Oh The Guilt
Kurt Cobain and the suicide solution 20 years later.
This document is filled with shame.
I have a secret.
If I were to tell you this secret, you’d know me—and my inadequacy—completely, so it must be zealously guarded. It’s heady stuff.
Actually… the real problem with my secret is just how boring it is and worse, how self-important I am to consider it shameful. Despite the cost to my ego though, I recognize that after holding onto it for near 20 years it’s beyond time to spill the goods. You ready?
I’m kind of obsessed with Kurt Cobain.
It’s been 20 years since Kurt’s suicide. There will be a lot written about how Kurt and his music changed the world. And Nirvana certainly did do that. More potently though, Kurt’s short life illustrates how fragile a psyche is. His experience proves—yet again—we are our own worst enemy.
For sure there’s a desire on my part to beat the stampede to the 20-year anniversary. More important though, is for me to come to terms with the idea that his life was and is personally meaningful, then and now. My instinct to downplay Kurt’s role in my life, just because he was popular or mainstream is misguided—it’s a remnant of the anti-sellout ethos that also needled Kurt. I want to pay his memory its due.
It’s not an OCD style obsession, but Kurt’s presence is always with me. It usually takes the form of a thought like, “What would Kurt Cobain think about that?” and then maybe I’ll listen to a Nirvana record. Just as often, I won’t think about Nirvana for months on end.
Sure I liked—loved—the music while he was alive and it gained potency and import when he died, if only from knowing there would never be more. What has stuck with me at least as much is who Kurt was as a person—or the person I imagined he was—and what he would have thought of things now. His memory is a totem, a youthful ideal that I’ve allowed to grow alongside me as I’ve matured from the perplexed adolescent junkie I was when he stepped off the train of life to the more-or-less responsible, engaged adult I’ve become. He’s kind of like a child’s invisible friend. Except I’m a man, he’s not invisible, and he’s a dead celebrity.
Kurt wore his empathy and his understanding of the suffering inherent to the human condition on his sleeve. He didn’t have time for intolerance and called it out when he saw it (here’s looking at you Axl). It wasn’t “cool” for a rock-star to act that way. Outwardly he embraced the rough-hewn nihilist attitude of his idols but was tender and genuine when it came to dealing with people directly. If only he’d been as generous with himself.
During the five years—five years!—of his public career (Bleach was released in June 1989 and he died April 5, 1994), you can mark the growth of Kurt’s emotional daring. From the howling wail I kept rewinding the tape to hear again and again on “Negative Creep” (Bleach) to the otherworldly harmonies on “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (In Utero), he grew. He was plumbing himself for emotions I wasn’t ready to admit I had, never mind celebrate or express. It almost makes sense that someone who is so prone to self-examination would wither under the magnifying glass of celebrity deification.
And then there’s the omnipresent “why” that accompanies suicide. Imagine what could have been!? He had so much further to go, if only he’d gotten on the other side of his addiction. Even as similar as I think our mindsets may have been when I attempted suicide at age 24 and him when he succeeded at 27, who could know? Every brain is private; a laboratory behind closed doors. Millions loved him and his music. Many people would have done anything for him. How could I imagine what that would feel like?
I do believe I’ve come closer than most to knowing his despair. I’ve been mortally depressed, hopeless, paralyzed by a brain malady that insists there’s no other way to relieve the suffering but through a timely exit from the earth. I’ve also been strung out on heroin, like Kurt was, and felt—actually no, I knew—that nothing I ever did, ever, was going to change the fact that I would always be addicted to drugs. I was convinced heroin was my master and no matter how long I managed to stay away—an hour, a week or 10 years—I’d eventually succumb and be put through the myriad layers of pain, confusion and disappointment using again would entail. Years later I would learn it wasn’t true, but it doesn’t matter. I believed I would never be free.
I’d been considering dying for some weeks before I attempted it, always in the depths of withdrawal. The day before I followed through I sat on a bench in Grand Central Station at rush hour, crying, blubbering really. I didn’t want to die but I couldn’t keep doing dope. I couldn’t see a way out. In a strange twist of fate a friend from high school walked past and stopped. I didn’t go to high school in NYC, so I took it as a sign. I think he was embarrassed and unsure of how to help. I decided to not to try to die that day. I found myself in the same place the next day with no friend to be found.
I imagine Kurt felt there was no respite from the addiction also. In the days leading up to his suicide his family had performed an intervention on him. He went into rehab and left after two days. Even if it was fleeting, there was some part of him that wanted to get clean. I imagine that, like me, he thought he’d never be able to.
