On May 18th of this year Chris Cornell, one of my favourite singers and a minor rock and roll legend, died by suicide. I wrote part of this article, then shelved it, too heartbroken to finish. I nursed my wounds, the moment passed, and life went on.
On July 20th Chester Bennington, singer of Linkin Park, was found dead, another suicide. And I knew I had to finish this, no matter how much it hurt. This is a conversation we need to have.
A note before we get started
I don’t presume to know why Chester Bennington–or anyone else–felt suicide was the only way out of his pain. What I’d like to say is rooted in my own experiences as a creative person who’s struggled with depression for almost thirteen years. Several artists and writers I know have admitted to struggling with similar thoughts and issues, but I cannot presume to speak for them.
All I can do is tell you my own story and hope it will mean something to you.
What is the tortured artist stereotype?
I suspect you’re already familiar with this trope, but it’s worth going over once again. The tortured artist stereotype is an artist whose creativity comes directly out of their depression and/or PTSD. They’re volatile, eccentric, and unable to maintain healthy relationships, but they’re also incredibly talented. They produce amazing work not in spite of their mental illness, but because of it.
Tortured artists never heal, and sometimes vocally refuse to heal because they feel they’re scared of losing their inspiration. If they do get help, they soon turn away from it. They stop taking their medication because it’s “dimming their creative experience”. For them, there is no artist without the torture.
The damage of internalizing the tortured artist stereotype
If I’m completely honest with myself I likely struggled with depression earlier, but the first time I recognized a bout of depression I was eleven years old. My parents had split up, my dad got diagnosed with cancer, we moved out of the neighbourhood I had lived in my entire life, and I started splitting my time between separate homes for the first time.
If you’ve read any of the interviews I’ve done, you already know that eleven is also the age when I got serious about my writing. The year leading up to my dad’s death was one of the most deeply creative periods of my life. I filled several notebooks with poetry, wrote a second novel, and even experimented with some visual art. Much of this art focused on death, loneliness, and depression. It came directly from my pain.
When I talk about my fear of treatment for mental illness, I usually talk about the times I was hospitalized against my will, both in the hospital where my dad passed away. Or I talk about the despicable treatment many people with mental illness receive when they seek treatment. These are both significant factors that keep me away from treatment, but they aren’t the whole truth.
The truth is that depression has become part of my identity. It is inextricably intertwined with my art. Every story I write contains pieces of my trauma, my suffering. I know for a fact I would be writing very different stories if I hadn’t gone through severe depression. There’s a good chance they would also be worse, as trauma forced me to grow up fast.
What I don’t know is who I would be, or what my art would be, without depression. If depression became a memory rather than a constant struggle, would I still be able to tap into my pain when writing a character’s breaking point? Would I still be able to connect so deeply with my villains?
Any artist who has gotten successful treatment will say yes. They might need to be more deliberate about establishing that connection, but it still happens. And they’re able to be more productive than they ever could when weighted down by depression.
Dozens of artists and authors have written about how treatment saved their life and actually improved their creativity, but I don’t quite believe it could work for me. I can’t imagine my life without the pain. Nor can I imagine my life without the stories. And frankly, I’d rather be a prolific but depressed writer than a healthy person with no creativity. So I don’t even take the chance. I stay mired in my shit, using an intense self care routine so I can at least tread water.
If I feel this way, how many more artists feel the same?
What does this have to do with Chester Bennington?
As I said above, I can’t presume to know what went on in Chester’s head. But what I can say is that his music has always been very clearly linked to his struggle. That’s what made it so powerful to me and millions of others going through similar struggles. It gave him the viciousness he needed to pull off the combination of rap and rock. It was the soul of Linkin Park’s music. Their success was built on the darkness in their lyrics.
Today we push more and more for our art to represent the full extent of suffering we face in reality, even push beyond it. We applaud our creators for walking through the darkness and sharing the tale. Hell, sometimes we even beg for more of it.
We push our creators to walk through the darkness and turn it into art, but we don’t encourage them to seek help out of the darkness. We don’t want them to be happy. Look at how many of Avril Lavigne’s fans (myself included) jumped ship when she lost the angry spunk she became famous for. We are suffering, and so we want to see artists who are doing the same. Even better if they succeed anyway.
I can’t say whether or not it had anything to do with Chester Bennington’s death, but the tortured artist stereotype is killing our beloved creators. Our demands for creators who have traveled the darkness must come with equal, if not greater, demands for them to seek treatment. If we want them to doing great work, first we have to make sure they stay alive. We need to support their journey to recovery in the same way their art supported us through our struggles.
We cannot let our beloved artists continue to die.
If you’ve ever struggled with the tortured artist stereotype and you’re feeling brave, please share your story in the comments section below. Let’s start the conversation!