This is the second post of a three-part series. The first discusses the surprise of Chris Cornell’s suicide last week. The next post presents my theory of the dynamic behind that suicide. This post discusses the concept of “growth”, and argues that Chris was growing (which makes his suicide so surprising).
[tldr: I’ve grown, and I know that it feels good. Also means I can spot growth in others. Chris seemed to be growing. But he killed himself. WTF?]
Over the past week, I’ve read and watched numerous interviews of Chris Cornell from the past 3 decades. It seemed clear to me reading this material that Cornell was a human being growing out of the Adverse Childhood Events of his boyhood.
This is from the Wikipedia page on Cornell:
Cornell was a loner; he was able to deal with his anxiety around other people through rock music. During his teenage years, he spiralled into severe depression, dropped out of school, and almost never left the house. At the age of 12, he had access to heroin, marijuana and prescription drugs and used them daily by 13, stopped for a year, but relapsed at age 15 for another year until he turned to music.
I read that paragraph, and my first thought is: He must have had one horrible mother. This thought is based on my beliefs about child-rearing and chickens coming home to roost.
That he had a horrible mother is corroborated by some stories from the mid 2000s. In 2007, Cornell did an extended interview with Howard Stern. During the interview, Cornell mentions that he hadn’t spoken with his parents for “3 years, maybe more” (pick up the discussion starting around the 4-minute mark). But the year before, in 2006, his mother Karen gave an interview with a Seattle newspaper. Of Chris, she is quoted as saying: “This baby was born screaming, and now he gets paid for it.”
In the story, the reporter prefaces this comment with “She’s never given Chris a reading [Karen was a ‘psychic’ ‘medium’], but confirms his choice of life path” (emphasis added). Here’s how I read that comment: “Look how funny I am. And don’t think for a second that I had anything do with with Chris’s depressions, anger, and drug addictions. He was born that way!”
Clearly, Chris had a troubled childhood, and it seems he understood the role of his parents in it. Well, judging by the family life he helped create in his second marriage, it seemed that he was growing as a person. I base that conclusion on a number of other factors as well.
Now you may wonder what I mean by “growth”. I’ll give you an example from my own life. Two moments in my life, the first in 1999 and the second in 2001, stand out for me regarding personal growth. In April 1999, we buried my mother. The instant the dirt hit the box of the closed coffin, my mental state changed. I went from looking solely outside myself for answers to any questions or problems that I had, and instead began looking first within myself. I won’t bore you with explaining how throwing dirt on a coffin shifts a focus that way, but just accept that it did that for me.
Two years later, in late 2001, I was in a hotel room in Pasadena with my girlfriend who became my wife and the mother of our child. We were planning on going to Disneyland that day (it was her idea). But instead, she was depressed and didn’t want to go anywhere.
I reacted to this dynamic the same way that I had reacted for what seemed like my whole life: I became belligerent with her. I didn’t start out that way. But over the course of the discussion, I became more and more angry.
In the middle of my rage, my girlfriend said: “Look at your face”. She didn’t say it in a biting or critical way. More like a child who is fascinated by something strange. I turned to look at my face in a mirror, and was shocked by what I saw. My face had transformed into that of a gargoyle contorted with pain.
Seeing my face looking that way shocked me, and my brain immediately popped me out of the mood. Instantly, my rage was replaced with quiet contemplation. And in that calm, clear state, an image popped into my brain. In this image I was standing on a mountain peak, looking off into the distance. Somewhere, past all the intermediate peaks, shimmering way back on the horizon, was a distant peak. That distant peak was 1970.
I picked up the phone in the hotel room and called my oldest sister who was living in British Columbia. I asked: “Did something happen around 1970 regarding mom?”
She described a certain spring day when we three kids came home with our dad from the town fair. Mom was locked in the bathroom having swallowed a bottle of pills. While we three kids peered in through the doorway, Dad busted open the bathroom door, and forcibly got mom to throw up the pills.
We lived happily ever after.
Well sort of. Turns out I developed a flinch after that day in which I became a bully around my depressed loved ones. It seems that the 7-year-old boy who watched his dad that day saw a bully taking charge to fix things.
Of course, my dad wasn’t being a bully that day. He was doing what was needed in the moment to save my mom’s life. Plain and simple.
But that idea — bully your depressed loved ones to save them — stuck in my subconscious for over 30 years until that day in late 2001 in the Pasadena hotel room. And I believe one reason that I recovered this “lost” memory that day was because of the 1999 event, which pointed my nose in that direction.
In other words, if my mom was still alive today (at 86), I’d probably still be a nice guy to friends and colleagues, but a world-class asshole to my loved ones. And I’d either be onto my third or fourth marriage, or more likely, I’d be alone.
So to say that I’m thankful for, um, my mom’s death in 1999, and grateful to my wife for helping me recover that lost memory in 2001, is understating it.
I didn’t change right away after that day in 2001. Thirty-plus years of a deep brain pattern doesn’t change overnight. But on my handling of depressions in my girlfriend, I improved maybe 50% after that day. It took years for the improvement to inch their way past 90%. The only thing I’m still missing today is empathy. But compassion and sympathy and being helpful go a long way.
In this way, I can say I have grown as a human being. And I’m a much happier person for it. In my case, instances of anger have become rare, rather than the norm, as they had been for me before 2001.
Chris Cornell was a very private person. Apart from that Howard Stern interview, I couldn’t find much of anything that Chris said about his mom.
But I get the sense that he had experienced some epiphanies that helped him grow past the agoraphobia, depressions, and drug addictions that he suffered as a teenager.
But if that’s true, and Chris was becoming a happier person, why did he kill himself?
I offer my best guess in the next post.