Understand What I've Become, It Wasn't My Design
NOTE: at the time this was written, the cause of Dolores O'Riordan's death was not officially confirmed. I have made assumptions given the circumstances, and her life leading up to it. If my assumption turns out not to be the case, I'll edit it, or delete it entirely.
Generation X, we have a big problem. Our heroes are dying, in what seems to be an ever increasing clip. Keith Richards is still going strong, but the people who helped create the soundtrack of our youthful rebellions are leaving this Earth before they're old enough to become grandparents. Further, they're not dying in glamorously rock star ways, in liquor soaked car crashes or heroin overdoses in Paris. They're killing themselves, in quiet defeat, after years of suffering from depression.
Pop culture is a game of eating one's own tail, and right now we're in the midst of 90s nostalgia. As is usually the case with pop culture nostalgia, notes are being played without actually hearing the music--Roseanne is returning, but the Conners are now Trump voters. More than 25 years after its release as a film, Heathers has been refashioned as a TV series by a showrunner who, bafflingly, claims that "the Heathers are the aspirational characters." Pop novelty bands are doing festival circuits attended largely by people who weren't born yet when they hit it big, who are there mostly because it's funny to say you spent an afternoon drinking overpriced drinks and watching Smashmouth. The "Ironic Decade" is being revived by people who don't know what "ironic" means.
But that's fine, because none of us knew what it meant either. Generation X might be the most misunderstood generation, but only because we didn't really understand ourselves. We never got a chance to figure things out, because Baby Boomers refused to relinquish the spotlight, and then Millennials steamrolled right over us. There's no real identity to being Gen X, because the traits associated it are largely superficial. We valued being cool over anything else (probably true, though few of us actually were), we all but emerged from the womb world weary and cynical (this was mostly an act), we hated sell-outs ("envied" is probably a more accurate term), and we were too smart to be marketed to (laughably untrue). Our aspirations were impractical, and when we finally realized that, yes, we would end up working unfulfilling jobs to afford houses, and cars, and college funds, those jobs no longer paid enough so that we could.
Mostly, it was a gray area generation. We missed the sexual revolution, coming of age at a time when sex symbolized death and shame, but by the time it was okay to be more open about it again, no one cared anymore. On the flip side, Generation X women endured the same sort of gross, aggressive sexual behavior from men that younger women do now, but stuffed it down deep enough that we've convinced ourselves that it was normal, that it was a silly thing to be upset about. We grew up being told to keep your embarrassing feelings to yourself, but now that's it okay, and even encouraged, to be open about your pain, it just seems daunting and exhausting, and again, really...who cares. Our time has passed.
Suicides have been skyrocketing in both men and women between the ages of 45 and 55, and there's no sign of it slowing. That age group accounts for fully a quarter of deaths by suicide in the United States. Nobody seems to know why, and nobody seems all that interested in finding out. With media eternally focused on the young, the problems of a bunch of discontent middle-aged people just aren't very interesting. It's an evergreen topic in movies and books that, somehow, doesn't generate the same level of insight in real life.
I was about sixteen when I started feeling the sense that there was something "not right." I was pathologically shy, often going for days at a time without speaking to anyone. I didn't sleep much. I didn't feel sad so much as empty, and utterly unworthy of love or attention. While I did initially consider suicide as an effective tactic to get someone, anyone, to just pay attention to me, for god's sake, it eventually became more of a comforting thought--I didn't have to deal with the emptiness, and the belief that I was unlovable, if I didn't want to. There was always an eject button.
Still, I knew that was I was feeling wasn't normal. I knew that teenage girls were supposed to be out enjoying their lives, making friends and going on dates, and not staying cooped up in their bedrooms watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 at 4 o'clock in the morning. Even when I tried to go out and enjoy my life, I didn't feel any better. Even when I started dating, I didn't feel any better. No one I saw in magazines, or television, or movies, looked like me, or seemed to see things as I saw them, nor did I encounter many people in real life. Support services were so limited as to be non-existent: I had no idea if there was a mental health counselor on staff at my school, and didn't know who to ask. I certainly wasn't going to ask my peers--mental illness was gossiped about in hushed, almost fearful tones. We heard stories about classmates who climbed up on the roofs of their houses and had to be coaxed down by the police, girls who threw themselves out of moving vehicles, kids who disappeared from school for a while because they had "gone to Ancora," a local psychiatric hospital with a horror movie reputation. We knew what "gone to Ancora" meant--it meant that you had gone really fucking crazy. There didn't seem to be any middle ground, you were either perfectly normal, or you were going to Ancora. I wasn't either of these things, and so there was nothing.
At the risk of sounding like one of those insufferable "you kids today don't know what real music is" old people, hearing a band like Nirvana for the first time was, really, kind of a revelation. They were angry, and they didn't know why. They were sad, and disaffected, and they didn't know why. It was nothing, and it was everything, and the fact that they didn't wait until they had an appropriate reason to rail at the heavens was amazing. Even more amazing was the fact that women were doing it too. There was Sinead, and Kathleen, and Kat, and beautiful, pixie-like Dolores, who had the voice of an angel and used it to keen and wail over the injustices in her world. They didn't worry about whether or not their anger was sexually attractive, or appropriately feminine. For a little while, feeling adrift in a world that seemed determined to not make room for you seemed almost bearable. At least there were other people there too.
And then Kurt killed himself, and that was the end of that. Grunge quickly fell out of vogue, and our takeaway from it was two very hard lessons: (1) success didn't mean an end to all the misery, and (2) you can only talk about how awful you feel for so long before people start wishing you'd change the subject. Some folks stayed the course, moving onto different musical ventures and finding other ways to get their point across. Others continued their slow descent into drug addiction. Some, like Dolores, suffered silently, beset upon by demons, stuck in that Gen X gray area between being told to never burden anyone with your problems, and not knowing what to do when you could.
I hadn't known that Dolores had been so sick, just like I hadn't known Chris Cornell had been so sick. Admittedly, I hadn't kept up with either of them or their music in recent years, even though I still listened to the same stuff from my younger days. Still, you'd expect that something would have come out, a crumb, an inkling, a rumor. of how poorly they were doing. Perhaps I missed it, but it would be understandable if they kept it to themselves. For all our talk about encouraging depressed people to be more open about their feelings, we are also unkind and impatient with the mentally ill, particularly if they're women. Remember how funny we thought it was when Britney Spears, in the throes of some sort of emotional breakdown, shaved her head and attacked a photographer's car with an umbrella? How about grown men mocking Amanda Bynes' incoherent Tweets? How about how a shameful amount of the comments on Sinead O'Connor's brutally honest Facebook videos dismissed her as simply needing attention? We want people to talk more about how badly they feel, we just don't want to have to hear it.
Dolores O'Riordan had been successful. She was beautiful and beloved, she had a family who supported her, and she was being properly treated for bipolar disorder. By far too many people's estimation, she had no reason to be so unhappy. Certain mental illnesses, particularly depression, have to be "earned," you see, before sympathy will be afforded to you. I'm sure Dolores was aware of this. Most people with depression are, which is why. ultimately, few really talk about it that much, or at least, enough that it makes any difference. No one is as tired of us as we are tired of ourselves.
I envy the young, for the resources available to them, for their ability to find community, for their bravery in the face of their struggles. My generation, we're scared, and we're weak, and we care too much, just as we did as teenagers, about what other people will think. We still cling to what we were told when we were young, that boys didn't cry, and girls didn't complain. There was a brief, glorious time when everything we felt was expressed in beautifully emotional, sometimes angry music, and it helped, for a time. But what do we do when those voices are falling silent, and there's no one left to sing for us anymore?