May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it always gets me thinking about all these people in my life whom I’ve lost or almost lost to brain dysfunction. Some of them were musicians I’ve never met, but they were in my life, whether they knew it or not. One of the causes I regularly give to is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It was one of the organizations I asked people to give to in the wake of my daughter’s death. This year, their slogan for the month is “You are not alone.”
One of the celebrity suicides that hit me the hardest was Chris Cornell. When I heard the news, I felt as though I’d lost a close friend. I never met him, but I met one of the other Seattle-based musicians who essentially killed himself with heroin – Layne Staley. He was such a sweet guy, but drugs destroyed him. Cornell was prescribed large amounts of Lorazepam, according to reports, while he was touring. Given his history of substance abuse, Cornell’s doctor should have known better. But the physicians who treat celebrities often throw caution to the wind and simply do what the celeb asks of them. (Think Elvis or Michael Jackson.) Suddenly, Cornell was gone. He hung himself in his hotel bathroom with an exercise band. His best friend, the guy who sang “Hallelujah” at his memorial service, Chester Bennington, committed suicide the same way less than two months later. Suicide contagion is a real phenomenon that often occurs in clusters. Most often you’ll see this among teens in the wake of a tragedy. In this case, it might have been that deep chasm that opens in your chest when you lose someone you think you can’t live without.
The first time I was really afraid for my daughter was when Kurt Cobain shot himself. We were living in Seattle at the time. I was working a lot (which is typical for me) and had been on 100% travel for two years. I had the opportunity to move us from North Carolina to Seattle to run the implementation of a military information system at Madigan Army Medical Center and be in the same place with my family for at least a year. I jumped on it. It was at the height of the grunge era, and my ex-husband played guitar. He had dreams of finding a band and making a go of it. I wanted that for him, too. The dream didn’t work out for him, but we ran into Jerry Cantrell a couple of times in music stores. It was an interesting time.
But when Cobain shot himself, my daughter began to really obsess over him. I found a letter she wrote to her best friend back in North Carolina in which she told her to, “Listen to Nirvana every day. Listen to every song that Kurt wrote. Think about him. Wear his t-shirts…” Suddenly her entire look changed. She grew pale and sullen. The little girl we had known was gone. (We found out much later that other things had happened, too.) I was really afraid she was going to harm herself. She was only 10. Paul and I worked opposite shifts while the kids were growing up. He was working graveyard shift, while I was at work from 7:00 to 5:00. Still, she went outside when her dad was asleep, which she wasn’t supposed to do. She was young and vulnerable, and someone took advantage of that.
Back to Chester Bennington, though. The reason I want to focus on him for a moment is because he said something in an interview that has stuck with me. He said, “I know that for me, when I’m inside myself, when I’m in my own head, it gets… This place right here [points to his head], this skull between my ears, that is a bad neighborhood, and I should not be in there alone.”
That is so true for anyone with mental illness. When my daughter was early in her struggles, having visual and auditory hallucinations, we were afraid – for her and of her. What she told me, though, was, “I would never hurt any of you. I am more apt to hurt myself.” It was one of the many times I felt my heart break for her, and for us. When you have a child with mental illness, it is a helpless feeling. These kids don’t get to Make a Wish or go to Disney World. No. They are taunted, shunned, maligned, and disregarded. Had she been in a wheelchair or on the cancer ward, she would have been met with compassion and respect. Instead, we felt, as a family, that there was a shame associated with her illness. We received all kinds of advice from well-meaning people, but in the end, none of them knew what it was like to be us. If her mind was a bad neighborhood, then we were all standing at the end of the road, unable to get in to help her but also unable to walk away.
I want to tell you that you’re not alone. You’ve always got me. My comments section is always open, and I’d love to hear from you if you want to share your story. The world is hard enough. Please never feel that you’re alone.