How Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds give me hope for a better relationship with my estranged mother
Carrie Fisher’s death, and the subsequent loss of her mother Debbie Reynolds, came at a strange time for me.
Both passed away while I was in beautiful sunny California, visiting my own mother’s mother, who I hadn’t seen in almost two years. My grandmother and I have always been close, but our relationship has been hinged upon a single nail: Our mutual relationship with my mother, her daughter.
Like Fisher and Reynolds, the mother-daughter relationships on the maternal side of my family are fraught with turmoil, and they stem back through our three generations.
Growing up, my mother and grandmother had a tenuous relationship. While I lack many of the details of their time together, from the glimpses that I can catch through the stories that are told, it was not what 2016 would define as “healthy.”
My mother, born a blonde, told me about the mother-daughter trips to the beauty salon to maintain her golden locks as soon as her hair started turning a darker brown. She was forced on a diet by the age of 13 because my grandmother feared she would “get fat.”
At the country club they belonged to, my mom would order milkshakes from her friend’s family accounts so that her mother would never find out that she was drinking them.
These little things only aggravated already-existing mental health struggles for my mother, as both she and my uncle were living with diseases that 1970s America did not know how to handle: My mom with her anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, and my uncle with epilepsy.
At 16, my mom graduated high school and was kicked out of her parent’s house because of her volatility. She spent a year working at McDonald’s and living in an apartment with two older people who had no idea she was only 16. Not long after, my mother and grandparents repaired their relationship, and they supported my mom when she attended the University of Denver at the age of 17.
In college, she studied hard. She was enjoying life and coming into her own, making solid friends and forging an identity that was free from her past. However, when my uncle passed away after taking his own life, she was hit especially hard and her grades and social life suffered.
His passing did one good thing, though: It united my mom’s family and brought them closer together — for a while.
After my uncle’s death, things were looking up for my mom. She landed a great job after her graduation, met my father at a bar in Chicago and fell immediately in love, and began building a life that she was proud of. But my grandfather’s death in 2001 changed everything — it released the demons that my mother had buried deep down.
Life began to unravel as she fell deep into her addictions, which only exacerbated the untreated mental illnesses she had lived with for so long.
I was 6 at the time of my grandfather’s death and I remember very little from the time before it — but I will always consider it to be the starting point of my relationship with my mom. From that moment on, our dynamic was doomed in terms of “normalcy.” For me, it’s hard to understand what “normal” even looks like — a feeling I believe Fisher and Reynolds were familiar with.
Fisher grew up under the spotlight because of her mother, and even though my circumstances were very different, I often felt the same way.
I was that girl growing up — the one whose mom was always in rehab, whose mom would show up to events drunk or high, whose mom couldn’t keep it together. She was always a fleeting presence in my life, coming and going as her illnesses gripped and released her — sometimes communicating her need for space, other times simply turning into a mean, selfish person until I was forced to distance myself.
Sometimes things were truly fantastic; we would watch Jeopardy together and laugh at movies. Other times, things were truly horrible — I would fear for my life as she drunkenly drove down the road, screaming at me for being ungrateful.
In many ways, I grew up without a mom, learning everything about puberty from books, and navigating middle school with my friend’s mothers as guiding forces. However, in many ways, I did have a mother who gave me everything she could, and tried to coach me to the best of her abilities.
It felt like I was interacting with a Disney Princess when she was in the light, and Medusa when she was shrouded in darkness: a beautiful, strong, amazing woman who — when struggling with mental illness and addiction — could easily turn you to stone.
Eventually, I just closed the door between us and didn’t look back to open it.
Fisher and Reynolds were estranged for almost ten years. My mom and I have been estranged for two.
The past two years of my life have been unbelievably painful, particularly on Mother’s Day. I have purposefully avoided social media on the last two holidays — it breaks my heart every time a friend posts a congratulatory photo or a heartfelt note to their mom. It hasn’t been easy — but it has been healthy. I’ve grown so much more in the past two years by focusing on myself, and I know she has too.
Fisher’s and Reynolds’s passings came a week after I reconnected with my mom for the first time in two years, meeting her for lunch in a Denver restaurant that I always remembered for the black-and-white cookies that she loved.
Though no death is good, in a way, theirs were beautiful, a hallmark on top of a lifetime of struggle. They had mended their relationship, becoming more open with each other by the time they had to say goodbye. They had found happiness in their own roles as a mother and daughter.
Though I know my mother and I will never be able to fully repair our bond and make up for lost time, the relationship between these two stars gives me hope for a better future.