My Euphoria Mourning
Summary: A personal reflection on the tragic loss of Chris Cornell, using the Integrated Motivational Volitional Model of suicidal behaviour (O’Connor, 2011) to explore music and lyrics expressing potential suicidality, of this incredible artist.
The following article discusses suicide and suicidality at length. If you are feeling suicidal or need support, please call Lifeline 13 11 14 or contact the Suicide Call Back Services 1300 659 467.
It has been written from a place of personal reflection more so than from a professional analysis of the life and death of Chris Cornell. It is a hefty reflection, in an effort to build and process acceptance for the loss of a person for whom I cared and followed with great interest, throughout his career. In so doing, I am considering how The Integrated Motivational-Volitional (IMV) Model of Suicidal Behaviour and those theories embedded within, explain the development and progression of suicidality for Cornell. It is an imperfect attempt to piece together aspects of suicidal process theory, as not all the facts are known in the early days since his passing, and indeed, popular media reports may bear no resemblance to the truth. I expect that the following musings will never have an opportunity for validation. Despite these limitations, the following draws together those matters we presume to know, with his vast body of work as a musician.
The Integrated Motivational Volitional (IMV) Model (O’Connor 2011) of suicidal behaviour integrates a breadth of research that has sought to explain, understand and hopefully prevent the complex phenomena of suicide. It details the foundations for suicidality as interactions between biopsychosocial factors that may include genetic predispositions, environmental factors and life stressors (generally termed risk factors). The model builds to explore the complex interplay of predisposition, experience, perception and personality traits that moderate how a person experiences and tolerates variables such as stress or isolation. The person may feel defeated or trapped by their situation, due to any range of reasons but may include substance dependence, poor capacity to cope or problem solve. These variables are threats to the self. Some threats can be moderated with positive help seeking behaviours, strong relationships and the ability to remain future or goal oriented. Some unhelpful behaviours can also act as moderators for brief periods too, such as substance use or self injury. Therefore, despite being subject to stressors, a person’s fluctuating suicidality may remain in a state of variable ideation (thoughts only). If however, a “Volitional Moderator” (VM) is introduced, the system changes with suicidal behaviour/s emerging. We can understand this in the context of a person who has tolerated a range of stressors, and either a support is removed, or new stressor is introduced to the system that tips it into the Volitional Phase. The below diagram depicts the principles of the IMV model (O’Connor 2011).
I metaphorically met Cornell when I was about 15. He was a constant traveller with me in the grunge scene of the 90s, together with the other grunge icons AiC, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and STP. The pull of the drug haze, resentment of social order and self hatred had freedom of expression through the unique Seattle sound, and Cornell’s dramatic vocals. We could lament our confusion, apathy and anger through the world of grunge at will. Cornell said, had and emerged to be more than just a front man to an iconic band. Soundgarden communicated what they wanted, and produced music that was confronting and compelling. While they had released music prior to Badmotorfinger, it was in 1991 that I really came on board with the sound and the world started to take notice.
I knew little of Cornell’s developmental history; what we would now call the Pre-Motivational Phase according to the IMV model. He is noted to have felt socially anxious as a child, and his drug use commenced around age 12, reportedly commencing with marijuana, prescription medications and heroin, before progressing to use heroin daily from the age of 13. It has been reported that he had had “bad drug experiences” motivating him to quit heroin at age 14, and he was kicked out of school at age 15, when he reportedly returned to drugs. Cornell was described as a “loner” until the serious pull of music a year later introduced him to peers with similar interests, and his use of alcohol apparently became a stronger influence. These early years, evidence a boy in turmoil and struggling to find direction and connection in his life. These are rocky foundations that readily explain the angry lament, heavy rock sound and dissonant lyrical perspectives.
