When too much talent kills
Recently, frontman Chester Bennington of Linking Park committed suicide, an act that shocked the entire inter-connected world. Not long before that, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and close friend of Bennington’s did the same thing. And so did comedian Robin Williams years ago, and musician Kurt Cobain long before that — as well as many, many other entertainers throughout the years.
Those were the idols of generations whose inspiring performances felt strictly personal to millions of fans. They induced love in people they never met, and better yet, in those who shared a physical life with them — renowned, wealthy, talented, acclaimed, admired, even worshiped, yet paradoxically unhappy.
The cliché of the tormented, mad genius is something more than a romanticized concept after all.
Depression and other mental diseases are failures in complex chemical processes, unhealthy interplay between neurotransmitters and reactions in the brain. Blind luck, manifested into unhealthy genetics and a brain’s shortcomings in chemistry is a favorable soil for depression.
However, in order for it to grow to the extent of completely taking over, other elusive catalysts come into the equation.
According to Scot Barry Kaufman, an acclaimed scientific director, researcher and lecturer, “Every single healthy human being lies somewhere on every psychopathology spectrum (e.g., schizophrenia, autism, mood disorders). What’s more, we each show substantial fluctuations on each of these dimensions each day, and across our lifespan.”
It’s only natural for people who lead heightened lifestyles to display larger fluctuations on these psychopathology dimensions.
Substance abuse is one of the most obvious keys to letting out the disease. Drugs, alcohol, medications – stars, including all the names mentioned above, are no strangers to any. Other triggers of underlying mental illnesses exist, too. Bennington, like others, was open about being abused as a kid.
“I was getting beaten up and being forced to do things I didn’t want to do," he told Kerrang magazine in 2008. "It destroyed my self-confidence. I didn’t want people to think I was gay or that I was lying. It was a horrible experience.”
A crippling sense of worthlessness often associated with depression is something else creative individuals struggle with since their work is in a constant state of critique holding up to fierce assessment that hardly any “normal” line of work involves.
Artists tend to self-identify themselves with their art. It’s more than just making a living for them, it’s a creative expression of their inner world. Dissatisfaction with their work can often equal dissatisfaction with themselves on a much deeper level.
Another contributor to depression is, paradoxically, achievement — more specifically the blues that follow it. It’s possible to argue that even bright careers, colored with limelight and public affection, will one day fade to gray.
There are scientific studies that explore the idea that the anticipation, having something to strive and look forward to, are stronger generators of dopamine than actual reward. Like conquering a peak you’ve spent so long gazing at, only to find out that the view from the top doesn’t make you feel all that different inside. When a person seems to have everything, including material and abstract things, promises and dreams that can excite become scarce.
But above all, what all those stars had in common, regardless of tastes, was immense creative talent, and more specifically, the inherent darkness that drove it to such depths.
Plato said that, “Creativity is a divine madness, a gift from gods.”
If this sounds like a banal romanticizing of madness, Kaufman and various other experts have explored the translation of psychotic personality traits into creative achievements, too.
“The creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” Professor Gordon Claridge from Oxford University's department of experimental psychology revealed.
Many actors are also known for the extreme nature of pursuing an authentic character portrayal, some to the extent of real-life transformation. Heath Ledger’s methods for inhabiting the Joker, as an example, became a probable cause for his unfortunate death not long after his role was over.
In an insightful article for Rolling Stone, David Browne recalls the memories of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s close ones about the actor’s inner struggles with addictions and how he used to channel them into almost manic perfectionism on set. His death, like Ledger’s, was never said to be suicidal, though many agree it hinted toward a loss of similar inner battles.
Apparently, leaving it all on the stage for Seymour Hoffman, over and over again, portraying existential human drama and summoning feelings people generally perceive as real-life monsters, didn’t have an on and off button.
“The play tortured him,” Katz said. “He was miserable through that entire run. No matter what he was doing, he knew that at 8:00 that night he’d do that to himself again. If you keep doing that on a continual basis, it rewires your brain, and he was doing that to himself every night. When it was over, he said to me he wasn’t going to act in theater for a while.”
Actors have their theater, musicians have their concert stage. Bennington, whose being was a playground for everything mentally and physically destructive, openly admitted to continuously tapping into his own personal darkness and substance abuse for musical inspiration. For him, they were both a source of torment and authenticity, and being able to channel his personal drama into his music was even therapeutic.
“I have been able to tap into all the negative things that happen to me throughout my life by numbing myself to the pain so to speak and kind of being able to vent it through my music,” he once said. “I don’t think I could’ve been inspired to create something like that by watching someone else go through that. So in a lot of ways that’s been very constructive for me.”
Although, not therapeutic enough. In fact, both he and his fellow friend and colleague Chris Cornell left this world practically stepping off from the appeal of concert venues, filled with love and heartfelt applause. Bennington’s open letter to Cornell after his passing now resonates louder than ever.
“Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped into one,” he wrote. “I suppose that’s what we all are. You helped me understand that.”
Unfortunately, it seems as under those talented and complex sheaths, the negative elements prevailed over the positive. Nevertheless, this fundamental battle gave birth to a lot of divine beauty, which helps millions around the world with their own personal struggles.