I didn’t know Kurt Cobain personally, but I knew his symptoms well. (That’s not exactly true: we met once in Florida; Courtney Love was there, as was River Phoenix. I met him, but I don’t think he met me. Such is perception.)
From his songs, writings, interviews, and most strikingly from the rehearsal and performance footage for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged (filmed barely five months before his suicide), I knew I was watching a person very much in a clinical depression. It was a sincere depression, too. And he’d been at it for a while. I knew because I knew.
Now, as far as I know, Kurt was never diagnosed as suffering from depression. His cousin Bev Cobain stated Kurt was diagnosed with ADD as a child and as bipolar later on. I don’t know of any other evidence for this claim, but being bipolar myself, I can recognize the symptoms. I suspect that like me, Kurt was cycling his depression (that is, his manias were relatively mild and productive, but his depressions were deep and long). And like me in a past life, Kurt was self-medicating. A long-time user, he overdosed on heroin in July, 1993. He then overdosed on Rohypnol in March, 1994. On April 8th of that year, his body was found: he had put a shotgun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Depression and addiction are killers, each by itself. Together, they are as close to predestination as a would-be suicide gets. It’s an ugly mess of lack of self-esteem, biochemical imbalance, chemical dependence, helplessness, despair, and the knowledge that nothing you can do will get you out from under the weight crushing you every second of every minute of every day, day after day, week after week. After a while, anything is better, even ending your life. In fact, ending it all starts to look like a damn good option.
Mental health people will tell you that a suicide happens when a person’s ability to cope is overwhelmed by the stress in his or her life. Untreated mental illness (and depression is a mental illness which can be successfully treated) is a double-whammy: it both decreases a person’s ability to cope and worsens the reality and the perception of stress. Over 90% of all suicides have mental illness issues. Untreated or self-treated depression (no matter what the underlying issue) is the leading cause of all suicides.
And Kurt was depressed. Believe me, I know. I spent most of my late teens, 20’s and 30’s with untreated bipolar disorder. I’ve been in at least three and possibly as many as five significant clinical depressions, with most of the rest of the time being taken up by depressive cycles roughly three months long (one week of good feeling, one week of the blues, six to eight weeks of sincere depression, and about two weeks of slowly feeling better but not quite out of it yet). But at my worst, I dragged on week after week in depressions that went on for month after month with no guarantee that they would lift. You don’t want to kill yourself — you just want a way out. And if you don’t get help, killing yourself can become the only way out you see.
Kurt was born one year after me, in 1967. Like me, he knew depression. Like me, he self-medicated. Unlike me, he did not get the professional help he needed at the right time and ended up taking his own life. I came damn close.
Let’s not demonize Kurt. He was not an asshole for killing himself (as Courtney Love told a crowd shortly after Kurt’s death). He was not an idiot for killing himself. He was not a dummy. He was a sick person who didn’t get help in time.
But let us not romanticize him either. He was not a tragic hero; he was not a romantic figure suffering unto death; he was not a messiah who died for a generation. Again, he was just a person with an illness who did not get the right treatment and died as a result.
And there but for the grace of God go we all.