"Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally."--Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), "Penny Royal Tea"
"I'm not like them/but I can pretend...I think I'm dumb/maybe just happy."--Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), "Dumb"
Today, "RIP Kurt Cobain" trended on Twitter. Seventeen years ago, he shot himself in the head and ended his life. He left behind a wife, a baby daughter, two bandmates who suddenly had to make new career plans for themselves, and a few CDs' worth of terrific music, just barely enough for a legacy. I put the Nirvana VEVO channel on at work, when I could, just to remember.
It was fairly obvious that he wasn't built to last, looking back. I often find Nirvana's songs hard listening now for the same reason I found them irresistable in my late teens. It's so easy to see the depressed, self-medicated mind behind his lyrics *now*, so easy to understand why authority figures hated Nirvana so much. But it felt good to hear the anger and sadness inside my head turned outside, to a backdrop of Cobain's screaming guitar.
Some teens only heard that brilliant guitar and Krist Novoselic's bass and Dave Grohl's drums, and didn't figure out what Cobain was screaming out to the world until they got older. I could dance to it. We could all dance to it. Most rock music didn't allow that. I myself was a hip-hop girl, and called a "wigger" for it because white girls in rich, preppy schools weren't supposed to love that music as much as I did. I wasn't rich or preppy, and had to defend myself a lot. I could have hidden it. After all, I hid the fact that I also loved country music, if it had enough twang and wasn't too poppy. But I hated hiding as much as I did. Cobain hid in plain sight.
I have two stories Nirvana makes me want to tell, both a bit awkward. One's funny (now), and one's painful, but they both ultimately end well. The first...well, I gave L'Ailee, the girl who would become my wife, my virginity to Nirvana. Sort of. Our relationship was long-distance, me in Orlando and her in New York. We were very young and perpetually broke, but we occasionally scraped together funds to see each other. It took us about a year to actually have sex. We discussed it before a visit, and we decided we were going to make it happen.
I felt fat, ugly, and self-conscious, especially since L'Ailee's always been very athletic and never had a problem with her weight or complexion. Her flaws were all worn on the inside. She was going to see me naked. I insisted on doing it in the dark, nevermind that she had a really good idea of what I looked like under my too-loose clothes and liked it just fine.
It went so badly. So badly. We turned on the light. She walked away and paced around her tiny living room, which she'd worked so hard to clear of roommates. I cried, and blasted Nirvana's "Nevermind" to hide my tears. She came back in. Her eyes went all big and dark. She sat close to me and wiped my tears. We kissed. Without a word, with the guitar spurring us on, we gave it another try in the light. It worked that time. For months, I couldn't listen to "Drain You" without blushing. I remember thinking that maybe when I met Kurt Cobain, I'd tell him about it.
Except that I never did get to meet Cobain. I never even saw Nirvana perform live in concert. I still regret that a little. I was 20 years old, still living with my mother, when Kurt Loder solemnly reported it on MTV News. I'd just worken up--I was working graveyard shifts at a donut shop, and so I slept in the midday. It was a hell of a thing to wake up to. I couldn't believe it at first, but he kept saying it. I burst into tears, and I was a wreck by the time my younger brother came home from school. "Kurt Cobain died!" I told him. "He killed himself!"
My brother, who was 13 and thought he was cool, blew me off. "Well, it's not like you *knew* him. You don't have to cry like that."
"You don't have to be such a jackass!"
I didn't even bother telling my mother, but my brother told it for me: "She was crying over Kurt Cobain like it was someone in our family." My mother proceeded to harangue me over why I was wrong to feel the way I did, until I screamed at her, grabbed my purse, and ran out of the house. My best friend Yemaya O'Reilly, also a hip-hop girl who loved Nirvana, and I got rip-roaring drunk that night, and I slept it off in her little studio apartment above her parents' garage.
I realized something very important over the next couple of days. I'd felt depressed, even suicidal, most of my life. My father died when I was seven, and to put it in the most ridiculously simple terms, that event seemed to set off the bio-chemical programming that came from his side of the family. I attempted suicide a couple of times as a teen. I sometimes thought things would be easier if I just died. I'd have moments when I would need to avoid a big knife because I wanted to turn it on myself, or a lake because I wanted to jump into it and never come out. This webpage geared for people considering suicide got it so right--I didn't actually want to die. What I wanted was the pain inside me to just stop, and I knew no other way to make that happen. I felt like I was a complete failure at life and, as I would morbidly joke later, the only objection would come when my mother had to clean up afterward.
