Kurt Cobain & The Sadness Of Silent Pain

Dear Audy,

Recently, I watched the 2006 film Kurt Cobain About A Son. This doco style film is a collection of audio interviews recorded with Kurt Cobain between December 1992 and March 1993, matched up with some random film footage. As a film, it’s terrible, but listening to these candid interviews was very enlightening for me. Sure, Cobain wasn’t all that straight in the head – he comes across as introverted to the point of self obsession, seemingly unable to empathise with others and repeatedly describes his hatred of the people and society around him. However, the enlightening thing that I didn’t know before I watched this film, was that crazy Kurt Cobain also just happened to suffer from chronic pain.

20100216 Kurt Cobain
(click image for source)

Cobain describes enduring intense back pain in his teens as a result of scoliosis. He later suffered severe stomach pain:

“I’ve always had a pain I wasn’t imagining, I was in pain all the time. Probably psychologically decided to trade off my spine pain for my stomach pain. Once my stomach started up it was so much more intense than the spine that I hadn’t thought about my back for a long time.”

Later in the film, he describes the Hell of touring amidst all of the pain. His words are in the past tense, as though he has overcome his pain, however the only actual relief he speaks of in the film came in the form of heroin. The latter paragraph quoted here reads almost, and quite tragically, as though it were written after his suicide, which took place a year after these interviews were recorded.

“I’ve managed to just carry on, I mean , there’s been so many times where I’ve been sitting or eating and having massive pain and no one even realises it because I’m so tired of complaining about it. And it hurts on tour so often that I just have to, I mean, I have no choice but to go about my business and they have no idea I’m in massive pain.

Like halfway through the European tour I remember just saying that I’ll never go on tour again until I have this fixed because I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to fucken blow my head off I was so tired of it, there’s no way I’m gonna live like that. It turned me into a neurotic freak, I was psychologically fucked up, I was having a lot of mental problems cause I was having chronic pain, every day.”

-Kurt Cobain, quoted from About A Son

I was only 11 when Kurt Cobain died. Nirvana was that band that my older brother listened to. It wasn’t until my mid teens that I would take my own musical journey through their collection of hard boiled angst. The internet wasn’t much back then, information didn’t flow as freely and anything I read about the late musician, whom I was fascinated with, came in a magazine. From what I understood, his death was another tragic case of fame and drugs gone wrong. I never knew that he suffered from chronic pain. This highly important fact has always been glossed over by ‘depression’ and ‘drug addiction’.

This got me to thinking about other celebrities – Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy, Adam Goldstein, Heath Ledger – all of whom have had the use of prescription painkillers reported as involved in, if not the cause of, their deaths.

As a society, we sigh and we mourn these tragic losses to drug addiction. Something mainstream media doesn’t do is discuss the pain that led to those addictions. Even more rarely does the media entertain the possibility that these people were actually still in physical pain, not simply depressed. Did you ever look at Michael Jackson’s deformed face and wonder how much it hurt? How much physical pain it caused him? Like most of us, you were probably too busy being disgusted by his decision to put himself through the surgeries in the first place.

Personally, I am a little disgusted with myself for never having considered this topic earlier. Upon hearing of Brittany Murphy’s death I was saddened that Hollywood had claimed another young, anorexic drug addict. As I read that she had been using pain medication since plastic surgery, I still gauged from the article that her ongoing use of them was addiction based. It never occurred to me that she was really still in pain. Here I am, someone who fights to express her invisible pain every day and yet still the fact that these people were celebrities blinded me to the idea that they were in pain, just like me. I shall not be so quick to jump to conclusions in the future, only open my mind to possibilities when the facts can’t be known.

Cobain’s interviews allow a peek into a very intimate part of his life. Pain is not something anyone really loves to share, celebrities even less so. Most people who are on the receiving end of such personal dialogue from a celebrity are sure to be bound to silence by contracts and pennies. Unfortunately, celebrities are rarely viewed as people in pain, the gossip rags don’t write articles highlighting suffering – not when they sell twice as many copies with a juicy article on drug addiction.

The real tragedy of goldmine journalism is that these tragic, famous souls, could help lift the veil off the plague of invisible and chronic pain. Instead, we read articles about celebrities who recklessly elude to having chronic pain conditions to counter accusations of substance abuse. I don’t know Paula Abdul personally, but I do not believe for a second that she suffers from RSD, as claimed. Nobody who truly understands this pain could swan themselves about in heels as they dance for music videos and do nothing to raise awareness for their condition.