Kurt had been strung out and he’d been straight. And then he was strung out and straight again. Heroin changes everything, especially your brain. Combine it with depression—I have known many types—but the constant is my internal, inherent depression; it’s the low water mark. Then there’s the misery of withdrawing from dope; situational/circumstantial depression. That second layer took me lower than I previously thought possible. Add to it the physical pain of withdrawal and you’ve got a perfect storm of despondence. That’s the state I visited with greater degrees of intensity each time I tried to kick drugs. I pray I never have to go to that place again because it compelled me to end my life. I thought the worst scenario would be to survive the attempt and I was profoundly disappointed and ashamed when I woke up from a coma three and half weeks later. I had failed.
Perhaps part of the intense shame I feel around my suicide attempt has to do with the fact that I considered Kurt’s death in relation to my own. I don’t like to think of myself as someone who is influenced by celebrity, but there it is. He succeeded in dying 11 months before I attempted to. I imagined his experience when I made my, theoretically final, decision. With all that he had—beautiful, uncompromising music oozing from every pore, his ability to care for others so deeply and to express himself so purely—if he chose to annihilate his existence, what chance did I have at happiness? The jig was up. I had played my hand and lost; might as well cash in the chips and call it a day is what I remember thinking.
I think Kurt felt the shame of failure as well. A month before he obliterated his head with a shotgun, he’d overdosed on Rohypnol. He was discovered in a catatonic state and rushed to the hospital. He didn’t want to fail twice.
Leading up to my own attempt I was in agony, kicking for the umpteenth time, and in the second week of withdrawal. The more experience you have with dope the worse the withdrawal. When kicking it’s usually three or four weeks before you begin to feel human again. In week two, what feels like a cosmic joke occurs: you are almost through the acute physical part of the process—a relief—but soon you discover you are only just now stepping out onto a tundra of abject hopelessness. Your brain chemistry is in turmoil. The mental trauma is worse than the physical part ever was. You wish you could trade back for the physical pain. You can’t sleep. Every cell in your body screams out for anesthesia. It’s so simple—just use drugs and it will be over—relief—but that’s the only thing you can’t do. The process would begin anew. You’d be back to minute one on a month long countdown clock.
Once I put my plan to die into action there was relief. I instantly became a spendthrift and bought a homeless guy a couple of bags of drugs if he’d show me where they sold the good stuff. He showed me where some Puerto Rican dealers were operating in a tenement building on Pitt Street. I was used to buying on the street and it was nerve-wracking to climb to the 4th floor. The apartment had one of those heavy metal doors with the specially built sliding eyehole slit. Inside they were bagging drugs and had an uzi sub-machine gun out on the table. I’d never seen one and thought it was cool. Drugs in hand I splurged on a taxi and snorted a few glassines in the backseat. In Union Square I stopped at Wendy’s for a last meal, a spicy chicken sandwich with biggie fries and a frosty. I wrote two notes, one to my mother that said I was sorry I was such a disappointment and the other to my roommate telling him not to disturb me. I cooked a bundle and a half of heroin and reclined on my cigarette burned comforter to die. Pushing the plunger to overdose was agony, but at least the hell that was my life would be over. And then I woke up. It was almost a month later. I was battered and extremely unwell, permanently scarred but alive. My roommate had ignored my note when he heard me choking on the spicy chicken sandwich.
Which leads to the survivor’s burden. Why was I blessed with another chance at life when so many beautiful and deserving people don’t make it? They faced similar circumstances, dealt with similar problems, but still didn’t live. I hate how often I’m reminded that suicide is way too often the end result of drug use. Somebody who has been sober and happy, slips and takes a drug—is prescribed some Vicodin for dental surgery perhaps. You hear six months later they are dead by their own hand. I know there’s a good chance of me checking out, were I to relapse on hard drugs. The drugs, they change you. Knowing how dark I can go, I have to stay away whether I want to or not. It’s as simple as living or dying.
It wasn’t me killing myself. I wasn’t in my right mind. I was changed into somebody else. I believe Kurt had been taken over too. I wish he’d been given the gift I was. He had so much more to give.
Kurt didn’t want to die. He wanted to murder the drug addict inside himself—but he thought they were one and the same. He chose a permanent solution for a temporary problem. Coded into his musical legacy is my own idealistic youth, the part of me that believes, thanks in part to Kurt, that humans are basically good and that we should attempt to love and be kind to one another, starting with being kind and generous with ourselves. I still miss you.
R.I.P. Kurt Cobain
Jared Mazzaschi is a writer living in Los Angeles. He'd love for you to visit his blog.