Chris Cornell’s death will stand to be one of the saddest moments in rock history as yet another infinitely talented artists is no longer of this world. It is one of the most profound recent tragedies next to the loss of Prince, at least for me.
He was gifted with one of the better rock voices in the modern era of grunge and alternative rock. Cornell was blessed with raw talent that made him a Rock God, one that aspiring as well as successful musicians idolized. And to pair up his throttled, husky voice, Chris had the perfect looks to be the front man for Soundgarden and Audioslave. The man with a 4-octave vocal range was also lead songwriter, guitarist, and drummer.
But similar to many creative people, like me, Chris Cornell struggled with lifelong depression, insomnia and social anxiety. Social anxiety often has made me feel like I’m choking, as if merely breathing is a strenuous task. Suddenly, it’s as though I’m much too aware of every word that comes out of my mouth and they all seem wrong. A part of me for a very long time felt this constant awkwardness, like I didn’t fit in anywhere. Conversing in social settings left me with dreaded fear and utter panic. Creative minds can often be the loner types like Cornell was, a recluse who dealt with agoraphobia, which Mayo Clinic defines as:
“Agoraphobia (ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uha) is type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.”
Social anxiety often pairs well with agoraphobia, so avoiding social settings means you don’t have to feel so overly self-cautious all the time. It’s not like there’s a big spotlight on you, but social settings bring out personal insecurities that cause strain. And no matter how much you have to brag about in your life, it all doesn’t really matter in the mind of a depressed individual who’s also stricken with anxiety. Because everything we do, may not be enough. The bar goes higher and higher, as the dark well of depression gets deeper and deeper.
In a 1994 interview with the Rolling Stone, Cornell discussed his anxiety and drug use:
“I went from being a daily drug user at 13 to having bad drug experiences and quitting drugs by the time I was 14 and then not having any friends until the time I was 16.” He continued, “There was about two years where I was more or less agoraphobic and didn’t deal with anybody, didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t have any friends at all. All the friends that I had were still f’ed up with drugs and were people that I didn’t really have anything in common with.”
The easiest way for some of us with social anxiety to cope is to turn to alcohol, the great liquid courage that suddenly helps us loosen up. I had difficulty being in social settings and the stress of the anxiety I felt inside was so strong, that red wine would help to calm those nerves. But, then the next day that well of depression would get deeper accompanied by the feeling of guilt and shame around having to lean on alcohol. I’ve since stopped drinking. Chris Cornell was also a recovering alcoholic, probably for similar social anxiety reasons. If you ask any recovering addict they will tell you that 10 years can go by with sobriety and then one day suddenly you can pick up that bottle again or turn to your chosen drug as if never missing a day.
Toxicology tests haven’t come back yet, but the initial ruling on Cornell’s death is suicide. His wife told Rolling Stone that she didn’t think he took his own life. Instead, they had been planning where to go on Memorial Day weekend . My husband, who had once been in a rock band for years, and whose idol is Chris Cornell, wept when he died. We both did, but for different reasons. For me, I understood Cornell’s life long battle with his mental health.
Chris Cornell’s suicide hit home for me, big time. We both struggled with the exact same things: depression, insomnia, and social anxiety.
My husband, like most fans, was in shock. Cornell’s wife also was and probably still is in disbelief. Grief perhaps keeps the hope alive, that maybe the ruling wasn’t suicide and just some tragic accident. After all, Chris had so much talent and seemingly so much to live for. I’m not so optimistic in whether his death was an “accident.” As I told my husband, I knew in my heart from my own past experiences that suicide is always in a back room of the soul, a place no one knows of but you. And many of us functioning, depressive artists are very good at putting on our charm and putting on a mask. After all, Chris was a performer. He knew how to rock and mask his demons when in front of his audience.
No one understands what goes through the human mind when depression hits, when it takes a hold of you and the void is so loud that the only place to silence the pain is to enter that secret room in our soul where we can finally have a little peace. But what I also learned is that emotions are fleeting, and if one can just get through any urges or dark thoughts, they do pass. Many people can try to remind you of all the things you have to lose and all the things you have to live for. Depression can be a very selfish illness. Which often leads us to distance ourselves from others. You’re not thinking clearly and all that is in front of you is the self, that at that time, is absent of anyone or anything else. The feelings of “down” can often feel all-consuming and no one can supervise a depressed person 24/7 in hopes that they potentially avoid a fatality at the hands of suicide.
