Wanna be a Rock Star?

By Mark E. Smith

At some point, one must get smarter about these things – I must get smarter about these things. At some point, unlike Peter Pan, we should all grow up.

I’m heading out on the road, with a jam-packed schedule – first Detroit, then Atlanta for Medtrade. They’re back-to-back trips, with one whole day home in-between, just enough to repack and catch-up with my daughter. It’s a nine-day stint in total.

After well over a decade of these types of trip, I’ve seen it all and done it all, and while it’s been a blast – and made for some great writing and tales to be told – at some point one has to put the work above all else, and dial down the after hours shenanigans for healthier pursuits like sleep. The goal isn’t to pride yourself on rock-starring it all night, then showing up for your gig on time the next day, but to prioritize your actual job at hand – and that means forgoing the whole rock-star part. It’s almost like there has to be humility to it all, where you just do your job, find something to eat, and go back to your hotel room for some reading and a full night’s sleep. No boozing, no parties, no chasing chicks – just a call home, shower, and eight hours of sleep. Is that the life of over-the-top stories and rock-star fantasies come true? No, but it’s a heck of a wise way to live if your career is a priority and you want to live by example for those around you – in my case, my teen daughter.

In Detroit, one day, I have an 8:00am corporate talk, then an 8:00pm keynote, more of a ruckus, rousing one-man show, introduced by one of Detroit’s top news anchors. I have to be up by 5:00am, knock the ball out of the park during the morning talk, then shift gears for a totally different gig that evening, where my energy level is through the roof. And, Medtrade is far more demanding yet, in that it’s a grueling schedule day after day, all week. Work like that, to the levels that I wish to perform, just can’t be done without a good night’s rest and sobriety.

I’ve written and talked about the highs and lows on the road, where the self-imposed chaos could take me from among the most glamorous scenes to the darkest of depression, the type of emotional roller-coaster that contributed to Vic Chestnut’s suicide. And, what I’ve realized is that it’s not the travel, or the work, or the scenes that cause such extremes, but the way we handle them – a loss of perspective and humility.

Sure, most want to be a rock star on the road, living clips of the lifestyle. But, the fact is, I’m no musician with throngs of fans, fueled by booze and chicks. Rather, I’m just a full-time single dad, trying to make a living while making a difference, where good work and clean living is a boring truth. My goal is to do my jobs, move on to the next city, and get home to just being Dad and cleaning my bathroom.

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Chased By It

By Mark E. Smith

Among the incidents in my life that has haunted me most is the suicide of singer and quadriplegic, Vic Chestnut. Some things just hit too close to home for comfort.

As I’ve written and spoken extensively about – although Vic’s suicide was a combination of factors – arguably the largest factor was an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. And, as I’ve processed Vic’s final act over several years now – an act made as much out of heightened self-awareness as depression – I’ve never been able to answer the question of, did Vic simply kill himself, or did the world around him indirectly take his life?

In the realm of psychology, there’s a term, “parentified-child,” which applies to children who, based on extremely dysfunctional parents – addicts, mentally ill, physically ill, emotionally inept – must assume adult-like roles, literally parenting their parents. At a time when a child should be nurtured, he or she is thrust into the role of nurturer. As a result, the child learns that his or her feelings and needs are second – or, non-existent, really – to everyone else’s, and identity and self-worth are sacrificed. Such children grow up being drawn toward very unhealthy, unbalanced relationships and lifestyles, rarely capable of truly looking out for their own interests. And, the internal isolation that ultimately exists – where he or she struggles to let people in, to be nurtured – often leads to self-destructive behavior. You might say that such individuals implode rather than explode from emotions.

As adults, we can find ourselves in similar situations due to any number of circumstances, where we’re always the nurturer, never to be nurtured – and, again, it implodes the soul. Vic lived this, where he absorbed too much of the pain from others and the world around him, with little space to express his own, that it literally killed him. Going from “fame” on stage where you give yourself to others so completely, then being alone in a hotel room with not a single person in the world with you – or who you feel emotionally safe enough to call – is a harrowing experience. It helped kill Vic, and it’s chased me a few nights.

I was born a “parentified-child.” I learned early in life that loving someone meant saving him or her at your own expense – but that’s not how love should work, does work, or can work. My mother was as dysfunctional as one can be – substance abuse, mental illness, divorces – and from as young as I can recall, I just wanted to make her feel better, where her emotions were far more important to me than my own. And, it’s not a bad trait as a son or a person to want to save someone who you dearly love. However, there has to be a line we draw between being forced into that role as a child, versus choosing that role as an adult in relationships. And, I’ve chosen that role for too long, where loving has always been easy for me, but being loved, not so much. And, so my comfort zone has always been giving as much as I can to others, and using it as a smoke screen to avoid my own feelings of vulnerability. And, it works really well.

Until it doesn’t. And, ultimately, like Vic, I’m alone in a hotel room, staring at a cell phone, unable to call anyone. But, it’s not that there’s no one to call. I just can’t. They have spouses and children and jobs – and who am I to interrupt their lives with my desperate moment of all-consuming isolation and loneliness, where I’ve gone from the soaring affirmation of a public event, to an emotional crash landing, alone.

