Chris Cornell is dead – those words still don’t make sense – and I’ve hardly stopped thinking about him since I got HLP Paul’s text and became catatonic early Thursday (the message read, simply, “Chris Cornell,” followed by the shocked emoji). At first I avoided Cornell’s voice (and music in general), then actively sought it out: I listened to Temple of the Dog, which helped, then “Seasons,” which didn’t, before moving onto Audioslave for the first time in ages. The thoughts about him haven’t been coherent, which I guess is inevitable when someone who’s been in your life for twenty years suddenly passes away.
One thought, though, has stuck, and that’s the awful image of his final moments on this earth: Chris Cornell – husband, father, beloved rock star, and my favourite singer of all-time – dead in a casino hotel bathroom. He changed the world; he changed me. And he died alone, by his own hand.
I’ve never been suicidal, so I can’t imagine the sort of hell Chris Cornell must’ve been inhabiting in order to consider ending his life, let alone acting on those thoughts. His lyrics offer the best clues (see “When I’m Down” from Euphoria Mourning, for instance), but beyond empathizing with his plight we can’t know what he was thinking or feeling when he arrived back at the MGM Grand Detroit following Soundgarden’s concert at the Fox Theatre. Whenever someone kills themselves, especially someone rich and famous, someone else will almost invariably opine that he (or she) shouldn’t have been depressed because he (or she) was rich and famous. That opinion is bullshit. And that’s because mental illness doesn’t. give. a. shit.
Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Chris Cornell was a rock star who’d literally just finished performing in front of 5,000 fans. Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Robin Williams was funny. Mental illness didn’t give a shit that Kurt Cobain had been crowned as the voice of his generation; it used that against him, actually. Mental illness didn’t care about those men; it didn’t care about their wives or kids or careers or money. It doesn’t care about me. And it doesn’t care about you, either.
That, to me, is the lesson to be drawn from Cornell’s death. To borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda: mental illness doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. Thinking that it does is how stigma metastasizes. Rich Larson, who wrote a far more eloquent Cornell eulogy than mine, nailed this point when he wrote:
Cornell is speaking to us all one last time. This isn’t something we left behind with our twenties. This isn’t something cured by age or financial security. This isn’t something you “outgrow.” If it’s allowed to fester, depression is stronger than wisdom. Depression is insidious and tenacious. Depression can get to anybody. It can make you feel like an old man at 27. It can make you feel lost as a child at 52.
Chris Cornell was sick. In some cases, depression is little more than a blip in a person’s life. In others, it can be fatal if left untreated. Please: don’t let it get to that point. Reach out (or reach down, if you prefer). Don’t assume mental illness can be outrun, because in a lot of instances it can’t. But it can be managed, and that starts with a single conversation. If there’s a silver lining to Chris Cornell’s death – and I have to believe there is – it’s that it might help one single person open up. And that’s something to cling to, even as we continue to mourn.