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Maybe Chris Cornell’s Death WASN’T a Straight Suicide. What About the Role of Prescription Drugs?

Detroit police have released additional details surrounding the death of Chris Cornell. They fill in a few critical gaps in his last hour.

Following Wednesday night’s show (May 17) at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Chris returned to room 1136 at the MGM Grand Hotel.

Vicky, his wife, talked to Chris on the phone and became worried when he sounded groggy. “I’m just tired,” he kept saying. She began worried at how he sounded. His speech was slurry and after saying he was tired one more time, he hung up the phone.

From the Detroit News:

“He was different,” she said. “When he told me he may have taken an extra Ativan or two, I contacted security and asked that they check on him.”

Vicky phoned Chris’ bodyguard, Martin Kirsten, in a panic at 12:15 am, begging him to go to Chris’ suite to check on him. Kirsten had just left the suite around 11:30 pm because Chris had asked him for help fixing his computer. At that time, Kirsten is said to have given Chris the two Ativan pills, for which Chris had a prescription. It was about five minutes later that Vicky began her phone call with Chris. At that time, she says, he was already slurring his words.

When Kirsten arrived back at the suite with hotel security, there was no response when he knocked. When security refused to let him because he wasn’t a guest at the hotel, Kirsten was alarmed enough to kick in the door.

Inside the suite, Kirsten found a second door–the door to the bedroom–also locked. He kicked in that door, too.

Kirsten found Cornell unresponsive on the floor of the bathroom with “blood running from his mouth” and a “red exercise band around his neck.” (If you’ve been to a gym or worked with a trainer, you know that they’re essentially big elastic bands.)

A hotel medic arrived at the room at 12:56 am. EMS arrived a few minutes later, but it was too late. Chris was pronounced dead at 1:30 am.

TMZ reports that the exercise band was “attached to a carabiner to the top of his hotel bathroom door. A carabiner is a device commonly used by mountain climbers which they attach to a belt to keep them from falling. The device can withstand enormous weight.” Reports say that Cornell jammed the bathroom door shut at the top of the doorframe. It left an indentation in the door itself.

You can see why police would consider the circumstances consistent with someone who deliberately set out to take his own life. The medical examiner concurred that Chris died by hanging

His family disputes the hanging hypothesis, saying that prescription drugs–specifically an overdose of Ativan (which can have some dangerous side effects, including suicidal thoughts)–might have been involved.

Many (me included) are finding it difficult to come to terms with the verdict of an intentional suicide. Something just doesn’t feel right about that conclusion. Weigh those feelings with this statement from Vicky Cornell (via UPI):

“Chris’ death is a loss that escapes words and has created an emptiness in my heart that will never be filled,” Vicky Cornell added. “As everyone who knew him commented, Chris was a devoted father and husband. He was my best friend. His world revolved around his family first and, of course, his music, second. He flew home for Mother’s Day to spend time with our family. He flew out mid-day Wednesday, the day of the show, after spending time with the children. When we spoke before the show, we discussed plans for a vacation over Memorial Day and other things we wanted to do.”

While Chris did die by his own hand, there’s some evidence that his death wasn’t an intentional suicide. It could be a death-by-misadventure situation, which is completely different than someone who sets out to deliberately kill himself.

A lot is riding on the toxicology report.

Rolling Stone has a long article that includes these passages on the detrimental effects of Ativan.

The experts who spoke with Rolling Stone noted that prolonged use or misuse of Ativan can exacerbate negative feelings in people with depression or a history of suicidal ideation (Cornell, a recovering addict, had been public about his issues with depression). Though rare, researchers have found a correlation between benzodiazepine misuse and increased suicide risk (a similar link has been with alcohol dependency). But it’s highly unlikely that Ativan would be the sole cause of a completed suicide, as suicide has no single cause, says Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center and former president of the American Psychiatric Association.

If someone were to die by suicide during an Ativan blackout, he continues, they may have been dealing with underlying mental health issues. “Ativan would be the least contributory factor,” Lieberman tells Rolling Stone.

Though not always, people who’ve attempted or died by suicide often exhibit signs beforehand, says Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Psychiatry. They may tell you they have no reason to live or that they feel like a burden to others. They may seem depressed or angry. They may act reckless, abuse drugs, or say goodbye without reason.

More information as it becomes available. More coverage can be found here and here. Get my special Ongoing History tribute podcast to Chris here.

UPDATE: In the interests of clarity and truth, someone in the medical profession I know emailed me this:

I call bullshit on the implication that some extra lorazepam is to blame for whatever decision Cornell made.