As a mature adult reflecting back on this time, Cornell said he thought his anger would never burn out. His rage was evident throughout Badmotorfinger, screaming his lyrics against hypocritical religious orders in “Jesus Christ Pose” or feeling generally “Outshined”
I got up feeling so down, I got off being sold out… I’ve kept the movie rolling, but the stories getting old now… …I’m feeling that I’m sober, even when I’m drinking, I can’t get any lower, still I feel I’m sinking…
It was evident that there was a lot going on psychologically for Cornell. Lyrics questioned expectations that were bound to reflections on the past, musing for the future but trapped in the present:
…candles burning yesterday, somebody’s best friend died… and I’ve been caught in a mind riot… I’m tied within…
With today’s knowledge of suicidology, these heavy themes are recognised as warning signs for suicide. In reflecting on Shae’s (2009) writings of suicidal intent, we may make assumptions of the musician through the lyrics (reflected or implied intent), however actual intent cannot be established. In the day, Soundgarden were like the other great bands, reflecting and expressing what many of us, as a generation, were feeling. Cornell simply stood as one of the front men to this movement. The entire grunge scene was characterised by apathy and moody disdain, traversing fluctuating states of anger and loathing. Did anyone reflect on his lyrics at the time and question whether he was expressing the ethos of a generation, or his own hatred and misery? At this time in his career, the anger and angst was a driving force behind his musical expression. It was the reason for his success and I would argue that no one would likely intervene offering support, let alone something so radical as psychological therapy, to break his creative flow. Indeed, even if it was offered, Cornell certainly appeared unlikely to accept it.
Cornell produced music independently of Soundgarden, as a solo artist and also with friends for Temple of the Dog in 1991 and the Singles Soundtrack, of 1992. “Flutter Girl” was first released in 1992 on the Singles Soundtrack and later remastered on Euphoria Mourning.
…tonight my tears might stain your wings so flutter home cause your better off alone than with me… Flutter Girl you don’t want to know what I live, you don’t want to take what I give, ‘cause I give nothing for free….I’ll tear your wings as I melt in your smile as I run all your colours away”
Psychological themes of burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness are ever present, being formative to the onset of suicidality according to the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (Joiner, 2005), nestled within the Motivational Phase of the IMV model (O’Connor 2011).
Superunknown, released in 1994, found new heights for success, with direct expressions of misery, confusion and thwarted love: songs like “The day I tried to live”, “Fell on Black Days” and “Like Suicide”. In interviews, Cornell described Fell on Black Days as a reflection on his depression: that it hung with him, as a dark companion that needed no prompting to rear its head or trigger the onset of despair. The albums success was recognised with Grammy Awards and went five times platinum. “Black Hole Sun”, another acclaimed song, was described by a critic at the time as “one of the more morose songs to get airtime”, yet that Cornell “was not suffering or crying for help in the manner of Kurt Cobain”, and that “he was simply expressing some dark thoughts”. This statement reflects profound ignorance to the nature of suicide, and it could be argued, that Cornell’s was in fact making overt statements about suicidal intent. Shae (2009) argues that in understanding the true intent for suicide, a more accurate indicator may be the ideation, planning and actions, rather than a person’s stated intent or disclosures.
Cornell spoke with scorn of the music industry idolising alcoholism and drug use, chaotic lifestyles and transient relationships, while “normal” people with “regular jobs” would be held in contempt for the same behaviour. He was disillusioned with it all, and had great insight into the traps. It was as a teen that he emerged onto the Seattle scene, already having endured struggles with addiction and depression. Rather than seeing a young man lost in his own despair, the industry celebrated his broken dreams and dysfunction, so his associated musical genius could shine in full glory.
,In 1996, Down on the Upside was released and Cornell sang of a deeper yearning for life’s meaning and the existential pressures he seemed compelled to explore. Lyrically he again drew our attention to seasons; swirling weather, deepening clouds and the blinding sun, as metaphors for the passage of time. Musically, deep tones and haunting guitars of “Boot Camp” and “Tighter and Tighter” reflect fluctuating suicidal ideation:
I must obey the rules, I must be tame and cook, No staring at the clouds, I must stay on the ground, In clusters of the mice, The smoke is in our eyes, Like babies on display, Like angels in a cage, I must be pure and true, I must contain my views, There must be something else, There must be something good, Far away, Far away from here
– a sense of purposelessness expressed, of being nothing against the grand scheme of life and our time within it, and a desire to feel something more.