I had thought that it was natural for me to be depressed. After all, my life sucked. My girlfriend was far away, and we fought quite a bit, and lots of people objected to the fact that we were both female. I lived with my mother, who is an extremely critical person. I wasn't in college because the only school I could get into was filled with classmates who'd tormented me in high school. I made minimum wage at the donut shop. So, I figured, I needed more money, I needed to move, I needed to go to back to school, I needed to get things right with L'Ailee or find someone else. I'd do all that and everything would be okay, I thought. I looked everywhere in the world *but* within.
Kurt Cobain had had so very much. He'd actually managed to profit from his own pain, and made his own wildest dreams come true. He did all that, and he still felt like he needed to just die! Like I did! It occured to me that if a freakin' rock star felt that hopeless, I'd almost certainly need more than a degree and some more paper in my wallet to get right.
I'd had people want to slap that "depression" label onto me, and I was scared of it. They all acted like I was crazy. I tried and failed to act like nothing was wrong--I'm just not a very good actress. My mother couldn't afford a psychologist throughout my adolescence, not that I'd have told one anything, and the guidance counselors at my middle and high schools were pretty terrible. All their advice could be boiled down to "Your life isn't *that* bad, cheer up, smile for once, and stop being so damned weird." My pastor at church wanted me to stop listening to the music I loved, including Nirvana, but I felt even worse listening to Christian music. I heard from the pulpit that suicides went to hell and that Christians were supposed to show the rest of the world how happy they--at that time, we--were. I therefore learned not to tell them a thing, either. I sometimes wanted to print and wear a T-shirt saying, "Don't ask me questions if you don't want to hear the answers."
But by his tragic example, Cobain had shown me that I needed to consider help. I looked up books in the library. I never checked any out, because I was scared of the librarian's look, but I made lots of copies and wrote lots of notes. I took three quizzes, and they all said I was off-the-charts depressed. By that point in her career, my mother had finally gotten decent health insurance, and I was just young enough to be on it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done to ask her to help me see that kind of doctor. She thought I just needed to toughen up, but I'd made photocopies of those quizzes, and I showed her. She made some calls the next day.
I've taken enough of your time, so I don't want to go into the whole long process. My first two prescriptions didn't work out for me. Sometimes I had money, sometimes I didn't. I used state assistance for a while. I had some awful therapists--one who was much more interested in curing my bisexuality than my depression--and some decent ones. The first one heard me say, "Of course I'm depressed," and gave me a bit of insight. He said, "That's like saying, 'I fell off a ladder, of course my arm is broken,' then never going to a doctor to get it re-set." The more I got help, the more open I was to receiving it, even if it wasn't perfect. I still had many problems, but knives and lakes stopped looking like solutions to them. I wanted to do the work it took to get past them, not check out, and I felt like I could get it done.
Spending almost my entire childhood and adolescence depressed made it very difficult for me to gauge what "normal" or "happy" were supposed to feel like. I think it was around age 29, a strange year when I began Lexapro, needed treatment for what my relatives euphemistically call "female problems," and said yes to L'Ailee's oh-so-romantic proposal over the phone, that I finally began to really understand those concepts. By 31, I began to actually feel contentment on a regular basis. I can tell you 100 things wrong with my life, but I can also tell you 100 things that are right about it.
I no longer go to any kind of therapy, nor do I take any medication. I take dance classes a couple times a week instead. Those are much more fun. However, L'Ailee and Yemaya know what to look for. My brother does, too--he's an adult now, and a friend, not that callous 13-year-old. we've all grown up. I'm so glad I didn't leave them behind or make them suffer. Reading accounts by survivors of suicide shows me just how selfish I was at the time. I could have hurt them so horribly. But when you feel insignificant, you feel like you can do anything, because your actions have no real weight. I'm prepared for the possibility that the black cat may come after me again, and I may once again need professional help.
I thank Kurt Cobain for blessing the world with his amazing talent. I thank him for making me feel less alone. That helped a lot. I don't know exactly how to thank him for showing me what I needed, or even if I should. The way he did it was so terrible. I dearly wish both of us could have gotten help, and lived to know what a good day feels like.