There are certain mental health pharmaceuticals that carry with them a well-documented increased risk of suicidal ideation and impulsivity when first prescribed. Ativan isn’t one of them.
It’s a benzodiazepine anxiolytic. It might oversedate a person if taken in supratherapeutic doses. It might even affect one’s judgment — as would a few too many alcoholic drinks. The thought that it might have “imposed” suicidality on his mindset that wasn’t already there? Rubbish.
Others vehemently disagree. A.T. writes:
You’re wrong. Anxiety, depression & suicide are standard known listed potential side effects of anti depression & anti anxiety pharmacological meds, period. (Link, link, link and link.)
Benzodiazepines were also found in Prince & Michael Jackson’s bodies, & “Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Whitney Houston, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all had benzodiazepine drugs in their system at the time of their death. Robin Williams’ death could be related, too.

The question must be asked: when will the more mainstream drugs such as benzodiazepines (benzos) and opiate pain drugs, along with the institutions that so casually allow them to be prescribed to millions of unsuspecting patients, become the targets of a media and government investigation? And exactly who are the people that are protecting these institutions from serious scrutiny in this epidemic?

There are close to one hundred million prescriptions a year written in the U.S. for benzodiazepines; most of these are long term prescriptions. These are drugs that many medical experts would say should rarely, if ever, be prescribed for longer than 2-4 weeks, counting time for a safe taper. Prescriptions lasting for a longer period of time will most certainly lead to dependency and/or addiction problems. And it must be pointed out that over 60% of all regular opiate/heroin users also access benzos on a regular basis.”

We’re all looking for a reason to explain the unreasonable.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38562 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

15 thoughts on “Maybe Chris Cornell’s Death WASN’T a Straight Suicide. What About the Role of Prescription Drugs?

    • Have u ever taken them? Well, as a young girl, i was known as “blues clues” because i ate xanax like candy…. Way back when addiction was still a small scale, dirty little secret. While ur inhabitons are lower, thats the effect of all the depression and anxiety not being in the foreground… The anxiety or depression was the thing that bound you to be whatever way you typically are so when u take that away, the real, not restricted you comes out. When i met someone and i wasn’t sure of their character, id make them have one, low dose Xanax… Some people would steal and once a guy beat an old man to a pulp, it showed the worst of the person. The people who did nothing but calmly chilled, i kept close because they dont have that in them…. My worst was that i slept w someone i shouldnt have and stole shiny things from peoples lawns at night. That’s not that bad. That is close to my true. Authentic self. im like 70% angel, 20% anti authority and 10% “f it, i dont care”.
      Otherwise i stay totally chill and enjoy feeling calm because that’s the majority of it. Very relaxed and amnesia… Very fast onset. End up calling someones house at 2am 100 times and forget as soon as you hang up, that their parents are pissed and screaming…. click, “hello is Nicole there? I just called? Nah… Is Nicole there? Shes not” click, ” hello is Nicole there? I just called? Nah…” Its ridiculous!!!! But i dont take Vickis word, although she might be smart or savvy in her moments, i Also see the oblivious narcissist in her and he wack mom .. so when she said ” we talked about vacation “… My mom is like that… That means she talked and her head remembers me talking back about it but not really seeing my eyes are read from crying and my voice is cracking… Oblivious. Sometimes she later might replay it and realize but not always. Especially when its not noticeable and i just didnt interact. I her head i was totally following along and agreeing with her .i hear her doing it, probing for a yes from someone and swear they totally agree with her. Very delusional

  • what is the bottomline…did he make a rational choice to get off this Earth or not…we all want to know?

  • The email from your friend in the medical profession comes across as very insensitive and unprofessional. I think you probably didn’t need to publish their email verbatim. Alan Cross maybe you could consider an update to your update.

  • Catherine I 100% agree with you. “I call bullshit?” Likely the most insensitive, ignorant thing I’ve ever heard timing wise. Alan, your friend is obviously and a-hole which immediately discredits anything he has to say. Please delete this portion. How dare Vicky seek answers and grieve in this way! Even if adavan is not to blame, let the girl explore her husbands death for gods sake.

  • I feel that Chris had thought this through and had a plan beforehand. It’s hard to imagine why someone that seems to have it all would be so mentally tormented to take his own life. We will never know why.

