Thursday, 18 May 2017

Fell on Black Days

In 2014, Robin Williams died from suicide by hanging. Growing up watching his movies, laughing until I hurt, building so much of my sense of humour around his jokes and many personas, his death hit me hard. He was supposed to be the happiest person on the planet; a man who brought untold joy to millions of people across the world, of all ages. But privately, he was in pain, and one day that pain became too much for him to bear. The public outpourings of grief were many and varied, and for a short time, we talked about depression and suicide more openly, honestly, and healthily. 

Since then, many other notable and influential public figures have died. Some had tremendous influence over formative years in my life, and like Robin Williams, their passings hurt me profoundly. The world continues without them, the sun rises and sets, rain falls, flowers grow, time passes, and people fade from tangible existence into fond but sad memories. Some might say it’s silly to feel so afflicted by the death of someone famous, but I challenge anyone to get from one end of life to the other without feeling moved when someone they admire passes away. 

Art is a perilously undervalued resource, generally by people who are not artists themselves. Film, music, literature, theatre, poetry, paintings and more capture that essence of life that is lost in the daily grind. It’s where we romanticise otherwise mundane tasks, how we communicate abstract experiences like falling in love, what we use to expose our feelings when verbalising them is impossible. It can express extremes of emotion that frighten us - lust, fear, anger, sadness - and help us heal when those feelings cause harm to us and those around us. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve lain in bed or on the floor, feeling confused and overwhelmed by life, listening to music that enveloped me, protecting me from being overcome by those feelings, and offering clarity where my own words were inadequate. That music and the artists who produced it became important to me as dear friends; confidantes in whom I could put my absolute trust and with whom I could be unashamedly myself, never needing to hold back on whatever I was feeling in those moments. 

The immense healing power I found there helped me through some of the darkest times in my life, reclaiming my sense of self and confidence to carry on facing the world one day after another. That’s something that is overlooked when we talk about depression and suicide - it doesn’t go away. If you experience depression and suicidal tendencies at a young age, it leaves a long-lasting mark on your mental health - a sort of muscle memory, but for your brain. Recently, I learned that the term for this is “passive suicidal ideation” - distinct from active suicidal ideation, in that you don’t consciously wish to die, but will still find that suicidal thoughts will pop up, out of nowhere. Just as you might casually realise you quite fancy a certain sort of biscuit, I will suddenly realise that I’d like to not be alive, and then the moment passes and I resume whatever I was doing. Perhaps I will be in the shower, midway through shampooing my hair and mentally setting out my tasks for the day, when I pause and fleetingly consider how much I would like to simply stop existing, before recommencing the ritual of lather, rinse, repeat. Reluctantly, I have come to accept that this is part of my spectrum of thoughts processes now and that I don’t need to be alarmed by it as long as I pay careful attention to my general state of being.

At 9 o’clock this morning, I picked up my phone to read a news alert reporting the sudden death of Chris Cornell, and I won't pretend that I was anything less than devastated. As many people who were teenagers in the 1990s, his music had played a significant role in my formative years, and Soundgarden had been one of the bands I immersed myself in, letting the music wash over me, his iconic gutteral howl cleansing me of the disarray of feelings that had overwhelmed me in that moment, while the grunge-meets-blues tempo and haunting guitar riffs soothed my distressed soul. 

Throughout today, I have revisited those albums, cautiously allowing myself to remember how and why they mattered so much to me as a teenager, reveling in the time that has passed since, and the occasions too numerous to count where I’ve listened to the same music for the sheer enjoyment of its sound. Heartache tempered with immense gratitude at having been alive at the same time as such a phenomenal artist has taken those of us with a similar relationship to his music on a painful, cathartic journey today. And as new broke later in the day that his death had been ruled suicide by hanging, a deep and profound sadness gripped me somewhere deep inside my chest. 

When an artist you admire passes away, you mourn for the skill they will never again share with the world. Chris Cornell was a breathtaking musician, unparalleled vocalist, and groundbreaking songwriter, but beyond that, there are untold people tonight who are mourning not just for the music, but for the way it touched, or even saved their lives, and for the fact that we couldn’t repay that debt. Because we know those moments, where the world is too big, too dark, too scary - where you can’t bear it for another day, hour, or minute. We know the absolute anguish that smothers you, the blackness that consumes you. Losing someone who saved you without ever meeting you or saying a word directly to you, and losing them to the thing that you’ll always be fighting, breaks your heart.

Chris Cornell, 1964 - 2017

  • Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. 
  • Childline (0800 1111) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number won't show up on your phone bill.
  • PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is a voluntary organisation supporting teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal.