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Suicide’s Siren Song: An Ode to Chris Cornell


On a cold wet afternoon,
In a room full of emptiness by a freeway,
I confess 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.

 ~ Chris Cornell, “Like A Stone”, (originally by Audioslave)
There are some voices that beckon me to stay in my car and finish listening to a song despite the fact I am late for an important meeting.  Chris Cornell had one of those Siren voices.  Little did I know he had a Siren singing to him as well.  His Siren was much darker and dangerous than mine, causing him to miss what was left of his life.

While Sirens are Myth, Truly Dangerous Ones are Both Real and Born Out of Myth

Sirens are monsters of Greek mythology that call to sailors, hypnotizing them into engaging in essentially suicidal behaviors – crashing ships, diving into the black depths of the sea or drowning themselves.  As a suicide specialist, researcher and prevention expert, I have long studied Suicide and have seen its power to seduce its prey, much like the Siren’s call.

So, when I woke up yesterday to the news of Chris Cornell’s untimely passing, I felt a mix of sadness, shock, confusion and curiosity.  Suicide – the thief of so many creative souls had claimed another life.  As one to never waste a life or death, I always try to find the lessons in the tragedy.

I found myself pouring over years of twitter feed to find answers to his death and discover the identity of his Siren.

I spent the morning reading every lyric he ever wrote to see if I, too, could hear Her song.

I watched his interviews, videos, and listened to his music all afternoon, attempting to discover just where and when the Siren struck.

What I discovered were many songs of the Siren, not a mythical creature, but common myths that allowed the song to sing subversively and without detection, luring an incredible artist to his demise right under our noses.

Myth 1:  Family/Children are a Safeguard Against Suicide

And one promise you made
One promise that always remains
No matter the price
A promise to survive
Persevere and thrive

~ Chris Cornell, “The Promise”, his most recent single

Scrolling through Cornell’s Twitter feed, I came across pictures of obligatory smiles on the red carpet, smoldery-eye album cover photos and grinning snapshots of him hanging out with celebrities like George Clooney and Brad Pitt.  It wasn’t until I saw the candid shots of him with his wife, his mother, his 11 year-old son, and 12 year-old daughter that I began to choke up.  He captions each one with a heartfelt birthday wish or a declaration of love.

Couples take vows to love and respect each other in good times and in bad.  Parents promise to protect and keep their children from harm at all costs.  Suicidal behavior may seem like the ultimate breaking of those ethereal contracts, but for many in throes of the Suicide Siren’s song, it is merely the ultimate sacrifice for their loved ones.

When I was but a “baby therapist”, at the beginning of my career as a clinical social worker, it used to surprise me when a suicidal client made the argument that her children would be better off without her.  As a mental health therapist who has specialized in treating and preventing suicide for almost 20 years now, I can tell you it is uncomfortably common to hear that reasoning.  Suicide can whisper in your ear all sorts of lies.  When in a fragile state, those lies sound an awful lot like truth.

Mother always told me love would save me from myself
Daddy always said that love would take me straight to hell
Sometimes they were right and sometimes they were oh so wrong

 ~Chris Cornell, “Cleaning My Gun”

The Lesson: Do NOT assume that close relationships with friends, family, or children are enough to keep someone alive.  To battle Suicide’s siren song, they must hear the reasons why their presence in your life is more valuable than their death.

Myth 2: Love and Adoration are a Safeguard Against Suicide

I cannot see the light
At the end of the tunnel tonight
My eyes are weary
And before I let one more life get erased
From the ashes I will rise for you and the ghosts
Of the names the faces and frames
The love and the pain for you I remain
Though I’m not worthy of being
The keeper of the flame
I am the keeper yeahhhhh
I am the keeper.

~ Chris Cornell, “The Keeper”

How can someone so loved and admired by millions not be lifted up and out of the mire by that love?  I have worked with hundreds of suicidal people who will swear to you that either they are not loved (when they clearly are) or they do not deserve that love (which they clearly do).  There can be a tendency to crumble under the weight of love and the self-imposed expectation of having to do more and more to earn that which is so freely given.

Suicide’s song tells its victim he is unworthy, hopeless, helpless, and undeserving.  Suicide belittles accomplishments, bemoans contributions and bashes brilliance.  It takes the natural components of self-worth and makes them all seem fragile and fleeting.

There the soldiers, in the sunlight
Kill the center of a man in endless suicide
By the night light, in foreing sky
Is a holstered, bridled child spinning ’round the flame?
Each is loved now or remembered
By the mask they wore years before the future
And the horse falls in the smoke filled riot
The center of a child grows in new disguise

Where are the songs from the sane minds?
And where are words from the sound mouths?
I can’t understand how they silence the voices

~ Chris Cornell, “Silence The Voices”

The Lesson:  When Suicide is singing in a loved one’s ear, they may need help to battle it, to hear the arguments against it, and to know that there is no cost to your love and respect for them.  They have already earned it.  No more payment needed.  Do not assume that they know how awesome or great they are.  Tell them what you love about them – not the mask and the surface-level shit.  Be prepared to be blown off.  Here is the problem — Suicide sings sweetly.  Hearing praise at these times can be like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard.  If that’s the response you are getting, back off a bit and try one of my tricks – ask the person, “what is it that you think I like about you?” or “Why do you think I tolerate your bullshit?”  Do NOT accept “I don’t know” as an answer.

