Chris Cornell’s Wife Suspects Prescription Anxiety Meds Caused His Death
By Carey Wedler
Social media erupted with grief Thursday upon news that Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell passed away. Though a medical examiner quickly ruled the death to be a suicide, his wife issued a statement Friday adding speculation to the circumstances surrounding his death.
After expressing her deep sense of loss, the fact that “[h]is world revolved around his family first and, of course, his music second,” and that she and her husband were discussing upcoming plans the last time they spoke, Vicky Cornell revealed further details of their conversation. Recounting their exchange after his last show on Wednesday, she said:
When we spoke after the show, I noticed he was slurring his words; he was different. When he told me he may have taken an extra Ativan or two, I contacted security and asked that they check on him.
Indeed, one of the signs of an Ativan overdose is slurred speech. Side effects of the drug also include a host of physical reactions, including tremors. They are also associated with “confusion, disorientation, depression, unmasking of depression, disinhibition, euphoria, suicidal ideation/attempt,” according to Drugs.com.
Ativan, generically known as or lorazepam, is an anti-anxiety drug. It falls into the benzodiazepine class of drugs, which also includes popular prescriptions like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin. They “work on the central nervous system, acting selectively on gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A) receptors in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits or reduces the activity of nerve cells (neurons) within the brain,” Drugs.com explains.
An attorney for the family, Kirk Pasich, reiterated Vicky’s concerns regarding Chris Cornell’s extra dose of Ativan, adding that the family was “disturbed at inferences that Chris knowingly and intentionally took his life.” As Vicky said:
What happened is inexplicable and I am hopeful that further medical reports will provide additional details. I know that he loved our children and he would not hurt them by intentionally taking his own life.
Though much of the prescription pill epidemic in the United States has focused on opioid painkillers, according to the CDC, benzodiazepines were involved in 31% of the 22,000 pharmaceutical deaths recorded in 2013, amounting to 6,820 people who lost their lives while taking them, sometimes with other drugs — including opioids. STAT News summarized the findings of an analysis on benzodiazepines that spanned from 1996 to 2013:
They found that the percentage of adults filling a benzo prescription increased by about 37 percent, from 4.1 percent to 5.6 percent, over the study period, while the overdose death rate shot up by more than 500 percent, from 0.58 per 100,000 adults at the turn of the millennium to about 3 per 100,000 throughout the early part of this decade.
The drugs are highly addictive and cause serious symptoms when users quit. Withdrawal symptoms include “sleep disturbance, irritability, increased tension and anxiety, panic attacks, hand tremor, sweating, difficulty in concentration, dry wretching and nausea, some weight loss, palpitations, headache, muscular pain and stiffness and a host of perceptual changes,” according to a 1994 study published in Addiction, a scientific journal. That study noted that for individuals taking high doses of the drug, “seizures and psychotic reactions” could occur.
Ultimately, there will be no certainty regarding the cause of Chris Cornell’s death until a full medical examination is conducted. Pasich said:
Without the results of toxicology tests, we do not know what was going on with Chris — or if any substances contributed to his demise. Chris, a recovering addict, had a prescription for Ativan and may have taken more Ativan than recommended dosages. The family believes that if Chris took his life, he did not know what he was doing, and that drugs or other substances may have affected his actions.
Regardless of whether Ativan caused Chris Cornell’s death, it is clear benzodiazepines need further scrutiny and skepticism in the United States.
As the New York Magazine has noted:
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines have risen 17 percent since 2006 to nearly 94 million a year; generic Xanax, called alprazolam, has increased 23 percent over the same period…In their generic forms, Xanax is prescribed more than the sleeping pill Ambien, more than the antidepressant Zoloft. Only drugs for chronic conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol do better.