I’d just finished my afternoon shift as a cashier at the A&P in Mattituck on that day 20 years ago when the world learned Kurt Cobain had died.
One of the women who was running the customer service counter buzzed me in to the count-out room and I stood there, counting money, while she snapped her chewing gum and gossiped with a coworker about that grungy jerk who’d shot himself. I wasn’t sure at first who she was talking about, and she didn’t remember his name.
“Just some jerk from one of those grunge bands,” she said.
My heart hit the floor. I was only 16 years old, and I wasn’t really all that into grunge, but my little sisters were. I knew this was going to ruin their lives, and I feared they would ruin my life.
I was one of those kids who was more likely to hang out in the Village Market on Love Lane reading Jeff and Sue Miller’s latest gossip in The Suffolk Times than to sit home listening to Nevermind and reading Nietzsche.
As I’d feared, the nihilism that Kurt Cobain and his cohorts had inspired became more pronounced in our little backwater burg after his death. One of my sisters marched through the halls of the school shouting “Yay Kurt!” Everywhere I turned, kids were taking to drinking, and then to LSD, and then to heroin or horse tranquilizers. I watched it from afar, wondering how bad it could get. The years became a blur of cleaning up the messes of a generation of lost children.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, a kid in our school killed himself. I didn’t know him, but I felt my heart, again, in my feet. I went to a support group for his friends at our school and stared at the floor the whole time. There are no words for this kind of thing. The only thing you can do is bear witness and hold hands with your neighbors and pledge to do what you can to make the world a more humane place.
There’s something in the way of mental health services on the East End. Waiting lists at affordable mental health clinics are months long, and some don’t even see patients unless they are referred by an inpatient facility after someone has had a mental breakdown. But it’s not as if our neighborhood has a monopoly on not handling this well.
What’s in the way is our fear of even discussing the state of our mental health. It’s a personal issue, but, from Fort Hood to East Hampton, it’s an issue that affects our communities and our societies when it is something that we are afraid to openly discuss.
Part of the reason for that, in my opinion, is that there are so many reasons that an individual can lose hold of control over their mental health. You don’t have to suffer from schizophrenia or depression to lose your way. You might just not have anyone to talk to.
You could just as easily have been a victim of daily child abuse or a woman who’s been severely beaten by a man whose many friends refuse to believe his behavior, in spite of your bruises. It’s easy to feel worthless in a society that refuses to discuss such taboo subjects. I’ve been there.
I wouldn’t wish the stress of being considered the voice of your generation on any human being, and Kurt Cobain was never quite the guy who could carry that mantle. Even Bob Dylan, who must have at one point secretly enjoyed the idea, ended up having to behave like a lunatic in order to shake off the throngs of hero-worshipers.
We also ask our soldiers and emergency responders, and members of the media who cover war zones or elections in Afghanistan to live up to superhuman standards. They, perhaps more than anyone, are constantly checking in with each other, assessing the mental state of their comrades, making sure they are alert and present enough to be there for one another when things get really bad. They know, more than anyone else, that human mental states are fluid. Some days you can be a hero and some you can’t.
Aside from commercial fishing, there aren’t many jobs on the East End where your life is at risk every day. But there is stress in our daily lives. I’ve only really seen it from inside a newsroom. When you are chasing a hot story and you’re the one to break it, it’s as if everything clicks and you just sail on through the day. But if you’re chasing a story someone else has broken, your editor is going to make your life miserable. The best editors know when to sit out and play the next hand. The worst drive you into the ground in pursuit of yellow journalism.
The best community editors also know that the reason we get up and write every morning is to let our neighbors know that we’re here, bearing witness to their lives. And we care. The North Fork lost one such editor this week, and all of our worlds became a little bit smaller because she is gone.
The East End Mental Health Awareness Day is next Saturday. If you can’t make it to Southampton to discuss these issues, take the time to show a little extra kindness to your neighbors. It may be just the thing they need to remember that they are not facing a mountain of problems alone.