It’s an awkward and selfish thing, but when I first heard that Chris Cornell suddenly died, I found myself hoping it was from a heart attack or some other unforeseen-and-hard-to-prevent condition. Someone else I knew personally, another gifted person, died from a sudden heart attack one day a few years ago, so that might have been on my mind.
So I was dumbfounded to learn that it was a suicide. At first I didn’t believe it. Chris Cornell? His fierce voice always conveyed the strength of a survivor to me. After sleeping on that idea, it still doesn’t make sense.
To a distant outsider, he looked like he had it all. The gifts. The rewards. The relationships, with fans, with collaborators, with his family.
But looks can be deceiving. Feeling content in life is a skill that a normal mind is capable of learning, but a sick mind loses its very ability to learn. A depression is a state in which one loses capacity to hope, or enjoy. A depression doesn’t remember ever feeling good. A depression sees everything through its distorted, colored and clouded lenses. A depressed person is not the same person. A depressed carries around its own continuity, its own recollections of life, the version that the normal mode doesn’t recognize. If you cut out all the normal-to-better parts of your life history, string together only the worst moments of your life, believing that that’s all there have been to your life — you’ll start to see a depression’s perspective.
The thing is, when you are under stress, you make the worst decisions. I am learning not to make decisions when feeling emotional, but 1) it’s very difficult, and 2) postponing decisions is a decision, too. How do you find the right direction when both your compass and map look all wrong? When you’re consumed with your pain all you want to do is to end it, to run away from it. Stress also makes you devalue yourself, too. A sick mind starts seeing that its very existence is a detriment to the world. “Everyone will be better off without a pathetic being like me.”
It’s easy to tell someone to get help, but that’s a huge risk, too. I recently went through a period of intense, personal stress. I don’t have the world’s largest support system but I am fortunate to have friends and families I can go to if I really needed to. But that trust, too, erodes when mental illness takes over. Of this painful period, I told only two people that I was going through it. I would have told more people if it was going to stay bad or get worse, but that’s only because my range of trouble is within what I consider normal. I am not suffering from real, diagnosable, depression or mental illness.
And when your mind is in that burdened and precarious state, being gifted can be a detriment. Imagine trying to balance an enormous iron ball in the middle of a see-saw. The bigger and heavier the ball, it’s hard to move, but yet it’s hard to keep it in a place where it’s balanced, too. If it starts rolling down you may not be able to stop it. You can tell a normal person to stop whining and be grateful. That’s the last thing to tell someone who’s so stressed s/he is ill.
Ultimately, we can’t jump to conclusions that when a circumstance contains certain elements, then the person in it needs to feel a certain way about it. It’s true there are patterns and correlations, but you just never know what sort of distorted, colored and clouded lenses they’re looking through. We have to accept everyone’s suffering as valid, no matter what the circumstance. Even when they seem to be in very desirable positions. That judgment robs us the opportunity to acknowledge our internal struggle, which is a normal and expected part of life. A financially strapped person may envy those who are affluent, but it’s really trading one set of problems for another. That judgement that someone in certain situations shouldn’t, has no right to, suffer, takes away the opportunity to face the hard feelings we bottle up inside. And I’m not talking about pointing fingers at someone else. I know I sometimes don’t allow myself to experience hardship fully, because I judge that I shouldn’t have to feel that way. I have a loving family, a house in a great neighborhood, a mini-van in the garage, and an amazing job that pays a lot. What am I whining about, right?
We are learning that these things don’t give us the will to live. It’s a mental skill, a capacity we are born with but we lose along the way. We have to heal and regain this. I believe it’s critical to our evolution as a species. I’m doing my little part to share what I learn. I am so sorry to hear Chris Cornell was carrying this great imbalance inside him. I’m still hoping the medication had a role in this, only because then I have something easy to blame. It takes a great deal to go from a loving husband and father who flies home to spend Mother’s Day with the family to the man who kills himself and devastates his loved ones. Did he know this was possible? Maybe he wasn’t, but if he was, did he tell someone? Did the person who prescribed his anti-anxiety medication know the extent of Chris’ imbalance? Are we all open to the possibility that someone in his position can be suffering inside? Even when he appears to have everything going for him?
As well-intentioned as we are, ultimately we can’t really save someone. The best we can do is to create an environment in which we open ourselves up to the possibility that someone next to you, someone who looks perfectly together to you, may be stuffing down devastation inside. Hell, I bet most of us are hiding some painful vulnerabilities. And vulnerabilities are that, vulnerable. It’s a tremendous risk to bring them up. Showing acceptance of that, being available to receive that, treating each other gently through that, can lead to creating a safe atmosphere in which it may occur to the suffering person that seeking help is an option, to actually come clean about what s/he is carrying inside.
I don’t blame people for not understanding mental health, it’s a fairly new way of looking at ourselves. I didn’t have a clue until I witnessed someone close to me suffer. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. But talking about it and sharing what we’ve seen and know first hand is useful. That’s how we can learn from, or wring out some silver living out of, the loss of people like Chris Cornell, Robin Williams, and Kurt Cobain. We didn’t know better, the society hasn’t evolved enough yet for some of these gifted people to be given environment in which they learned how to recover from their pain and thrive. (I’m not saying their gifts caused them suffering — it’s just that being gifted and exceptional can make it harder for someone to maintain balance.)
I was not a huge fan, but I did admire his talents, and loved some of his songs. It’s always hard to see someone take her/his own life away, my heart goes out to those souls that made that terrible decisions and those who have to survive it. I just want us to continue to learn and evolve so that these things happen less often. It’s not enough for us to physically sustain our existence. We have to learn how to nurture and support our psyche. It can be a touchy, fragile thing, but with good intentions and correct insights/approaches, I believe we can learn to thrive.