  • Hi Alan and all, I am a paramedic and have PTSD, and you are right, some drugs give one suicidal thoughts. I’ve had a complete plan for taking my life pop into my head right out of the blue (thanks so much, subconscious brain). With his brain already foggy from the Ativan, his willpower and concentration might have been lowered enough to make suicide seem like a sensible plan. This is a terrible tragedy, no matter what actually happened.

  • Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsA Round-up of News on the Death of Chris Cornell - A Journal of Musical Things

  • Horribly insensitive and inaccurate supposed doctors opinion. Specifically talking about Lorazepam, someone in my immediate family takes it, and she has memory problems. She accidentally took an extra pill twice, and both times she ended up in the hospital because of suicide attempts and has never tried to take her own life on any other occasion. Please do some research before needlessly posting such insensitive and accusatory emails.

  • I don’t think anything about his wife’s statement implied that the Ativan caused Chris’s suicide. Ativan is usually prescribed to be taken “as needed” to manage anxiety, with a recommended maximum daily dose. My husband has a prescription for it because he’s had anxiety that has occasionally spiraled into full on psychotic delusions. If my husband said he took one or two extra Ativan (which would just make him groggy) my bigger concern would be WHY was he taking more? What kind of crippling compulsive irrational fear is running through his head?… and what kind of irrational thing might he do about it? I may be really off here, but what Chris did is one of my biggest fears for my husband because I know an episode can come on very quickly and all his thoughts and actions are completely irrational and sometimes veer toward suicidal. For instance, he’ll think people are after him and that they’re going hurt me to get to him, so he’ll think he should kill himself first to prevent them hurting me…. and let me emphasize, these are the delusions of someone who is otherwise very successful, well educated, well loved, and happy. I know I could be totally off here, and I can see how Chris’s suicide can also fit the pattern of major depression (though asking his friend to fix his computer an hour before committing suicide seems a bit odd), but Vicky’s statement hit really close to home for me and I have to wonder if she’s just trying to express that he was suffering from a serious and misunderstood illness that unfortunately has suicide as a symptom. If that’s the case, for the sake of people like me and my husband, I hope Vicky will continue to speak out.

    • Blakely ,I really feel for you with the problems your going through with you husband….I will empathise rather than send sympathy because sympathy empowers nobody.
      I’ve suffered severe depression myself since I was about 7yrs old truth be known and I was 50 on 18th June,so yeah a long time and in my case it stems from being abused as a kid…What you’ve said above is the most insightful thing I’ve read so far on the tragic suicide of Chris Cornell and YOU really seem to have a great handle on how fast and volatile depression can be ,especially anxiety/mood disorders when not managed properly.I have vast health problems MS being just one and I tried to commit suicide Oct 99 and I guess although a very painful memory it was a very cathartic experience and led me to divorce my husband and FIND myself…I think in CC’s case people see a beautiful ,incredibly talented man ,rich beyond our dreams and think WHY? …truth be known he was a 52 yr old man probably burnt out from performing like Pavlov’s dog..year in ..year out and he had in THAT moment just wanted out of it..he wanted peace.
      The conspiracy videos certain people are making on You Tube are a disgrace and I feel so sorry for his 3 kids reading/seeing that BS..If there is anyway your husband can try talking therapies or anything other than more pills then that would be good for you both.One thing I will tell you (I’m from England btw and worked in mental health myself for 22yrs) ..I was prescibed a sleeping drug called Zopiclone and was on it for 12 yrs…I absolutely swear that about 50% of my mental health problems were caused by taking that drug..If your husband takes that drug as a sleeping drug then it might be worth looking into stopping it..My thoughts are with you ,Sophie x

  • Awful news obviously. I’ve seen him with SG, Audioslave and a few solo shows. The one thing that strikes me as odd about this is why he would travel with a carabiner? As stated, it is a device used by mountain climbers which they attach to a belt to keep them from falling. The device can withstand enormous weight. Does he climb? If not, it makes me wonder if this was intentional?

    • many people have carabiners on their keychains or for convenience of ‘hooking things together’. I don’t find it surprising, really.

  • I am so torn, because I with the help of mind altering g substances have become dwarf and felt suicidal and it came on fast and subsided after my head cleared up. I see that he was messed up during his show and maybe his fears progressed but my question is why does the 911 tape state there was trauma to the back if his head and why did he have 7 fractured ribs. These do not co inside with a hanging. Nor does blood Coming from his mouth. I feel there is foul play and I feel the body guard bad something to do with it. I don’t understand why this isn’t being further investigated. And why was he cremated before his funeral . That was fast and so there was no viewing for friends and family?? It just doesn’t add up.


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