Sadly, many of the high profile people that could really relate to chronic pain aren’t here to talk about it. About A Son gave one of these people a unique chance to speak from beyond the grave. Society needs to take its eyes off its laptop, unplug the Bluetooth from its ear and take a really close listen. Millions of people suffer in silence, every day, because they have no way of making their voices heard. I’ve often thought that in order to really raise awareness for CRPS, someone famous would have to suffer from it – think about the public awareness raised for Parkinson’s Disease since the inspiring, post diagnosis, work of Michael J. Fox. What I realise now is that chronic pain has had many martyrs, only society is too busy labelling them drug addicts to notice.

Love, Losses & Ponderings,

P.S. Finally, for the first time in weeks, I can say that I feel a little better today! The air doesn’t feel so heavy and hard to move through and my limbs have cooled a little. Hurrah!!

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  • 8 thoughts on “Kurt Cobain & The Sadness Of Silent Pain

    1. Matthew Smith

      Kurt had ulcerative colitis, hence his stomach pain. I wasn’t aware of the scoliosis, but they can’t have treated him very well because it’s something they tend to fix with braces and, more commonly now, operations. However, it tends to be thought of as a girls’ disease, so perhaps his wasn’t treated, or was treated too late.

      The stuff about you and your older brother kind of rang true with me. My younger sister was basically into pop and HATED grunge – I asked her once if she liked Pearl Jam and she said “no, they’re shite!” as if she was offended to be asked. I was never that into them but some of the bands I liked (REM, the Indigo Girls) were close to or influenced by Nirvana or were influences on them (Neil Young) and I think there was a lot of crossover (Scott Litt, REM’s producer, produced their Unplugged album, the only Nirvana album I ever bought). People thought that Nirvana was kind of the real deal because they got the impression that Kurt was suffering which I suspect people got off on a little bit.

      As for raising awareness of RSD/CRPS, I thought an opportunity was lost with Hilary Lister’s round-Britain sail last year. People knew that she was paralysed from the neck down and that was what made the achievement remarkable, and although the papers mentioned RSD and said that it was a rare and painful condition, they didn’t go into much detail about what that was and how it affects people. I was quite surprised that you had never heard of her because I would have thought she would have been the talk of the RSD community.

    2. Michelle

      quick note: Michael Jackson was on painkillers because of the injuries he suffered from burns during his Pepsi Commercial filming when his hair caught on fire and severely burnt his skull, not because of a decision to alter his perception – which also was a decision he made because of the psychological trauma caused by the burn incident. All of his “choices” seem to (in some form or another – post pepsi burns) have stemmed from this incident and from the pain it caused him both physically and mentally.

    3. Michelle

      whoops – I meant “alter his appearance” not “alter his perception” … I like this entry BTW.

    4. Jen

      This is brilliant Hayley!
      Very interesting and beautifully written. I applaud you from my hospital bed where I’m currently recieving treatment for chronic pain.
      Words don’t fill my oxycontin’ed and ketamine infused brain to tell you how brilliant this is.
      Take care sweetheart xx

    5. Kimberley

      Beautifully written. Its never going to be possible to have real insight into what others go through – celebrity or not. I still can’t imagine the pain you go through as if I slightly imagine what it would be like to go through on a daily basis.. I just try to think of happy thoughts, or watch something with eye candy. So I’m not really helping. But thankyou for sharing your thoughts, and how you can relate. x

    6. Carly Findlay

      This is a great blog post Caf.

      I have not watched this movie but I will today.

      Like you, I was really young when Kurt Cobain died and I only got into him and Nirvana’s music in 2002 when I read an excerpt of his biography. Since then I’ve read many biographies and his journals and Cobain Unseen. I even did an essay on the way a literary biographer crafts their story and interviewed Charles R Cross, the writer of Heavier than Heaven.


    7. Carly Findlay

      Wow, that comment was entered too quickly.

      I have not given much thought to drug addiction in celebrities or in every day pain sufferers. But I do know that to treat *my own* illness and consequent pain, I will only ever take prescribed drugs and never too many. I really only take panadol when I am dead. There are many things I cannot take (codeine is one of them) for pain as it hurts my skin, so there is definitely an opportunity cost in taking/not taking them. Do I want the pain to be temporarily gone and then a few days later my skin be 10 times worse than it was, or do I just put up with it and have my skin petty constant and on the verge of repair?

      I guess what I am trying to say is I would never take heroin or harder painkillers for the risks associated, I value my whole body too much.

      I hope this doesn’t come across as judgemental, as I don’t want to offend.

    8. Joanne Martin-Moss

      i love this blog Hayley, whilst i have not read a lot of the newspaper rubbish, i have always wondered why so many of these people were taking such strong or extreme medications…and now i know..

      thank you so much for this interesting and sympathetic article … i dont think that individuals without chronic pain can possibly understand the lengths individuals with chronc pain will go to to even get a few hours relief….

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