Remember everything is just black, or burning sun, And I hope it’s a sweet ride, Sleep tight for me, Sleep tight for me I’m gone. Warm and sweet, singing from a windows ledge, tight and deep, one last sin before I’m dead
Changing seasons and stories of battles with metaphorical demons add depth to the angst. His lyrical genius was as compelling as the musicality in expressing the many faces of Cornell’s existential engagement with the universe. Reminding us that time passes yet the stagnation in the problems afflicting the world, and indeed his mind, remained the same and he felt powerless to change it or be changed by it.
The anger and depression of earlier albums with Soundgarden, make way for his solo album, Euphoria Morning, released in 1999. An open wound that he exposes for all to see in wonder, and in empathy, sympathy and love, his battle against addiction, self hate and loss. Indeed, Euphoria Mourning was initially released titled Euphoria Morning, after he questioned whether people would ‘get it’. But get it we certainly did. He spoke of his remorse at the initial name in 2015, and his desire to express his euphoria mourning that was his life. Notably, this album conveys loss, purposelessness, loneliness and hopelessness. It is written in a time when his marriage is disintegrating, he feels the loss of deaths around him, and his addictions incapacitating him. Yet what it expressed was a courtship that took our hand to the depths of his lonely and dark mind. We believe in his musical purpose, empathise and connect with his grief and would willingly help. But it was a one directional relationship.
This album revealed significant reflected intent (Shae 2009). The warning signs of suicide are strong and became pivotal and purposeful in Euphoria Mourning. The irony was that these deep reflections, beautiful tones and haunting compositions, were why we loved him. He sung of pain in a way that pulled our heart strings and held us close; resentment dripping with regret, anger and despair, bedfellows to his seemingly enduring loneliness. In hindsight, we can see that Cornell expressed his psychache purposefully and that he was actively ideating about suicide. Yet in interviews with the media, he readily evades any question around how he felt about the suicides and deaths of those before him. He deflects direct interview questions, noting that the lyrics hold different meanings for everyone and while we probed the reflected intent, nothing solid is gleaned. In hindsight, his withheld intent is palpable. Yet how can he answer honestly to inferences he may be suicidal in that environment anyway, only to be put on display? We may all feel loneliness or despair from time to time, and perhaps these songs reflect the extremes of his pain, given that suicidal states fluctuate? Cornell conveys fears of being powerless to changing anything for himself and the fatalistic predetermination of his circumstances and the human condition. Chillingly beautiful “Preaching the End of the World”, expresses the desperate loneliness and desire for “pure intentioned” connections, with no judgements and no complications. What more do any of us want? While I’ve never found any evidence to confirm it, this song appears to reference a friend whom died of an overdose some 10 years earlier, at age 24. Cornell seems to be reaching to this friend.
Hello, I know there’s someone out there who can understand, And who’s feeling the same way as me… I’m 24 and I’ve got everything to live for but I know now that it wasn’t meant to be…
The morose melody of Sweet Euphoria captures the very essence of his psychache. Reflecting the distress that any listener facing substance dependence, the lost highs of euphoric love or just the crumbling of dreams to dust may feel when a melancholic, hopeless mind takes control.
Cornell was famously noted to describe his struggles with depression as being a longstanding familiar condition that was hard to escape, purely because of the habitual nature his experience of depression took. And yet life did seem to change for him. At least for a time. He collaborated with Audioslave to produce hard hitting songs that again channelled his authentic values including social justice and virtue, becoming more politically focused than he ever had been previously. Lyrically however, he continued to express his emotional demons: “Like a Stone” explaining that
I was lost in the pages, of a book full of death, reading how we’ll die alone, and if we’re good, we’ll lay to rest, anywhere we want to go
His emerging comfort in his own process urging that “Friends and liars don’t wait for me, I’ll get on all by myself…” describing an ethereal Cornell, who has the potential to be with us, without guiding or directing or travelling our course “I am not your rolling wheels, I am the highway, I am not your carpet ride, I am the sky”.
