Elaine Stritch, everybody rise

I have been meaning to write about Elaine Stritch. Every headline article about her recent death described her in almost identical fashion: an “enduring dame,”(NYT), known for her “brash persona”(CNN), who was “larger than life.”(Kirk Douglas on HuffPost). I loved watching Elaine Stritch but it was always with a slight feeling of intimidation. She looked indestructible, always in charge, commanding in a way that made me feel uncertain. It was a surprise, then, when I heard her say in an interview that she was afraid. Afraid every time she stepped on stage, wanting to be good enough, not sure she could pull it off. Wow, I said to myself, who knew? If Elaine Stritch is afraid, we all need better eyes to see it.

Then a friend and colleague recently and tragically took her own life. She had become very depressed. Wow, we all said to ourselves, who knew? While not Stritch-like in personality, she had that same sense of seeming self-possession. She was known for her radiant smile, such that following news of her death, someone posted on a Facebook page, “with such a smile, why so sad?” She was an energetic teacher, an intelligent scholar, a successful media commentator, a kick-ass lawyer, loving toward and beloved by friends, family, husband, children. According to her husband, she sought professional help, and then worried that her need of medical intervention would become public, and that it would somehow diminish her in others’ eyes. And then she bought a gun, and used it.

Her husband made the facts of her suicide public, with a plea and the hope that we would all learn something about the continued need for mental health services. My own plea and hope is that we learn to have ‘better eyes” to see the fear in others and in ourselves, and that we remove the stigma that follows admissions of frailty. It was toward that end that a decade ago (and still), I outed myself as a cancer patient and then survivor, that I am open about my seeing a therapist. I admit (isn’t “admit” an odd word here, as though one is confessing a crime) to having had bouts of depression and anxiety, though to be honest, talking openly about that is a hundred times harder than talking about cancer. But it shouldn’t be.

Someone once said that if every woman who has had an abortion stood up in public and announced the fact, the fight for abortion rights would be over, and won. What would it be like if every person who has experienced depression would stand up and announce it? What if we got rid of this penchant for the stiff upper lip, and dealt in truth without fear of reprisal? What if we could name our fears out loud as part of seeing ourselves and others with compassion rather than judgement? Maybe we would see ourselves and each other as flawed and say not “who knew”, but “who cares?”

When I think about Elaine Stritch now, of course I remember her singing The Ladies Who Lunch, but what really strikes me about her is her courage in looking into the camera and unflinchingly saying, “I’m afraid.” Take your fears, your weaknesses, whatever you’re keeping hidden. Stencil them on a T-shirt and wear it out into the world. Stand up with whatever imperfections are yours, or as Elaine might say, “Everybody rise.”

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