Myth 3: Sobriety and Proper Medication Will Fix It

There used to be a time
When I could hold my head up high
My life laid out before me
Rivers flow with wine
I had my love beside me
And everything was fine
But now the ride is over
It’s hard to say goodbye

As hope and promise fade
And midnight turns to day
Well I’m tired and I’m thirsty
But it’s better I stay dry
Never more than two drinks away
From crying…

~ Chris Cornell, “As Hope and Promise Fade”

 When I first heard the news that Cornell had passed away, I said to my husband, “I thought he was sober now?”  Obviously, I jumped to a conclusion that he overdosed.  Obviously, I am an asshole.  We are now hearing that it was not illicit drugs that Vicky Karayiannis, his wife of 13 years, attributes to his death, but the overuse of prescribed Ativan.  Ativan can cause a number of side effects, including slurred speech, impaired thinking and decision-making and increased suicidal thoughts.

What do you do to buffer a Siren’s song?  Wax in the ears, right?  Well, modern day wax for the Suicide siren song has become popping anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds like candy.  Unfortunately, too much of a good thing is a bad thing and by the time you crossed the line into “too much” you can’t easily scramble your way back.

You never lied to me, never said you’d be around for long
But somehow I believed that you would be my only one
Cause you know where I’m going, and you know where I’m coming from
But now this train is slowly coming to its final destination

And as you lay sleeping with your eyes softly shut
I’ll be cleaning my gun, yeah
I’ll be cleaning my gun

When heaven or hell takes this life
I’ll be done

~ Chris Cornell, “Cleaning My Gun”

Lesson:  Do NOT assume that just because a person is sober or on meds that they are thinking clearly.  Can you predict when Suicide’s song will be louder than the buffer-effects they get from those meds?  No.  Is it your responsibility to track every pill and keep them strictly to their medication regimen? No.  Be aware of medication side-effects.  Ask questions about them.  If you notice personality changes or erratic behavior or a deterioration, inform the person that the change is happening – do NOT assume they are aware of it, no matter how obvious it is to you.  Have them call their doctor for a med adjustment.

Myth 4:  There Are Always Signs and Cries for Help

“In my time of dying, I want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home”

~ Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying,” The last song Chris Cornell sang on stage

Seriously?  How did we miss this?  If my teenager wrote half the shit this man wrote in his lifetime, I would assume suicidal behaviors would be inevitable and probably be following him to the bathroom 9 times out of 10.  So why were these not considered “signs”?  Because he’s a creative and brilliant brooding artist and dark themes are his bread and butter?  Because without pain there can’t be healing, so his lyrics are simply a manifestation of his catharsis?  (I swear I am not reading from the notes of his psychoanalyst, but imagine it says something like that.)

Hindsight is 20/20.  Are there always signs?  I don’t like to use words like ‘always’ or ‘never’, but sure, typically if you are looking for something you will find it.  His Twitter feed alone holds many.

He was disenchanted and appalled by the election of a charlatan to the highest office in the land.  In recent interviews, Cornell was apparently deeply affected by the content and basis for the movie he scored, The Promise.  Before and after his concert, his wife noted a change in voice tone and affect.  During his final concert, he was uncharacteristically behind the beat.  His last song was clearly about death.

Were there signs?  Sure.  But were they clear enough to set off alarm bells? No.  No one involved needs to harbor all the blame here.  Except maybe Donald Trump.  Let’s blame Donald Trump.  But definitely, we need to exonerate ourselves (that goes double for his family and bandmates).  We did not hear the Siren Song.  Chris did.  He heard it very clearly.  We can’t undo that.  But we can be aware of the myths that lead to it being able to sing to him so loudly and convincingly.

Whatsoever I’ve feared has
Come to life
Whatsoever I’ve fought off
Became my life
Just when everyday
Seemed to greet
Me with a smile
Sunspots have faded
And now I’m doing time
Cause I fell on
Black days

~Chris Cornell, “Fell On Black Days” (originally by Soundgarden)

Lesson:  Do not let people go through this alone.  If someone reaches out to you for help, listen.  We all fall on Black Days.  If you want someone to be there for you, be there for them first.  I will let Chris have the last words on this point . . .

 Hello, I know there’s someone out there,
who can understand, and whose 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.
Cause all has been lost and,
all has been won,
and there’s nothing left for us to save.
But now I know that I don’t wanna be alone today,
so if you’re finding, that you’re feeling just the same…

~ Chris Cornell, “Preaching The End Of The World”

If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide and you live in the St. Louis area, give us a call.  At St. Louis DBT, we specialize in helping people find their life worth living.  Outside of St. Louis, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline for referrals at 1-800-273-8255.

Casey Limmer, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, is the owner and founder of St. Louis DBT.  She was among the first therapists in the nation certified in DBT by the Linehan Board of Certification.  

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