

Fisher rolls around on her bed doing somersaults. "I have to get out of here," she pleads. We hop into her station wagon and head for the San Fernando Valley. At a garden nursery, we walk up and down the footpaths looking for color. She picks up purple roses and orange star clusters. While she talks about her garden, "I want everything to be right," she is all too aware of her obsessive tendencies. Yet her mania may well be an important part of her creativity.

The daughter of Reynolds and 1950s crooner Eddie Fisher, Carrie watched her father run off with actress Elizabeth Taylor. "An unpleasant experience," as she puts it. Although she had an absent father, she knows she resembles him in the most worrisome way. She notes that he is an undiagnosed manic-depressive, "He bought 200 suits in Hong Kong, was married six times, and bankrupt four. It's crazy."

In her teens, what she wanted most was to be near her mother, so Carrie made her Broadway debut in Irene at age 15. Reynolds was the star of the show. Not long after, Fisher played the scene-stealing nymphet in the movie Shampoo, then she was immortalized as Princess Leia in that metal bikini. Her role in the Star Wars trilogy shot her into superstardom.

That kind of celebrity, though, comes with trappings. It was sex, drugs, and late-night partying with Hollywood heavies like John Belushi and Dan Akroyd. One night, she was so high Akroyd made her eat. After which she choked on a Brussels sprout, prompting him to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Then he proposed to her.

Her longtime friend, director and actor Griffin Dunne, says she made partying look fun. "Getting stoned was a part of all our lives when we were younger. Her abuse only became apparent later. I told her she was taking too many pills, but of course I was drunk at the time, so I wasn't making a lot of sense either."

Marijuana, acid, cocaine, pharmaceuticals—she tried them all. Being on the manic side of bipolar disorder, her drug use was a way to "dial down" the manic in her. And in some respects it was a form of self-medication. "Drugs made me feel more normal," she says. "They contained me."

But her addictions were serious. At her worst, she took 30 Percodan a day. "You don't even get high. It's like a job, you punch in," she recalls. "I was lying to doctors and looking through people's drawers and medicine cabinets for drugs." Such relentless abuse landed her in rehab, at age 28, with a tube down her throat to pump her stomach. In the end, her misadventures were recounted in her autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge.

Writing, her secret ambition, helped her stay focused. Postcards won her wide acclaim. Later still, she continued to gain adulation when she wrote the book's screenplay. The film version, in fact, starred her friend Meryl Streep.

When she wrote Postcards, she says she was, "uber-involved" in her 12-step recovery and subsequent addiction support groups, but not all her issues were addressed. Her friend Richard Dreyfuss told her that she suffered from more than just drug addiction. "You don't walk down the street, it's a parade."

Dunne never thought of Fisher's problem as a mental illness. That is, until he misplaced a rug she had lent him. She was very understanding and told him not to worry. Yet, four years later, Fisher brought up the rug. "She was furious about it, as if it just happened. Then we talked a few days later and the rug wasn't even a memory."

At first, Fisher may have ignored her friends' pleas, but she eventually found a psychiatrist, and a support group for manic-depressives. "When the group started talking about their medications, it was such a relief," she remembers. She has since become vocal in the struggle for mental health care—for example, lobbying for more funding to treat mental illness.

Fisher has two moods, Roy the manic extrovert and Pam the quiet introvert. "Roy decorated my house and Pam has to live in it," she quips. If a home is any indication of one's state of mind, then Fisher's mind is both playful and bizarre. A chandelier dangles from a tree along the driveway and signs such as "beware of trains" hang everywhere.

Her 1933 ranch style home, once owned by Bette Davis, is littered with details that reveal her comic and bizarre nature. One painting in her bedroom depicts Queen Victoria tossing a dwarf. And inside a triptych in the dining room you find an effigy of Princess Leia.

Throughout the house, there are irreverent references to the Princess. But as Fisher puts it, "Leia follows me like a vague smell." Her metal bikinied space babe is perhaps one of the most downloaded images on the Web. You would think, though, that Fisher's accomplishments as a writer might have eclipsed any memories of Leia. Since she wrote Postcards, she has written two additional novels.

One, Surrender the Pink, was about her relationship with ex-husband and pop icon Paul Simon, to whom she was married for 11 months. For Fisher, her ex-husband's words had a certain soothing rhythm. "Except when the words are organized against you, of course." She says she really didn't fit the stereotype of wife. In fact, Fisher and Simon were two flowers and no gardener.

Fisher is perhaps one of the more productive manic-depressives in Hollywood. She has script-doctored countless films including Milk Money and Sister Act. She has even hosted a talk show for Oxygen Media. And in recent years, she has written screenplays; one for Showtime is about a manic depressive writer who ends up in a mental hospital. Sounds a little too familiar.

While working with her, Streep found how very disciplined Fisher is. She is focused and stays on task. "She has wonderful, undeluded inspirations. She has told me that she is sometimes reluctant to ameliorate a productive state by dulling it with medication," says Streep.

Friend and actress Meg Ryan agrees that Fisher has the tendency to mess with herself, but she gets herself back in line. "She manages this disease with enormous integrity. She's a great example of how to do it, and she's very serious about it. And she's serious about being a good mom and a good friend."

Indeed, Fisher takes her role as parent very seriously. In fact, she will not take on any projects that might compromise her time with Billie. Streep notes that she speaks to her daughter like a friend. "Some mothers tend to use a high-pitched voice with their children. Carrie doesn't."

That loyal family and friends surround her is a testament to her character. After her hospitalization, she threw a well-attended party. "I was worried about how everyone would react to me." But as always, her humor saved her. She rented an ambulance and a gurney that had a life-size cutout of Princess Leia hooked up to an IV. "She plucks out that thing that would destroy the rest of us. Then she makes fun of it," says Streep. "I'm sure it saves her."

Carrie's Postcards

1956: Born to Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher

1972: Broadway debut in Irene, starring her mom

1975: Attended Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Appeared in first film, Shampoo

1977 through 1983: Appeared in the classic Star Wars film trilogy as Princess Leia

1983: Married pop icon Paul Simon, divorced after 11 months

1987: Wrote autobiographical novel, Postcards From the Edge

1990: Wrote novel Surrender the Pink, about her marriage to Simon and wrote screenplay for Postcards

1992: Gave birth to daughter, Billie Catherine

1994: Wrote novel, Delusions of Grandma

2000: Cowrote These Old Broads, starring Debbie Reynolds

1980s: Appeared in films—including When Harry Met Sally as witty best friend

1990s: Script-doctored films including Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, Outbreak, The Wedding Singer