In 2002, Cornell entered rehabilitation, discovering sobriety and the love of his wife and children, Motivational Moderators (MM) (O’Connor 2011) that seemingly halt the self destructive course he has been on. Or perhaps sobriety offered that to him, and his family supported sobriety as a sustainable process.
Even after reinventing himself in the coming years, with albums Carry On in 2007, he continued to reflect on suicide and described feeling that unless he was specifically happy, then he was certainly sad. Perhaps we might describe his state psychologically as dysphoric. While the music may have been more upbeat, allowing him to enter the mainstream musical arena, his lyrics continued to reflect deeper philosophical questions plaguing Cornell. To add to this time, Cornell was scorned by the music world and the grunge generation with the release of Scream, a “pop” album in 2009. It most certainly had catchy upbeat tunes. The criticism against Cornell, sent an embittered message that pigeon holed and pressured him to return to the musically disillusioned genre, singing songs of self loathing, melancholy and loneliness (though he always asserted that he never listened to the critics). Yet he weathered these pressures and despite the criticism, Cornell emerged yet again into a new acoustic image. Reworking known classics for his solo tour between 2009 and 2011, with the live show recordings released as Songbook in 2011.
In hearing this album we bear witness to Cornell developing connections with intimate audiences around the world. He connects more directly with his fans, speaking with them in ways that touring with the loud and heavy sounds of former bands had not. At every performance, the audience are heard to adore him, yet he admitted openly that there were performances where he criticised his vocals and ability to perform to the level he held of himself. Whether this was a normal criticism and self evaluation, or a reflection of “nothing is good enough” typical of depression is unclear. Threats to the self (Self Moderators SM) may be gaining power over Cornell’s rational side. Regardless, he noted the sense of isolation that this type of touring involved. Cornell said in a statement some time later, that Songbook helped him to find his musical direction again, after feeling somewhat lost following the criticism for Scream.
Cornell reformed with Soundgarden, and in 2013 released their first studio album in 16 years, King Animal, following the compilation Telephantasm in 2010. King Animal saw the resurgence of heavier, angrier themes, with less overt melancholy and misery, taking direction from the bands roots. While “Bones of Birds” returns to the well-worn themes including the passage of time, the lyrics are more comfortable and in keeping with the albums less disturbed reflections than posing powerful metaphysical or philosophical questions of the self and our place in the universe. King Animal seems to dance across the angst of times past, though does have moments that ask “should a good life be so hard won?”.
Cornell had seemingly traversed back and forth within the Motivational Stage of the IMV model since cracking the industry over 25 years ago. There was no evidence that any of these melancholic or morose musings ever brought him to act on his thoughts: that is, enter the Volitional Phase. It may be, that prior to 2002, he masked self injurious behaviours through substance abuse. Following 2002 at least, there was nothing in the public eye that appeared outwardly, behaviourally catastrophic. He is described as a devoted father and husband, successfully touring and using his music to touch others.
His final album, Higher Truth, seems to be evidence of a change: a resignation and finality of the life of Chris Cornell. When I first played Higher Truth, it had a sense of loss I couldn’t explain and sadness that I didn’t really understand. I felt love, warmth and wonder through the lyrical genius of “Only These Words” and “Let Your Eyes Wander”. But now in my own euphoria mourning, I see that he is envisaging a future for his daughters, without him. The romance of a princess born, with the joy and hope for her future, cloaked in Cornell’s acceptance that he is leaving his loves behind. He is also offering permission to his wife to find new love. He is offering them hope for their future when he has passed. The early lyrics “your better off alone than with me”, a clear alignment with perceptions of burdensomeness and Joiner’s (2005) Interpersonal Theory of Suicidality. The beauty of these songs is unquestionable.
