In the early nineties, whilst I was a student at Goldsmiths College, University of London, I was a big fan of Nirvana, and, in particular, Kurt Cobain (and I remember where I was when I heard of his not altogether unpredictable suicide by taking a massive heroin overdose, and, just to be on the safe side, shooting himself in the head).
Clearly, this was not a cry for help as to which some suicide attempts (often disparagingly, dismissively, even scathingly, and contemptuously) are referred.
I still am a fan if Kurt Cobain, albeit a somewhat diminished and less impassioned one; if Smells Like Teen Spirit comes on the radio, I might even be moved to turn the volume up half a notch (mustn’t annoy the neighbours).
It is over twenty years since I first read the biography on Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, but, from it, we gain a rich insight into the roots of Cobain’s grave adult psychological difficulties.
In fact, his early life experiences resemble my own to a degree that I can only describe as eerily uncanny; I summarize these experiences below:
Kurt Cobain was born in 1967, as was I.
When very young, he was described as ‘excitable and sensitive’.
However, his parents divorced when he was nine (mine divorced when I was eight) and he became withdrawn, rebellious, confrontational, and defiant.
He also lost his confidence and felt ashamed that he came from a ‘broken home’ (when my own parents divorced whilst I was at prep school, I, too, felt deeply ashamed and lived in terror that my classmates would find out [divorce was far less common at the time]; like all young children, I didn’t want to be seen as different, but to be ‘just like everyone else. I assume Cobain experienced similar painful sentiments).
Cobain’s father remarried, as did mine, but Cobain deeply resented his stepmother who lavished attention upon her own child whilst neglecting him (again, this mirrors my own experience; my stepmother, who was a religious fundamentalist, regarded her own son as a kind of mini-messiah and myself as spawn of the devil (going so far as to shout at me in ‘tongues’ during an argument I had with her when I was thirteen).
Meanwhile, Cobain’s real mother’s new partner was abusive towards her and Cobain witnessed domestic violence. (When I was about ten my mother let a habitual criminal, possibly schizophrenic man move in with us as her sexual partner; whilst he was in and out of Pentonville prison, he was not physically violent though, to the best of my knowledge).
Cobain’s behaviour became increasingly disturbed during his adolescence (as did my own) and eventually his father made him move out to live instead with friends. Yet again, this mirrors my own experience; my own father, too, eventually threw me out.
When he was about sixteen, Cobain moved back in with his mother; however, one day, a couple of years later, he returned home to find she had packed up all of his belongings into boxes and demanded he leave (my own mother had chucked me out of the house when I was even younger – a mere thirteen).
Symptoms Of BPD That Cobain Displayed As An Adult.
First of all, let us remind ourselves of the main symptoms of BPD:
BPD sufferers experience a range of symptoms which are split into 9 categories. These are:
1) Extreme swings in emotions
2) Explosive anger
3) Intense fear of rejection and abandonment sometimes leading to frantic efforts to maintain a relationship
6) Unstable self-concept (not really knowing ‘who one is’)
7) Chronic feelings of ’emptiness’ (often leading to excessive drinking or eating etc. ‘to fill the vacuum’)
8) Dissociation ( a feeling of being disconnected from reality)
9) Intense and highly volatile relationships
For a diagnosis of BPD to be given, the individual needs to suffer from at least 5 of the above.
The Strong Association Between Childhood Trauma And The Later Development Of BPD:
It is now established beyond dispute that there exists a strong association between the experience of significant childhood trauma and the development of BPD in adulthood. We can easily infer from this that Kurt Cobain would have been at high risk of developing the disorder; indeed, he displayed many of the symptoms which I elucidate below:
- highly volatile relationships: epitomized by his relationship with Courtney Love
- self-harm: Cobain was a heroin addict and, of course, carried out the ultimate self-harming act: suicide
- feelings of intense emptiness: Cobain stopped deriving any pleasure from performing on stage, contrasting himself with Freddy Mercury who relished performing (Cobain was the opposite and said that he refused to pretend to be enjoying himself).
- impulsivity: epitomized by his drinking and drug-taking. Also, as an adolescent, he indulged in vandalism.
- extreme mood swings: he experienced the profound depths of suicidal, existential despair.
- feelings of dissociation: exacerbated by his drinking and drug-taking.
- unstable sense of self: for example, although he was not gay, he pretended to be when at school (or, at least, let others assume he was) and wished he was in order to ‘piss off homophobes.’
These are just some examples. There are also, of course, countless references to his disturbed state of mind in his lyrics.
Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain (click image below):
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).