Chris Cornell died earlier this month. His band Soundgarden played a show on Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Two hours after the show ended, he was dead.
Now he’s dead because, as it turns out, he had been dealing with an existential crisis most of his life. I wasn’t a big Soundgarden fan, so it’s taken me a little while to understand why his death has affected me as strongly as it has.
Chris Cornell died of suicide on May 17, 2017, at the age of 52. He was a dad. He was a philanthropist. He was becoming an elder statesman of rock. He was a grown up for God’s sake & was supposed to know better. Wasn’t he meant to be passed through that stage?
Cornell was aging gracefully. He got Soundgarden back together, and they made a great new album a couple years ago. His voice still had all the power and strength it had displayed in his youth. Much like the rest of us, the world had kicked his ass a couple times, and he survived.
Cornell had a long struggle with depression. As have I. As have many of us. The majority, sad to say, suffer silently. The stigma and the feeling of embarrassment remains.
It’s possible that, along with grunge, Generation X’s other great gift to society is depression. I mean, of course it was here long before the Baby Boomers started re-producing, but we talk about it more than those who came before us. We talk about it more but we don’t listen more and we don’t have more understanding.
We talk about it as a demon or a monster. It’s a heavy dark shadow that shows itself at any point in time without warning. It surrounds us, isolates us, and quiets us and makes us people that we are not.
Depression likes to blame things. We feel like shit because of mistakes we have made in life or because of the state of the world or because we aren’t perfect. Without a lot of help and a lot of work, it’s impossible to know that it really is a chemical imbalance in our brains.
After twenty-plus years of trying to de-stigmatize depression, some of us still have a hard time recognizing it for what it is. And even then, it doesn’t always matter.
I look at what it has done to my life. It has taken my marriage, my friends, my career and a couple of million bucks from me just so I get to feel it’s effects, regardless of how good I’m going at fighting it any given time.
Soundgarden were Seattle Grunge, like Curbain. But unlike Curbain who died at 27, Cornell survived it. He seemed like a man that had grown to appreciate who he was and what he represented. Midlife for him looked more than ok. But that doesn’t matter when depression hits. Nothing does.
Some people might think grunge is about anger, but that’s not completely true. Yes, it can sound that way, but it’s really about depression and cynicism.
Those two go hand-in-hand, along with their crippling little bastard sister, anxiety. I even hate the word. I hate it because it nearly beat me once, not that many years ago. Up until then, I didn’t believe anxiety even really existed.
When the three of them get going, they just eat hope as quickly as it can be summoned. That leaves despair and despair is exhausting, not just for those who experience it, but for the people around it as well. And in the end they break. And they leave you.
So we keep it to ourselves because we don’t want to be a burden. And then it gets to be too much. Doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a comedian, a mum or a dad, an accountant, a high court judge or yes, a rock star. It is indiscriminate and it fears nothing.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve written about it your entire life as a means of keeping it at bay. It doesn’t matter if the music you made about it brought in fame, respect and millions of dollars. It doesn’t matter if your entire generation has suffered from it. It’s effects are ongoing. Then the fallout from those effects open the door for it to return at will. At any time it feels.
Depression makes you feel totally alone. You hit the breaking point, and then, like Chris Cornell, you die alone in the bathroom.
This was a well-respected member of his community; a beloved musical hero who seemed to have it all together. This could have been any of us.
I tell myself that maybe Cornell is speaking to us all one last time. This isn’t something that doing things you love and make you happy makes it go away. This isn’t something cured by age or financial security. This isn’t something you “outgrow.” You can’t outrun it or outsmart it.
If it’s allowed to fester, depression is stronger than wisdom. Depression is insidious and tenacious. Depression can get to anybody. I was a happy man with a happy childhood with no skeletons hiding in my closet. It’s seemingly unstoppable reach first laid it’s deathly hand on my shoulder somewhere in my late twenties I guess. With no clear explanation.
It can make you feel like an old man at 25 or 45. It can make you feel lost as a child at 52.
There will be judgement no doubt. Just as I was judged and continue to be. Although most people who were once close to me are no longer in my life for whatever reason, some of those that remain can’t help but remind me of what I don’t do or what I should be doing.
No doubt the haters and the online trolls will be calling out the selfish or coward bullshit that you hear whenever someone kills themselves. But for the majority, we scratch our heads as we search for reason in an unreasonable situation.
So call it a senseless tragedy. Call it a second-act cautionary tale. Call it whatever you want. What I call it is frightening.
Frightening in the sense that the battle never ends. And even though I knew that, I didn’t really need to ‘know it’ in a real life sense that hits home like a sledgehammer. It sends a shiver down my back for more reasons than one. More reasons than I wish I had.
At 45, I’m already exhausted from it. But I will continue to fight. For my kids, for myself & for the few people who haven’t made a hasty but silent retreat from my life.
I’ve also learnt many ways to hide it. It’s true that more often than not, people that suffer from depression don’t like to talk about it and so we choose to hide it. Sometimes even from ourselves…
Obviously, with the whole world watching, Chris Cornell had learnt how to hide it too.