When asked about Kurt Cobain’s stomach ailments during a Tribeca Film Festival Q & A for Montage of Heck, Courtney Love joked that her long deceased husband had suffered “Cobain’s disease.” I haven’t seen the film, but apparently Cobain’s troubled guts are a running theme in the intimate doc.
Love said he had “serious” issues, even tossing out that he had Crohn’s disease, the first time an actual diagnosis has been named. Biographies usually reference severe gastric issues but claim that the rock icon’s doctors were stumped. Kurt wrote about his stomach ailment often in his journals, and even referenced them in his suicide note. “Thank you all from the pit of my burning, nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the past years,” he wrote in the farewell letter addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah.
In an unsent letter her wrote to his fans presumably before his serious heroin addiction took hold, Kurt says he used it as a medicine after trying lots of other different things but found it not to be the cure he was looking for. “So after protein drinks, becoming a vegetarian, exercise, stopping smoking, and doctor after doctor I decided to relieve my pain with small doses of heroine[sic} for a walloping three whole weeks,” he wrote. “It served as a band-aid for a while, but then the pain came back, so I quit. It was a stupid thing to do, and I’ll never do it again and I feel real sorry for anyone who thinks they can use heroine[sic] as a medicine because um, duh, it don’t work.”
Although heroin addicts never need a reason beyond the unparalleled, life-sucking bliss the drug transmits to them (at least at first,) there’s been a degree of speculation that Kurt wasn’t only self-medicating depression or malaise with opiates, but also his intense stomach pain. Kurt also had depression, though, and stomach problems including Crohn’s disease and IBS are often linked to depression. Much like depression, the causes of Crohn’s disease are still a mystery to us.
We often think of our moods and emotions as separate from our body, but it’s all tangled together. From our current understanding, Crohn’s doesn’t cause depression, and depression doesn’t cause Crohn’s, but they both exacerbate each other. Our nervous system is integral to both our experience of moods and emotion and how we digest our food. We often compartmentalize our sensations in an attempt to understand ourselves, but it’s all functioning (or dysfunctioning) together. We tend to think of ourselves in terms of our thoughts and our brains, but we are our guts just as much.
If Cobain did suffer from Crohn’s disease, it’s an incredibly painful and debilitating illness. Ulcers and lesions can line the entire GI tract, and the pain and digestive symptoms can swallow up a person’s entire existence. There is a degree of pain and discomfort that we can fight through, that we can be inspired by in a way, and then there is just pain that consumes us and wipes us out.
Montage of Heck is showing in select theaters, and will premiere on HBO May 4. An accompanying book drops the next day.