by Caitlin Moran
When a pop icon disappears or kills himself, teenagers recognise that their own despair is being mirrored.
In this season of suicide, in this decade of despair, teenagers are getting picked off the barbed wire, bloodied and tattered, every day. Arms were flung aloft and tongues tutted two weeks back, when the first anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide coincided with the two-month anniversary of Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards's disappearance, and Melody Maker instigated a debate on escalating teenage depression, self-mutilation and suicide.
From the point of view of a 35-year-old news editor or programme researcher, it seemed obvious that the actions of Edwards and Cobain had sparked off dark and wild tendencies in England's impressionable brood. And so, to this effect, music journalists were interviewed on the BBC's Six O'Clock News, and the tabloids ran shock-horror-worry pieces about how Edwards's self-mutilation had inspired a cult of delicate-cutting in the Home Counties.
It didn't happen this way round.
I have worked for Melody Maker for three years; and possibly the only painful part of the job is editing the letters page. MM receives around 200 letters a week, and the majority are teenage spats over the relative merits of Alan from Shed 7's hair over Lamp from Bang Bang Machine's hair. But five or so are painful, bright descriptions of mental breakdown and depression; and one a month starts ``By the time you read this, I'll be dead.''
Of course, you never know whether that is true or not there is never any name, address, phone number just a note from a bleak void; chill whisperings and shattered proclamations that haunt you even as you fold the letter up and shiver in a room suddenly darkened. Colleagues at MM have, after writing about depression or despair, received letters that end ``I'm cutting myself as I write to you''; I got a letter from Croatia written by a girl who said she pushed lit cigarettes into her eyes after hearing of Cobain's suicide.
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Cobain's self-imposed big black sleep sparked off these missives. But what really happened was that Cobain's actions and, to a greater extent, Richey Edwards's actions, have legitimised debate on these subjects. Many letters I have read spin along the lines of ``I've been doing this for years, but before Kurt, I had no public cause to despair this hard'' or ``I've always felt this bad, but Kurt/Richey gave me a reason I can justify to friends and family''.
If you're suffering from depression, the reaction of most of those surrounding you is ``Cheer up. Pull yourself together, stiff upper lip, etc.'' Of course, no amount of ``pulling yourself together'' cures a debilitating mental illness; it is like pushing anorexics in a veal-crate and force-feeding them eclairs. And teenage depression cannot be explained to parents or friends. There isn't any one root cause of the thick, damp cloud that settles around your head and blocks out all hope.
Before April 5 last year, the day Cobain killed himself, teenagers desperate to vocalise their life-horror could only mutter darkly, when asked why they were depressed: ``Life is awful. All of it. I can't explain why; but I don't want to leave my bedroom; don't want to leave my bed. I don't want to live any more.'' As soon as the news filtered through from Seattle that Cobain had done what his lyrics had always promised, there was suddenly a specific reasoning for mourning the painful grind of existence.
If it was miraculously revealed tomorrow that Cobain hadn't shot himself at all that he had faked his own death and was now living on an Hawaiian island the volume of depression-missives to Melody Maker wouldn't drop by a single letter. Rock star disappearances and deaths don't inspire depression, self-mutilation and suicide they merely validate it, and make it easier to talk about.
Richey Edwards has become a cause celebre among depressives, alcoholics, anorexics and self-mutilators, because he was the first person in the public eye to talk openly about these subjects, not with swaggering bravado and a subtext of ``look how tortured and cool I am'', but with humility, sense and, often, bleak humour.
That is why his fans revere him so devotedly now. He said what they wanted to say, and explained what it was like and why it was happening, something which came as a relief to troubled teenagers used to spending their most forlorn moments silent and confused about the poison and electricity in their brains.
However, it may be a good ten years before the general public realises that Cobain and Edwards were not responsible for the three or four copycat suicides that followed. Rather, they were responsible for the alleviation of the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the mentally ill; particularly the clinically depressed. Once again, we find an example of Art forging on ahead of Life.
[Originally published: The Times, 21 April 1995]