Certianly, Higher Truth is a journey from beginning to end, with the “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” introducing the pain of his search for meaning:
Every time I stare into the sun, try to find a reason to go on, all I ever get is burned and blind until the sky bleeds the pouring rain
Although Cornell had described the song emerging after a busy touring routine and that he had for a time “forgotten his pain”, and his “broken heart”, it also reflects the cyclic nature of his depression, and that his broken heart always surfaced as a constant companion: “Here we go ‘round again”. It would appear to be this revelation that transitions him towards a more purposeful consideration of death. His song and the associated music clip was confronting when I first saw it, knowing what I felt about the album, what I knew of suicide risk factors, acquired capacity and also more broadly, conveying publicly a mechanism for death. This music video does not convey suicide, but rather corporal punishment by hanging, but is equally a tipping point where Cornell appears to explore his capacity for suicide. After over twenty years of ideation, romanticism and reflection on death and suicide, is there a potential that this clip exposed him to potential habituation to the concept and indeed, the act of suicide? Is this further evidence that his actual intent is well beyond his stated intent?
Cornell transcends a theoretical and hypothetical psychological state (the MV Stage) to explore his capacity and potentially rehearse his own death by literally depicting it. The IMV model, consistent with the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (Joiner, 2005) posits that suicide can only occur when a person has the desire and capacity to bring death about. Cornell’s years’ worth of publicly and privately expressing his existential crisis, misery and fascination with suicide, therefore shifts in 2015 to become grounded and real, through a music clip.
Coinciding with this, Cornell determines to remaster Euphoria Mourning in 2015, seemingly to right a wrong in his musical history.
Perhaps it remains an artistic expression that was never a part of his bigger plan, but for those of us left reeling in the present, we question whether any of us may have foreseen his suicide?
But, I hear you say, Higher Truth was released in 2015 and Cornell was successfully touring and composing until the time of his death. Some two years pass between writing what may be his “goodbye” piece and his death. During this time we see that his personal life appeared comfortable, loving and otherwise “normal” for a performer, minus the illicit substance dependence. More publicly, Cornell, for all intents and purposes was a revered founder of the grunge era and genius of prose and heart wrenching musicality. He remained at the top of his game, touring and responding to requests of him. So what happened to flick that switch within two hours of his final concert on 17 May 2017? This seems to be the most challenging piece of the puzzle people are grappling with.
Reflecting back on the IMV model, we can see that Cornell certainly had a range of risk factors for suicide. However, in recent years, he also seemed to have engaged moderators that acted as protective factors, sufficient to prevent his suicidality from ever progressing towards behaviour. While there may be episodes of depression and suicidality that he endured and were not reflected through his albums or lyrically, it would appear that the profound episodes occurred when he was using substances and his personal life was in turmoil. Becoming sober and clean does not suddenly mean he has the capacity to answer the deep questions of life or that his problems instantly resolved. It just meant that he was better capable of managing his life and sustain relationships that mattered to him. So perhaps he achieved some level of sustainable dysphoria in recent years.
Until 17 May 2017. What was different on this day? Really, we have no way of knowing when his withheld intent became lethal, and purposeful, and his actual intent is evident by way of his death. So we return to the day of his death.
It was alleged that on 17 May 2017, Cornell returned to intravenous drug use. After being clean and sober for 15 years. Perhaps the dates and times were of significance to him. It is proposed that his decision to use substances on this day, coupled with at least of his usual anxiolytic medication, are noted to have affected his behaviour on that day.
It has been suggested that Cornell’s death was impulsive, based on (information I have intentionally withheld, including potentially flawed reports from media, regarding) his means for suicide and reported plans to holiday with his family. On the other hand, he is reported to have made gestures of goodbyes in his final show, including singing “In my Time of Dying” and lamenting that he “feels sorry for the next city”. Only his band will know whether the decision to sing this song holds new meaning in the light of his death, and whether a comment such as feeling sorry for the next city represents a change from his usual behaviour. There were no warning signs for those who did not know him. Only those close to him could consider the context of such comments and actions.
