I loved Kurt Cobain—never had a crush on him, but I loved him. I gravitated toward him, and I think it was because I identified with him in many ways. I also loved the idea of accidentally achieving success in a very non-traditional way, like Cobain and Nirvana did. Is it okay for a girl to feel that way? I’ve always wondered, because being in your head, and being an accidentally successful outcast is much more of a dude thing. It doesn’t feel safe to admit to it when you’re a girl. But as a child I was always in my head creating fantasy worlds, drawing, writing… I finally saw Brett Morgen’s documentary, Montage of Heck, this weekend—one of the best documentaries I've ever seen—and I’ve come to realize just how much I still identify with Cobain.
In first grade I wrote a journal entry titled, “Why Me.” It was all about exactly what you might expect: stupid things that happened to me and wondering why they were happening to me instead of someone else. At this time, Ronald Reagan was president and I heard some of the older kids I knew talk about him in a very different way than my parents did. To the older, rebellious kids, he was akin to the Antichrist. This stuck with me and shaped my politics as I got older.
By the time high school rolled around I’d flunked Math and was used to hearing about how “lazy” I was at home. I wanted to rebel but I didn’t know how and was too afraid. Instead, I would disappear into my room and fall asleep on the floor reading Rolling Stone magazine until my mother burst in and scolded me for not having done my homework.
“Do your homework!” she would yell.
“I can’t! I would yell back. And I really meant that, too. I couldn’t—not because I was physically or mentally unable, but because my mind was being pulled in too many other, more interesting directions. I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t able to do my homework. All I could say was, “I can’t.”
Like so many kids, I was diagnosed with an illness and put on Ritalin, which went terribly. Eventually I was able to stop taking it, switching to Adderall before finally tapering off and learning how to channel my wandering, unceasing thoughts into productivity. I wasn't ever really ill, just different. I wonder how many kids would be spared an ADD diagnosis if we'd learn to celebrate creative thinkers instead of medicating them.
I've read that people assume Cobain was bipolar in addition to having been diagnosed with ADD. Maybe so. But maybe? Chronic depression followed being treated like an outcast by the kids at school and shamed by his father, by life circumstances like his parents' divorce, by being able to sense Courtney pulling away towards the end—in the documentary she admits to having thought about cheating on him, though never having actually done it—and not the other way around. Sensitive, feeling people are much more prone to depression if not looked after properly. We, as a society are so quick to label someone who is or feels different as abnormal, blame them for their problems, and medicate them in an effort to make them more normal. Yes, sometimes people are bipolar. Other times it has much more to do with spiraling feelings brought on by devastating life events than a full-blown mental illness. Growing up constantly hearing how weird you are and how wrong you are for being that way can color your view of yourself for the rest of your life.
In Montage of Heck, Cobain admits, “I … never had any friends. I hated everyone—they were so phony.” This, I can relate to, too. A phony person has, to me, always been the absolute worst representative of humanity. What’s the point of having a friend if he’s phony? And what’s the point of living if you’re not living authentically? To me, the artists on the pages of Rolling Stone were living authentically. That’s why I wanted to work with people like them. But how?
I was about 13 when I came up with the plan. I would live in New York City and work for Rolling Stone. I didn’t know what an Art Director was at the time, so I assumed I would write for the magazine. Fueled by Cobain’s “Corporate magazines still suck” cover, I was determined to thumb my nose at society while still working just a bit inside of it. That way I could make my parents proud and still get to live the way I really wanted. Yes, I would work for Rolling Stone when I grew up, tour with bands and write about them. And it really seemed that simple.
Then I got into art class in a major way. The teacher picked me out as one of the more talented kids in her classes at the time. My parents were proud because I was talented at something. And, really, I think they always knew. This was just confirmation. When I was 15 the art teacher, Ms. Jewett, entered one of my paintings into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, where it won a National Silver Medal. Everyone was pleased, except for me.
Some people are born for recognition and maybe even fame. Others, no matter how talented, just don’t have the right personality for it. As much as I longed for recognition, I hated it when it arrived. Being in the spotlight made me feel terrible, and that wasn’t a feeling I wanted to last. So I accepted the recognition quietly, and let it pass, keeping my head down while I plugged away at my plan, never fully expecting it to actually become a reality.
When high school graduation rolled around I was being courted by a few high-profile art schools. Temple University, an in-state school for me, had an art school that offered me a scholarship. Ms. Jewett helped me to navigate the high school’s academically-focused guidance department and get into that art school. Without her, I don’t know where I would be today—probably unhappy and working in some Starbucks somewhere. She recommended I pursue a Graphic Design major, so I did. It had never occurred to me that one might draw and earn a living at the same time. It was liberating.
I’ve been a Graphic Designer ever since, but I still write, draw and take photographs all the time. That’s one thing that will never stop. Unlike Cobain, I never made it to the pages or the cover of Rolling Stone—though I did make it to New York City—and I never got accidentally famous, and that’s entirely fine by me. When you don’t have the right personality for it, fame can easily be your downfall.
I struggled with whether or not to publish this. Why should anyone care? I never knew Kurt Cobain, though I wept openly when I heard he committed suicide. I lack fame. I am not what anyone with any power would consider to be an “influencer”. So what place do I have in, and what value could I possibly bring to a discussion about Cobain, especially when it revolves almost entirely around my own life?
As an introverted artist always trying to fit into an extroverted world, I understand very well what it feels like to be different, and I think that’s worth sharing. I've been through depression brought on by the pain of feeling too different. I understand what that feels like, too, and I constantly watch myself for it. I know that a person who appears perfectly fine on the outside may very well still be dealing with or covering up depression. After watching Montage, it's clear that with Kurt, all the signs were there—the signs of depression and pain far worse than anything I know I've experienced—and let's say just for right now that none of the accusations surrounding Courtney Love in the aftermath of Cobain's death are true. If only someone had reached out, if only someone had been keeping closer watch over him. So to anyone else who feels this way, or ever has, know this:
You are not weird or wrong. And as long as you follow your heart, it may take a long time, but you’ll see that you’re right and that you don’t need to change. Grow, develop and become a stronger artist than you were to start with, but never change. You are amazing.
And to the parents and friends of a kid who is different in this way:
Treat them with love and compassion. Let them explore their creativity and guide them to growing into the best, most wonderful creative person they can be. Their life may not turn out to be the way you would live or the way you wish for them to live, but I guarantee you, they will never cease to amaze you and those they come into contact with as they grow. Don't yell at them, belittle them or shame them, and try hard not to betray them. Instead, treat them like the special person they are. You deserve it and so do they.