Cornell’s wife might want to blame anti-anxiety medication like Ativan, to be the cause of what ended his life. Based on experience with medication, you’ll know if it’s not working for you and instead you’ll switch to something else if it causes suicidal thoughts. Most people who deal with life-long depression and anxiety are quite familiar with the world of psychiatry and psychotropic medication. It’s not like this was Cornell’s first experience taking meds. Most of us know what works with our bodies and minds, and what doesn’t. Most of us know how much to take and how much to avoid, and taking more anti-anxiety meds with something like alcohol usually just makes you feel sleepy. It doesn’t usually drive you to choke yourself, as was initially reported as the cause of Chris’ death, according to police statements.
Reports indicate he was found with a band around his neck and that it was certainly suicide. If anything, read the lyrics written by Chris Cornell. Most of them were inspired by his depression and they were dark. I mean, obvious songs like Cleaning My Gun spoke about suicide. While other recent songs from his 2015 Higher Truth album, Nearly Forgotten My Broken Heart not only talks about heart break, but having a “hole in the head.”
How about Dead Wishes where one phrase sums it up:
Dead wishes on a broken chain
White roses in a dead man’s dream
Down and out with everything to lose
If these long dead wishes
Ever do come true
What is no surprise is that this depression was a monster he battled with and those of us who have our own monsters, understand that we sometimes don’t win the fight.
I am sure his family and loved ones such as band members might now live with survivor’s guilt, or feeling like if only they would have gotten there sooner. If they would have just seen warning signs that Chris might not have shown. Still, once again, read his lyrics. They were pretty clear and cut descriptions of ending one’s life. Maybe everyone thought it was no big deal, just good lyrics, but the words came from somewhere inside of him. And the fact is, people hide their feelings well and some of us are masters at it.
No one truly knows how depression and anxiety affect us, but it’s up to the mentally afflicted to reach out and get help. You have to be willing to reach out and get the help you need, you have to be willing to talk about what is going on inside, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Many of us creative, loner types silently live in our own personal prison, a hell that locks us up away from the world. On the surface, we might seem to be on top of the world, but our inner world might be an entirely new universe.
I’ve learned from my own experiences that no one can change you or save you from yourself. You have to have the courage to let professionals and your family and friends help you. And this isn’t just getting some meds and taking them, treatment is much more than just medication. It’s a balance of mind, body, and spirit. A good example: Exercise helps with anxiety. Fitness also helps manage depression. In addition to fitness, it’s also talking it out with a therapist, not holding it inside and locking up our unprocessed emotions in that secret room in the soul that only we have access to.
You are not weak if you get help.
You are not weak if you admit that you don’t want to live at the bottom of the dark well of depression.
The Bottom Line:
May is mental health awareness month but, every month of the year should be. Mental illness is not something to be embarrassed about, but there’s often a feeling of shame around it. There’s nothing wrong with letting people in, although social anxiety can often hinder this. And maybe that’s what makes social anxiety and the combination with depression so difficult. If you’re a recluse, you’ll likely have a difficult time reaching out. Like with Robin Williams, suicide is a tragic and painful yet honest reality. Family of Chris Cornell will try and justify the reason as accidental. At the end of the day, a legend is gone and our takeaway, no matter how we inspect the reasons, is that Cornell’s death hurts us all.
It grips the core of all of us who have struggled with life long depression and anxiety. Chris Cornell’s last song on stage, which included phrases from In My Time of Dying By Led Zeppelin, was perhaps his intended, final message to the world. Maybe it was all just strange happenstance. Regardless, his passing should serve as a reminder that having depression is not an illness to be taken lightly. And secluding or isolating ourselves from others is the worst thing we can do. Cornell at one point spent an entire year or more not leaving his house and only drinking and playing guitar and drums. He likely had access to the best medical care money can buy. Still, mental health is so much more than just taking meds alone.
Mental health affects people with or without money and fame. Just because someone seemingly “has it all” doesn’t mean they’re not human and aren’t allowed to go through human emotions, that sometimes feels so bad it’s like you’re being tortured. And if you’ve never experienced it, you won’t understand. Depression and the toxic marriage it has to suicide doesn’t discriminate. Depression, as well as anxiety or any type of mental illness, doesn’t have to rob us of our lives. We don’t have to live as labels and we don’t have to allow our diagnosis to rule us. We can defeat depression and any type of mental health issue with courage by getting the help we need.
If you’re dealing with some type of mental health issue, please, please don’t do it alone. Reach out before it’s too late and don’t take depression or any other mental affliction lightly.
I admittedly weep at the conclusion of this, as I listen to Cornell, who my husband and I saw at the Hollywood Bowl in August of 2014 when they opened for Nine Inch Nails.
I leave you with Chris Cornell covering Prince, Nothing Compares To You.
Dear Chris Cornell
May you rest in peace at last
Your fans weep for you
With love always
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