Returning to the IMV model, we can see that anyone else without the vulnerabilities and risk factors of Cornell would be unlikely to enter the suicidal crisis that he evidently did, simply by imbibing illicit and prescribed psychoactive agents. However, recognising that he has an enduring and profound vulnerability, his decision to reportedly return to intravenous substance use is likely to be the tipping point that transitioned him into the Volitional Phase. The psychological actions of the substances in this context reduces inhibition, increases impulsive decisions and when coupled with vulnerabilities such as suicidal ideation, otherwise stable ideation may become more intense and fixated, escalating to action.
It presents an incredibly difficult task for people working to prevent suicide. How do we work with someone with such enduring themes of disconnection, loneliness and fascination with suicidality without jumping at shadows? From the outside, it seems his warning signs have been life long – a fact that for practitioners means that suicidality can fluctuate at any time and could burn us out if we are hypervigilant or over reacting. It would also be exhausting for the person we are concerned about, and potentially close them off from communicating at all in case we prevent them from living their life normally, albeit ideating about life, the meaning of it all and suicide.
What I have read in the time since his death has alarmed me, as the vast majority of comments have blamed his depression. It must be emphasised that our traditional approach of identifying people through assessment of markers for mental illness (such as depression) is flawed. We can’t assume that Cornell’s depression or anxiety was a driving force for his suicide. This is flawed logic because we have seen his evidenced ability to work and function with these challenges effectively, albeit at times medicated or under the influence. If we are looking for markers consistent with depression for Cornell, we have missed them – outwardly, he had experienced depression for an extremely long time and functioned effectively. We also need to accept that looking for traditional warning signs such as communicating about suicide is not such as straight forward process for suicide prevention. They are excellent for screening purposes, but practitioners need to develop their skills to allow the client to recognise their own signs and risk points.
Returning to Cornell’s warning signs, we should be cognisant that they were subtle. Many have suggested there were no warning signs, but this is not true. Those who look for traditional warning signs for suicide will find that they are ill fitted for a successful, middle aged musician, whom has always sung about life, death and transcending our mortal coils. Those traditional warning signs such as talking about suicide, are irrelevant in this case, given it has been openly expressed in his life’s work. While we attempt to fit people into the statistical mould of who is suicidal, we miss the nuances of the individual and their unique perspectives, and whether there are any signs that extend beyond the usual disconnection and psychache they have felt. Clearly his wife recognised that something wasn’t right for Cornell, as she raised the alarm immediately. We all hope to know one another well enough to create a picture of our loves and their life, against which we can measure changes that suggest we need to act. Unfortunately, even with her insight and quick reactions, his life was tragically lost.
Overall, what is most evident from the above’s reflections, is the need to focus our research and understanding on how/why/what influences an individual’s transition into the Volitional Phase, as the processes within Motivational Phase may fluctuate for many years. For my euphoria mourning of Cornell, I come back to the simple truth, that we should know each other and not be afraid to have authentic and real conversations. That we need at times to seek the actual intent that has been reflected and likely withheld. Most importantly, with our clients, we need to continue to support the development of insight around how to understand their fluctuations and tipping points, and engage others in this process where possible. It’s an optimistic hope that we can make a difference to those who need us to, both the person themselves, and those who love them.
No life should be lost to suicide.
If you feel suicidal, please call Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
Joiner, T.E. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
O’Connor, R.C. (2011). Towards an Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour (pp.181-198). In O’Connor, R.C. Platt, S. & Gordon, J. (Eds.). International Handbook of Suicide Prevention: Research, Policy & Practice. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell
Shae, S. (2009) Suicide Assessment. Part 1: Uncovering Suicidal Intent. A Sophisticated Art. Psychiatric Times, 26(12), cited 4 June 20117, http://suicideassessment.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/PsychiatricTimesArticleparts1-2PDF.pdf
By Carmen Betterridge
First published 4 June 2017