On May 27 in Seattle, Chris Cornell was laid to rest. I know I’ve already written one post, and I don’t want to look like I’m rehashing the same subject. It’s just that so much about the circumstances in which he died touches on my own experiences with depression and hard lessons I’ve learned through them that one post was not enough.
Depression and Grunge music
The Seattle Grunge that exploded onto the music scene in the ’90s sounded like it came from a city where it rained nine months out of the year: Dark, depressed, moody, brooding, and riddled with distortion and druggy haze, but also brilliantly creative and original. If I asked who were the Big Four of Grunge, I think anyone would say, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Cornell’s Soundgarden. We had already lost Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. In a 2014 interview for Rolling Stone, Cornell said this about them and other area musicians he knew,
The tragedy was much more than the fact that I would never see him again – it was that I would never hear him again. There’s this projection I had with Andy, Kurt, Jeff Buckley and other friends of mine that died of looking into the future at all these amazing things they’re going to do. I’ll never be able to predict what that is. All this music that will come out that will challenge me and inspire me – that sort of romantic, dramatic version of the perspective. When that goes away, for me in particular, it was a really hard thing. And it continues to be a hard thing….
So part of my memory of every record, and certainly Superunknown, there’s an eeriness in there, a kind of unresolvable sadness or indescribable longing that I’ve never really tried to isolate and define and fully understand. But it’s always there. It’s like a haunted thing.
And now those same words apply to Cornell himself. Of the Big Four, three have now lost lead singers to depression and/or drug addiction. The two often go hand in hand. I never got on drugs myself, but I am convinced a lot of drug use associated with these bands was really self-medicating for undiagnosed depression.
Where do “Black Days” come from?
In that same interview, Chris Cornell opened up about depression. On the inspiration behind the song “Fell on Black Days,” he said,
No matter how happy you are, you can wake up one day without any specific thing occurring to bring you into a darker place, and you’ll just be in a darker place anyway. To me, that was always a terrifying thought, because that’s something that – as far as I know – we don’t necessarily have control over. So that was the song I wanted to write. It just took a while.
Cornell accurately described the experience of millions of people living with depression who don’t even know it. You look around at your life, you think you should be happy, and you’re not. You’re depressed, and you have no reason to be. If you can’t be happy when everything in life is going well, how can you ever be happy? Maybe you think there’s no point in going on. Or maybe you sabotage your career or your relationships, so at least then you have a reason to be depressed. It doesn’t make sense to you, but I’m here to tell you there’s a reason for it.
Depression can either be clinical or situational. If there is nothing in your situation that can explain your depression, then it must be clinical. There are a number of possibilities, but the most common is that you have a chemically imbalanced brain. I’ve talked before about the time I went without my AD medication for a couple of weeks, and about the depressed voice in my head. When I was off my medication, the depressed voice in my head came back with a vengeance. But as I took my new medication, the voice went away. What this means is that voice in your head that tells you you’re worthless, you’re a waste of space, you’re a burden, you’ll never be happy so why not end it all, no one loves you, God has forsaken you, blah blah blah – that is the voice of a chemically imbalanced brain.
This is nothing to be ashamed of. Some people are born with a heart murmur. You were born with something like a “brain murmur.” It’s not your fault, any more than the person with the heart murmur. Clinical depression, like all mental illness, needs to be treated like a medical condition.
The shock of my life
I’ve known this for a number of years. Seventeen years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Before that, there had been times in my life I knew I was depressed. But I had always thought it was temporary. There were times in my life when I thought I was happy. But even then, people sometimes asked why I was sad, or even worse, why I was angry. When I found out about clinical depression, this finally made sense. I might feel happy, but chemically, my brain was still depressed. There was this underlying sadness people sometimes picked up.
It didn’t feel like depression, I guess because it was normal to me. It was the way I had always felt. The thing is, when I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t have said I felt depressed. At the urging of my mother and sister, I got myself tested anyway. The results?
You tested high for depression in every possible way.
I don’t think anyone has ever said anything about me that shocked me more. It was totally surreal. It was something I never would have thought of myself in a million years. I thought, it can’t really be that bad, and yet I knew it was true. Like I said, even at times when I felt happy, people around me thought I was sad or upset. No matter how I felt – happy, sad, good, bad, or apathetic, optimistic or hopeless – every moment of my life, I had been living with a brain that was tilted toward depression.
Don’t believe every spirit
If only someone could have been there to tell Cornell, “These thoughts you’re having are not real. I know they feel real to you. They sound like the Gospel truth. But they are not. These thoughts are just chemical imbalances in your brain. Whatever you do, don’t let these chemically induced voices make life and death decisions for you. Don’t believe these voices in your head. Fight them. Treat them like the enemy, because they want to kill you. Don’t let them. God will help you if you call on Him. God can help you fight these thoughts and imaginations that exalt themselves against the knowledge that you are a child of God with unique gifts to give the world, of which the music is part, but there is much more ahead. Even if you have never believed that before, dare to believe that just this once.”
Don’t believe anyone who says Chris Cornell died because of drugs. He died because he had a mental illness, an Anxiety Disorder of some kind. How do I know? Because of the medication he was taking. He did the right thing by seeking professional help for his condition. Medications like Ativan can help some people with Anxiety Disorders, just like Zoloft and Trintellix helped me with Depression. Unfortunately, they don’t help everyone. In fact, for some people, it may make them more depressed, more anxious, and more suicidal. And so it breaks my heart that the very thing that saved my life ended up killing him.