What The Mentally Ill Need To Learn From Carrie Fisher And Her Dog.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Carrie Fisher had a therapy dog named Gary. The dog went with her everywhere – on the red carpets, on interviews with Stephen Colbert and Good Morning America, on the set of the new Star Wars movie.

Gary the Dog became such an icon that people forgot that Gary was first and foremost a coping tool.

So if you’re not mentally ill, let’s talk about how brave Carrie Fisher was to use that dog. And if you are, let’s talk about how smart she was to use Gary.

Because if you have mental illness, bringing a therapy dog out in public (and consequently having to continually explain the dog to strangers) feels like you’re walking big sign in front of you all the time – a bulldog manifestation of “I AM CRAZY.”

There’s a huge amount of bravery in saying to the world, “I cannot cope like you do. Take this away, and I’ll collapse under the pressure. So you’re going to have to deal with the weirdness of putting another chair on the interview stage for my dog, because that’s the only way I can deal with the weirdness of you.”

Because if you’re at all mentally ill, you know that people continually question your coping techniques, even if they’re much quieter than a dog prancing about your ankles. Well-meaning people ask whether you really need to take all those medications, or whether it’s good for you to leave the party when it’s just getting started, and yes, they know you have tried {therapy of the week} but you probably didn’t try hard enough, it worked for me, why don’t you give this new thing a shot?

And that #1 hit, “Are you sure you really need to cope at all?” Maybe you’re not really mentally ill. Maybe if you threw away all the crutches, you’d miraculously gain the strength to walk.

So for Carrie Fisher, that dog was a help – but also a firm sign saying, “MY MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE. MY COPING STRATEGIES ARE NOT NEGOTIABLE.” She had learned what she needed to cope with stressful situations – and if the rest of the world didn’t understand them, fuck them.

(Carrie also swore a lot, God bless her heart. If you don’t think she’d tell you to fuck off, go Google images of her giving people the finger. They’re adorable.)

And that willpower is hard, yo. Admitting you’re weak takes an amazing strength. It would have been so much easier for Carrie to keep the dog in her trailer, and try to power through the bad times to seem “normal,” and probably break down more. The dog wouldn’t have been a continual bone (heh) of gossip among the celebrity rags, who used it as yet another piece of evidence that Carrie was nuts, nobody wanted to work with her, she was always about to go crazy.

(Even though Carrie was one of the best and uncredited script doctors of the 80s and 90s. Liked Hook? That was her. Sister Act? The Wedding Singer? Those too. Liked her dialogue in the Star Wars movies? There are scanned pages where you can see her marking up the script, and they’re far better for it. She only quit because she found the work unsatisfying. When she needed to keep it together, she did. She just didn’t hide the breakdowns.)

So if you’re not mentally ill, you have to realize the immense pressure that we’re under to hide who we are. Even mentioning that we need to cope is usually a sign for people to take a step back. Even if that unusual coping strategy makes us smarter and more capable than a quote-unquote “normal” person. (As it clearly did for Carrie.)

If you’re mentally ill, trotting Gary around is courageous in the way that you have to be to function.

Because I can already hear people saying, “Well, that’s Star Wars. She was on the runway for the biggest film in the world. I need to cope to go to a New Year’s Party. That’s… different.”

And I can guarantee you that Carrie Fisher would take you by the shoulders and shake you gently and tell you to do whatever it damn well takes.

Because the lesson of Carrie and Gary is that you are more important than the feedback. When you’ve finally done all the hard work and figured out what works for you, make that happen. Do not be afraid. Protect yourself with a dog, or the right therapy, or the right meditative techniques… and if your friends and co-workers don’t get how you need to take a calm-down break in order to get through the day, then be as brave as Carrie.

The world will not make space for your coping techniques. You must be your own Rebel Princess, saving yourself, widening the spaces so you and your coping techniques can squeeze through.

She was a big star, and some people thought she was a flake for needing a damn dog everywhere, and she did it anyway. And that dog allowed her to do things like star in more Star Wars pictures, and do PR tours for her books, and go on interviews. The dog widened her life so she could do things she couldn’t do without loyal, lovable, slack-tongued Gary.

Carrie understood that truth: She could be confined to the spaces where she could act normal. Or she could be weird and go everywhere she wanted to go.

Be Carrie Fisher.

Be unashamed.

(And if you’re wondering, as I was, Carrie Fisher’s daughter is now looking after Gary. He’ll be all right.)

(EDIT: The marked-up page from ESB was revealed as a hoax this morning (they were actually directorial edits) – but considering that Carrie Fisher did rewrite dialogue on Return of the Jedi, the overall point stands.

(Also, there’s some debate about the legal distinctions between types of assistance animals. Those are relevant in legal situations, and good to know if you plan on getting an animal for assistance, but not relevant to my larger point of “Do what you need to in order to cope, and don’t be ashamed of it.”)

5 Comments

  1. Joshua
    Dec 28, 2016

    Thank you for this, and thank you for the Gary update at the end. His “mommy’s gone’ tweet was just heartbreaking, and I’ve been worried about him.

  2. Rosemarie
    Dec 28, 2016

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  3. Rosita
    Dec 28, 2016

    I had written a whole discussion about how service dogs and therapy dogs are not the same, which they are not they are vastly different, one has public access and the other one doesn’t.

    It got deleted by me.

    Anyhoo.

    Service dogs, what Gary appeared to be was a hopefully a service dog to Carrie and not a therapy dog, if Gary was a therapy dog then he really had no business being out and about and her telling people it was a therapy dog. That would have violated the American Disabilities Act. Emotional Support dogs are also used but also cannot gain entry to public domain and it’s important that people like you, author note the differences between them when doing an article, because in the service dog community people ( able bodied and mind) are buying vests and passing their non trained dogs off as service animals which are not task trained and putting real service dog teams at risk.
    There is no national registry in the United States to register service dogs. But people who claim to want to be legitimate often seek out the registries and get duped into signing into something that holds no water.

    Anyway. I’m sorry she is gone. But as a mentally ill person who hasn’t been able to afford but done lots of research there is so much more this article could have done.

  4. Cheryl Davis
    Dec 28, 2016

    I have a service dog and was just rejected from renting a room because the woman didn’t understand the important part of my life Jack provides. I Need him. He even brings my MED’s to me.

  5. Virginia
    Dec 29, 2016

    The courage to reveal your need for help shows your formidable strength.

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