Shannon O'Connor


In April, Kurt Cobain killed himself. It was like I killed myself, too. I was at home and I turned the radio on to WFNX and I heard "Downer," an obscure Nirvana song on Incesticide. I wondered why they were playing such a weird song.

I listened to the radio. The DJ said, "We are playing Nirvana A to Z because his body was found in his Seattle home. He shot himself a few days ago. The details aren't known yet."

I couldn't believe it. Kurt Cobain was dead. He meant so much to me when I listened to "Lithium" and he knew what I was going through.

More people try to commit suicide in April than in any other month. I had in 1991. There's something about the spring air when the earth breaks and that fresh green smell comes out of the dirt that makes people want to take their own lives. When I heard about Kurt, I didn't want to kill myself, but I got depressed. If you think a singer in a band is like a friend, and then that person commits suicide, it's like he never cared about you and he never was your friend. That person never really understood what you were going through when you were on lithium and didn't have any heat in your house and didn't have any friends.

I knelt on the floor in my kitchen. The floor was filthy. I wanted the Motorcycle Man to come over but he was working until 6. I sat on my floor in my dirty kitchen and cried. Why do all these horrible things have to happen?

I knew that if I went to Chicago my questions would be answered. Maybe after Chicago, we could go to Seattle, but that was a long ride. We'd have to go through the mountains. The Motorcycle Man had to work. Why didn't anything ever go according to plan?

Outside, the sun shone. I wanted it to rain, but the sun insisted. I wanted snow, but it wouldn't snow until winter. I wanted what I didn't have. I wanted to see Nirvana in concert, but I never had. I didn't want to see the flowers bloom.

I was taken off lithium in 1992. My doctor decided to put me on a different medication. I was put on lithium and tegretol and stellazine and the doctor said the tegretol was a substitute for lithium. I liked the song, but after I was off the lithium, I felt better. As good as I could feel on medication.

There's salt in lithium, so it can build up and take over your blood. If the level gets too high, it can get toxic. When I overdosed, the doctors told me I was lucky I was still able to think and move correctly. I thought it was because I was the chosen one. I thought that overdosing didn't affect me because I was special.

If I had had a gun and tried to shoot myself, I would have died. People who shot themselves in the head were brave. Kurt was brave, but he hurt me. He hurt a lot of people.

I didn't want to die. I wanted to find God. I knew if I found God, it would tell me what I needed to know. What meds couldn't tell me.

I cleared the kitchen table. The floor was still sticky, but I didn't care. I could feel the walls pulsing, humming with music.


I called the Motorcycle Man and told him about Kurt's death. "No!" he said. "Jesus Christ. I'm so sorry. I know you loved him."

"He knew about me. Sometimes I thought he understood me. Now I know it wasn't true. He was a liar. All singers are liars." I tried to wipe my tears. "What do you do when you find out everything you believe is a lie? When you find out your friends have been lying to you all this time?"

"Just calm down, Colleen, I'll try to get out of work early. Just hold tight, okay? Don't do anything stupid."

"I'm not gonna do anything stupid. I was thinking of washing my floor."

"Good, do that. Keep busy. That's the best thing to do." We hung up and I sat on the kitchen floor again. I was waiting to hear "Lithium." I knew if I did, it would help me.

* * *

After Kurt committed suicide, I kept looking for answers. I read all the magazines in hope there would be a clue for the reason. I read that he was sick and his wife wanted a divorce and she was supposed to tour, but she canceled it. I didn't want the news to affect my life, but it did. I spent days in bed thinking about the horrible world.

"Have you ever thought of getting a job?" the Motorcycle Man asked one day as we sat on the beach after a ride up the coast.

"I don't need to work. I have some money."

"I think you need to get out of the house more," he said. "I think you need more of a purpose."

"Maybe after our trip," I said. "The beginning of the summer is supposed to be a good time to look for a job."

We were planning the trip for the first two weeks of May. The weather would be nice as long as it didn't rain too much. We had plastic ponchos and knapsacks. I was excited, but at the same time, I was nervous. I didn't know if we would make it all the way to Chicago. It was about a thousand miles. Halfway across the country. We practiced by going for long rides along the coast or in the far out suburbs. The ocean air swept into my nose and mouth. I could taste the salt.

I learned in my years of therapy that bipolar disorder is supposed to be a lack of salt in the body. We get fed lithium to balance out the salt. I wasn't on lithium or tegretol or anything. I didn't take the meds. I was also supposed to be on an anti-psychotic called resperidol. I didn't take that either.

I wondered if I drank salt water if it would balance out my system better than medication. I wondered if I put a lot of sea salt on my food, if it would cure me. If I was totally crazy I could go into the ocean and drink the water, but I could drown. And besides, it was cold in April. April is the meanest month. April is the coldest month. Who would swim in the ocean in April in Massachusetts? If I did, would I get arrested? Is it against the law?

The Motorcycle Man and I sat on Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea. The beach was supposed to sing if the wind blew the right way.

"I want to go swimming," I said. "Maybe it could be my christening."

"I don't know if that's a good idea," he said. "It's wicked cold. You'll freeze your butt off."

"I just want to stick my feet in a little," I said, running to the water. "See ya."

"Wait," he said, running after me.

When I got to the edge, I took off my shoes and socks. I took off my leather jacket and sweater. I rolled up my pants.

I remembered the time when I tried to skate on the pond in the Public Garden. I didn't think I could skate on the ocean. There's something about the ocean that looks totally un-skatable. I wasn't going to try. I just wanted to get wet.

"This is my christening," I said. "I am a child of God, one of the ocean. I vow to protect the ocean and the sky. The fish and the birds. And everything in between." I walked into the water. It felt like knives on my feet and jolted me. "We all came from the ocean and we'll all leave by the ocean because the water is the most powerful substance." A wave came along and splashed my jeans. "Damn that's cold."

"Is that part of your incantation, too?" he said. "Why don't you get out of there? I think you're done now."

"But now I have to swim." I jumped into an oncoming wave, fully dressed, getting soaked.

"Are you crazy, Colleen? Are you really crazy? We have to ride back, you'll freeze to death!"

The water stabbed my skin. "I feel like I'm being born again. I'm born again! Hallelujah! I won't get sick, I'm too good for that. I'm special. God will protect me. It always does."

The Motorcycle Man held his head in his hands. "Yes, God will always protect you. If that's what you want to believe."

I got out of the water and shook myself off like a dog. "You should try it. It's fun. You can be born again, too."

"I don't think I need to be born again," he said.

"It's freezing. But I love it. It makes you feel alive. I don't think I've ever felt more real. How could anyone want to die when there's a feeling like this? I wonder if Kurt Cobain ever jumped into a freezing ocean?"

"Let's get out of here," he said. "Put on your socks and shoes."

We rode home. I felt better on the bike than ever. I knew I would be fine. The world would be fine. I was saving myself. There was no way I could save Kurt anymore because he was dead. If he had known how to save himself, he would have been better off. I think I should teach everyone if you want to be born and find new life, jump into a freezing ocean in April on the North Shore of Massachusetts and that will cure you.


Shannon O'Connor been previously published in The Wilderness House Literary Review, The Istanbul Literary Review, Meeting House Magazine among others. She holds an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. The above excerpt is from her unpublished first novel.