- I’m not one to get too emotional about celebrity deaths, but a rock star’s death by suicide three years ago inspired me to finally address the depression that had afflicted me for much of my life.
- The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns have made every aspect of life a potential source of anxiety.
- In a recent poll, 45% of adults said stress related to the pandemic was harming their mental health. But even knowing that much of the world is going through this is of little comfort.
- We’re two months into a crisis of biblical proportions. And I’m trying to continuously remind myself that, among other things, it’s OK to be terrified, just as everyone else is consumed with potential catastrophes that threaten their worlds.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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I’ve never been one to get too emotional over celebrities’ deaths, even artists whose work I adored.
But when the Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died by suicide on May 18, 2017 — three years ago on Monday — I was viscerally shaken to the point that I reevaluated my life and placed a priority on managing my own mental health.
The steps I took three years ago are the foundation of what’s keeping me from the brink during life in lockdown, working and raising a family in an apartment in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
I was a music-mad teenager in the ’90s, and while Soundgarden wasn’t the most important group to me, I was most certainly a fan. It was Black Sabbath meets The Beatles, technically proficient rockers who merged heavy thunder with trippy melodies.
As an adult, I felt a certain kinship with Cornell, even though he didn’t know I existed.
Just like me, he had buried too many of his friends while in his 20s. And while I’m no rock star, we were both dads, and lucky enough to do what we love for a living.
The last time I got to see Cornell perform live was in November 2016.
He was playing with Temple of the Dog, a band comprising Soundgarden and Pearl Jam members that recorded just one album, in 1991, as a tribute to Cornell’s roommate Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 24.
The gig was at Madison Square Garden. I and about 20,000 other (mostly) Gen Xers left our deeply ingrained cynicism at the door and stood enthralled during a 2-1/2-hour set.
The show rocked, but a strange sentimentality ran through it, as though it were a long-overdue requiem for our decades-gone youths. It was loud, cathartic, and beautiful.
About seven months later, Cornell killed himself.
When I saw the news of his death the next morning, I couldn’t fathom it.
It had been so many years since too many of his peers died by accidental overdoses or suicide. He had talked openly about his struggles with depression and addiction, but he was sober and still producing new music as a family man in his 50s. I had seen him as a survivor.
And at that moment in time, I was an absolute mess.
I had recently become a new father for the third time, and barely two weeks later I became unemployed, learning the hard way that there are no legal protections for new employees against paternity discrimination in the state of New York.
I was poisoned with rage at the injustice of what had happened to me. I was pretty sure my career in journalism was over. I carried a physically debilitating anxiety that felt like an anvil on my chest, and for the first time in my life I had truly suicidal thoughts.
They came with unsettling specificity, to the point that I needed to talk myself out of them.
Within days of Cornell’s death, I sought help in earnest.
With my wife’s patient support, I made conscious steps to treat what I now recognize is a predisposition to cyclical depression that I’ve endured my whole life. I’m still taking those steps — which include therapy, medication, and meditation — and probably will for the rest of my life.
Managing depression is a daily struggle, but it’s easy to forget to maintain vigilance when things are going well, when you’re feeling good, when the weather’s nice.
When the entire world literally falls apart around you overnight, it gets a little harder.
Depression’s a monster, a liar, a wicked beast of a wolf. It’s a daily challenge to keep the wolf on the other side of the door.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down life as we know it — almost three years to the day that my life was upended and I acknowledged the severity of my mental-health struggle — the wolf made it through the door. Now depression was my roommate in quarantine.
So was irritability. And sleeplessness. And paranoia.
But the worst element of depression, corona-style, has been the extended bouts of self-loathing.
I’ve beaten myself up for matters both large and small, both recent and ancient history.
Did I ruin my kids’ childhood by not decamping from the city years ago? Am I stunting their development because I don’t have a yard they can run around in? Three little kids in an apartment make a lot of noise and leave very little space, but why did I snap at them engaging in some sanity-maintaining roughhousing?
I indulged in pathetic “why me” indulgences for having the misfortune of living in the epicenter of the pandemic.
While the specter of excruciating illness and death remains evident in the sight of refrigerated trucks filled with bodies a few blocks from my home, I can’t help feeling shame for engaging in such self-pity, given my incredible fortunes of health, family, and gainful employment.
Then there are the demon seeds of regret.
For stupid things I said and did in high school. For friends I feel like I failed in their time of need. For selfishness, narcissism, and insensitivity.
In rational moments, I’m able to grab the reins of my psyche and quiet the noise. But the demon never strays too far.
The UN and the World Health Organization warned of a global mental-health crisis as a result of the lockdowns, and a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of US adults said stress related to the pandemic was harming their mental health.
But even knowing that much of the world is going through this is of little comfort.
I had previously only ever understood depression as a condition, a state of being, not an actual affliction. Now I know better.
There are a lot of reasons to be depressed right now, but no one necessarily needs a reason. Brain chemistry can have something to say about that even when the economy’s great and going to the supermarket doesn’t come with potential life-or-death consequences.
At a time when we can’t see people, we’re inclined to retreat to online life, which can be the most alienating place on earth.
We weren’t prepared for this. No one was. We’re all figuring it out as we go. The best thing we can do for ourselves and our loved ones is to not hold ourselves to arbitrary expectations.
At some point, we’ll get the chance to thrive. But for now, it’s OK to settle for survival.
There was a time I would have found talking openly about my depression mortifying. But over the past three years, in the right moments, I’ve found so many people I respect and admire willing to share their struggle, and those simple gestures compound upon themselves.
They remind us that none of us are immune from depression, even if some of us will be hit harder or more often than others because of quirks in brain chemistry and the uniqueness of life experience.
We’re two months into a crisis of biblical proportions. And I’m trying to continuously remind myself that, among other things, it’s OK to be terrified, just as everyone else is consumed with potential catastrophes that threaten their worlds.
There’s pride to be taken in recognizing one’s own vulnerabilities, but not using them as an excuse. Depression’s a monster, but it’s not a weakness of character.