But, I’m cognizant of it all. On a recent trip, my friends bought me a rock-star-size bottle of Southern Comfort, all in good spirits. And, with it sitting on the restaurant table, not only did I know that I couldn’t drink out of fear of drinking heavily, period, but that if I took the bottle back to my hotel room, all of Hell could break loose for me. Isolated and ungrounded, with my past still not allowing me to reach out in such moments, I could easily unscrew the cap from the bottle over the bathroom sink, chug it one-fisted, toasting to Vic, the whole bottle – gone.

So, I left the bottle on the restaurant table, and split – sober and safe. And, I made it through the night, alone in my hotel room. “Mark takes care of Mark,” I said to myself while shaving in the mirror the next morning. And, I was back at it with the new day, there for everyone – and I meant it.

Then, as the day turned to eve, then to night, the bottle showed up again with my friends. “You left this at the restaurant last night,” they said.

I went along with the well-intended amusement, but, again, with Mark looking out for Mark, never to drink with Vic because I know where it could lead, I ditched the bottle somewhere – so much in a panic that I don’t recall where – and I made it through another night, isolated, lonely, but safe.

However, like the isolation and loneliness that’s come and gone much of my life, the bottle mysteriously showed up again – in my van. And, so with a friend leaving town, too, I tucked the bottle in his truck, and sent it on its way, far from me.

I got in my van, and headed a few hours home, where I couldn’t wait to see my daughter, our two dogs, and ultimately get back to the stability of my office routine. And, so just as the bottle of Southern Comfort went away, soon would the isolation and loneliness – at least for now.

Staring at the Drapes

By Mark E. Smith

I lay in this hotel room bed – alone – thinking of Vic, who committed suicide almost 22 months ago to the day.

This evening, I spoke to a group of around 170 people, half-way across the country from my home – and I knocked ’em dead, as they say in show business. It was my kind of event – dinner and cocktails – where I have the liberty of really working a festive crowd. And, I hit it home with a theme of following the ramps in our lives – bridges of opportunity that take us to places we never dreamed – by interweaving stories from the humorous to the poignant. And, the gracious crowd was with me all along – an exchange of amazing energy – and then I rolled off stage to their flattering standing ovation.

At the time of Vic Chesnutt’s suicide, many chalked it up as the quadriplegic musician who was tired of living with the daily trails of disability, that the physicality of it all caused him to take a fist full of muscle relaxers, mix a dangerous cocktail, and check out for good – his fourth and final suicide attempt. But, as I wrote at the the time, there was more to the story than that:

…From what I knew of Vic, from what I’ve since learned of Vic, and from what I’ve witnessed and experienced in my own life, I believe that the unique pressures of living ultra-successfully with disability caught up with him, where he wasn’t able to cope with the extreme fluctuations in his life. See, when you have an exceptional level of success like Vic did while living with a disability, it can become a tale of two cities. On the one hand, publicly, everyone’s telling you that you’re a huge success and inspiration, putting you atop the world. Yet, on the other hand, you’re a real person, with real-life issues toward health, relationships, and finances. And, when all isn’t kept in balance, you can go from extreme highs to extreme lows in literally a matter of moments – in the time it takes to go from on-stage in front of a cheering crowd to a lonely hotel room where you’re left to face the realities of your everyday life. Truly, when you have such extremes in life – and you’re emotionally unable to center yourself – it’s just as easy to get consumed by the lowest of the lows as the highest of the highs, where the healthy middle-ground needed to survive doesn’t exist. And, that’s where the tragedy in Vic Chesnutt’s life occurred – not in his literal disability, but in his inability to find that middle ground of understanding and comfort in life as a whole, where, by all accounts, he lived a tormenting oscillation between the highest heights of elation in his work, and the deepest plunges of despair in his personal life, with no middle ground to just be at peace.

My colleague and I leave the banquet after the program’s finished. I thank our host for the engagement, and I convince my colleague to go across the street with me to an eatery for a late night snack. Again, going from a stage to an empty hotel room can be torturous – there has to be a bridge in-between to help one transition from the energy of a packed house to being totally alone. And, by getting something to eat, I’m stalling – buying my time, avoiding the empty hotel room in which I will inevitably find myself. But, I can get through it – alone, the hardest part of it all that Vic knew too well.

Eventually, I make it to my room like countless other nights on the road. I lay in this hotel room bed – alone – thinking of Vic, who committed suicide almost 22 months to the day. And, I realize that everyone’s assumptions of Vic’s suicide truly were wrong. See, as I stare at the shadow of the drapes in the dark, I know that the challenge for guys like Vic and me isn’t being alone in our disabilities; rather, the challenge is being alone in ourselves.

Never In-Between

By Mark E. Smith

I had a lot of respect for Vic – that is, until he downed a fist full of muscle relaxers on December 23, 2009, at age 45, dying two days later in the hospital, surrounded by his horrified family and friends on Christmas Day. Now, I’m just sorrowful.

