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The highs of Kurt Cobain to the lows: Understanding bipolar disorder through the lens of the Nirvana frontman.

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Written by Bharat Hegde

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be, as a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy”, - Kurt Cobain, Nirvana

Listening to Nirvana always brings about a sense of melancholy. It's a combination of the songs themselves, and the looming shadow of Kurt Cobain over all of their work. Kurt Cobain, the poster boy of the 90s. Kurt Cobain, the beacon of alternative rock. Kurt Cobain, the man who was so much to so many people.

Behind the large monolith of who Kurt Cobain was, there lay a man who struggled with multiple mental health disorders throughout his life. In fact, many including his cousin believe that his struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder are what led to his untimely demise in 1994. 

Kurt Cobain and bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a serious mental health disorder that affects over 45 million people across the world. Cobain was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) earlier in life, and Bipolar disorder later on. Characterized by severe swings in moods, Bipolar disorder is a dangerous mental health issue. Individuals flit between episodes of euphoria, where they feel high, confident, and reckless, and episodes of depression, where there is a loss of interest, thoughts of self-harm, and suicide. It is understood that an episode of the latter led to Cobain’s death. 

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Kobain’s childhood

Cobain grew up as an empathetic and excitable young boy. All of this however changed when his parents divorced. He was nine years old at that point. Both of his parents moved on to different parents, and Cobain slowly turned into a defiant teenager, who was bullied, and who himself bullied a few children. His mother’s partner was a raging alcoholic who was physically abusive and once had her sent to a hospital with a broken arm, all of which Cobain regularly witnessed. Research has long shown that periods of high stress and trauma during childhood can significantly increase the risk of the incidence of Bipolar disorder. 

Drug and Alcohol abuse: Coping with Bipolar Disorder

Cobain struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism throughout his life. As mentioned before, alcoholism ran rampant in his family. He was introduced to marijuana at the early age of 13 and ended up using it through most of his teenage years. Post this phase, he also indulged in consuming large amounts of LSD and heroin. Eventually, heroin became his drug of choice as he claimed it helped him overcome physical pain from an undiagnosed stomach condition. All of this was indicative of an underlying mental health issue as individuals with Bipolar disorder which is left untreated face a significantly higher risk of indulging in alcohol or drug abuse. 

Personal accounts from those who knew Cobain describes how he would go into spurts of creative phases where he would write songs, re-write them, and labor over the melodies as well. Some of his songs including “Lithium” too carry references to his struggle with Bipolar disorder, though he himself claimed otherwise. Further, as Nirvana and Cobain himself gained popularity, Cobain started having problems dealing with the fame too. Personal accounts again say that he had difficulty reconciling with his image as a musical superstar. Combined with fluctuating moods, where he regularly went through periods of severe depression resulted in severe distress for Cobain. 

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Cobain delved deeper into heroin abuse to deal with his physical and mental health issues and suffered two separate incidents of a heroin overdose. During this period, he also tried to commit suicide at least two times. Eventually, his family and friends came together to stage an intervention for him, post which he was admitted to a rehabilitation facility. However, he escaped from the facility and disappeared for a few days. He was eventually found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home. Thousands of mourners gathered for his funeral, and his symbol as a musician and artist looms large even today. Songs like “Come as you are”, “Smells like teen spirit”, “Lithium”, and more have become immortal. 

Takeaways: Being Aware of Bipolar Disorder

Cobain’s is a story of pain and struggle. It is also a story of great success and fame. Cobain’s story is many things, but most importantly it is a testament to the importance of mental health. Though Cobain was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, he never sought or received treatment for it, which might have been one of the most important contributing factors to his suicide. Untreated Bipolar disorder can lead to dangerous outcomes and it is important to seek help. His story also tells us that being successful, creatively inclined, and famous is no defense against the force of a mental health disorder. All that can help is seeking prompt assistance from a mental healthcare provider. 

So, Cobain lives on in our memories as an artist, as a human, and as a symbol. His memory can give us happiness and pain, but it must always help us remember. Remember the dangers of mental health disorders, and remember the importance of the three simple words, “I need help.”

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be, as a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy”,

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