The back story to Vic’s suicide would have made the actual event less surprising – but, Vic had to throw in a final torturous twist to those who loved and admired him. See, it was no secret that since the car accident that left him a quadriplegic at age 18, Vic wanted to die – at some points more than others, where lows in his life were punctuated by suicide attempts. And, in that context, Vic’s suicide would have been viewed as his finally succeeding at his long-time wish – popping a bottle of pills, checking out once and for all. End of story.

But, in the time just prior to his suicide, Vic Chesnutt made it known that he was finally past wanting to die, that one of his latest songs, “Flirted With You My Whole Life,” was his letter to the world that he finally wished to live, that suicide was behind him. And, the lyrics read true to his word:

I am a man
I am self-aware
And everywhere I go
You’re always right there with me

I’ve flirted with you all my life
Even kissed you once or twice
And to this day I swear it was nice
But clearly I was not ready

When you touched a friend of mine
I thought I would lose my mind
But I found out with time that
really I was not ready, no no

Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Oh, Death
Really, I’m not ready

In a November interview, just weeks before his suicide, Vic discussed his now-prophetic song with NPR: “Well, it occurred to me that I would like to sing this song where, at the first half of it, you think I’m singing it about a lover, and then it becomes obvious that I’m singing about death. Death is my lover…. You know, I’ve attempted suicide three or four times. It didn’t take. And, this is really a breakup song with death.”

So, Vic made the rounds in summer and fall 2009, describing himself publicly as a man who’d learned his lessons and grown – and he was arguably at his peak in the music industry. No, you may not have heard of Vic Chesnutt, as he never achieved Billboard-type success or radio airplay in rotation. But, for 20 years, Vic was a musician’s musician, idolized by contemporaries like Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Madonna, and even alternative bands like Garbage. As an indie artist, Vic was known for his true talents as a writer, singer, and musician with longevity – which commands more respect among many in the music industry than one with a sole Top-40 hit. And, Vic was a relentlessly-working musician, always writing, always recording, always performing. As a lyricist, his work wasn’t from the soul, but it was the soul, itself – the trials of humanity at its core.

Despite Vic’s professional success, many still believed that Vic’s personal life was tortured and tragic, his disability a cross to bear, a seemingly horrible plight that they have ultimately used to justify his suicide. One of Vic’s fans wrote, “I am not sure that Chesnutt’s death is tragic. Maybe it was his life that was tragic. But before he left, he blessed us with a poignant firsthand picture of that tortured existence. Anyone who would judge his last act should realize that they never walked in his shoes – or sat in his chair.”

I’ve known many who have sat in wheelchairs as Vic Chesnutt did – some with physically and socially tougher plights than his – and they didn’t take the sorrowful way out by overdosing, devastating all around them. Why, then, did Vic choose at this point in his life to commit suicide, once and for all?

My speculative answer from what I knew of Vic, from what I’ve since learned of Vic, and from what I’ve witnessed and experienced in my own life, is that I believe that the unique pressures of living ultra-successfully with disability caught up with him, where he wasn’t able to cope with the extreme fluctuations in his life. See, when you have an exceptional level of success like Vic did while living with a disability, it can become a tale of two cities. On the one hand, publicly, everyone’s telling you that you’re a huge success and inspiration, putting you atop the world. Yet, on the other hand, you’re a real person, with real-life issues toward health, relationships, and finances. And, when all isn’t kept in balance, you can go from extreme highs to extreme lows in literally a matter of moments – in the time it takes to go from on-stage in front of a cheering crowd to a lonely hotel room where you’re left to face the realities of your everyday life. Truly, when you have such extremes in life – and you’re emotionally unable to center yourself – it’s just as easy to get consumed by the lowest of the lows as the highest of the highs, where the healthy middle-ground needed to survive doesn’t exist.

And, that’s where the tragedy in Vic Chesnutt’s life occurred – not in his literal disability, but in his inability to find that middle ground of understanding and comfort in life as a whole, where, by all accounts, he lived a tormenting oscillation between the highest heights of elation in his work, and the deepest plunges of despair in his personal life, with no middle ground to just be at peace.

Indeed, Vic left us with a remarkable catalog of the human experience as voiced through his music. And, maybe as some have pointed out, his suicide – that is, his final choice – isn’t to be judged by anyone. Yet, I can’t help but think that Vic called it quits too soon, never to find his middle ground, as when we find it, we realize that while life can be full of ultra-highs and super-lows, all of it is of value, never to be squandered, and relished everywhere in-between.

Author’s Note:
I wish to include the following two videos of Vic that personify him better than any writing can. The first video, “Everything I Say,” demonstrates the Earth-moving force that was Vic. The second Video, “Flirted With You All My Life,” is, in many ways, Vic’s prophetic letter to the world regarding his ultimate act of suicide. When you watch the videos, I think you’ll be left speechless, simply wondering what many of us wonder: How does such a life force just cease? …Or, maybe it doesn’t.