INTRODUCTION TO DIARY OF A BROKEN MIND
So play this when your day is gray,
when hope is dim
When happiness is growing slim
Listen to me rap then reverse the grim
Burn the hurt,
let my words do the work
—Silver Lining, by Charles Aubrey Rogers
When the police delivered the news that my youngest son, Charles, had died by suicide, my heart seized and, in the split second before my lungs could find air and the wails of my soul in agony could erupt, I had the urge to yell, “You have it all wrong. That’s not how this story ends.”
Rewriting that ending is not possible. There are no bargains to strike or do-overs. And the months and years following my twenty-year-old son’s death on June 5, 2015, have been all about learning to live without the child I raised and what to do with all that love that has nowhere to land.
Losing a child to suicide does not “hurt more” than any other cause of death. It can’t hurt more. However, suicide is a special brand of grief that comes with the baggage of additional guilt. I was sure my son’s suicide was glaring evidence of my failure as a mother. Why did my child choose to leave me? Why wasn’t my love enough? What did I do wrong?
Why didn’t I see the signs?
I yearn to make that last five years of our family life rosier and more romantic, and the horrific ending less sharp and jagged. I wish I could smooth out the roughness of the phrase, “He killed himself.” There’d be a different visceral response to “He died of cancer.” I imagine it would be softer, like a vignette around a picture.
Suicide is heavier because it carries with it complex emotions, with confusion leading the way. Others struggle to understand it, there is often blame, and everyone has an opinion, whether it’s an educated one or not. It is the cause of death that gets whispered. I refuse to do that because it doesn’t honor my son’s suffering.
Charles was the younger of my two sons and appeared to relish every moment of life. Always in motion, he was one of the most popular kids in school. He was hyper-social, made everyone laugh, brought people together, reached out to others, listened to their fears, and shared their sadness. No one thought Charles was the kind of person who would kill himself.
Remarkably self-aware for his age, there were times he recognized when his life was spiraling out of control but fell into the trap of self-medication with drugs and alcohol, which led to a heroin addiction and his death by suicide. He had other issues, too: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, and a sleep disorder he had since he was a toddler that played into the severity of all his issues.
His suicide wasn’t personal. Charles wanted to end unimaginable emotional agony, and the physical pain of heroin withdrawal. In that irrational moment of intense pain, he was incapable of realizing how much his death would hurt those who loved him. His brain lied and convinced him he was worthless and there were no other options.
The purpose of this book is to share a gift: something few other family members and friends have following a suicide or a drug-related death. I have the words my son left behind, written as sophisticated, hip-hop rhyme schemes that offer a window inside the mind of someone who lived with and died from depression and addiction. It is a lyrical journal of my son’s emotional experience; music that is beautiful, sobering, and most of all revealing. True to the nature of depression and substance use disorder, Charles’ self-loathing was a recurring theme in his writing and he let his soul bleed on paper to find relief from depression and suicidal thoughts.
There are sparks of beauty and revelation in his lyrics that sit on the soul while the angry raps spit from the page. The songs about love and family cradled me; the raps about drugs and alcohol dragged my soul into the ugly hole of addiction.
I call Charles’ journals his Rap Diaries. They have curse words, many are self-deprecating and dark, and not always politically correct. He was a religious antagonist and in constant struggle with his own faith. I didn’t edit his work, take out religious references that may offend readers, or change his dark songs to happy tunes. Lyrics that showed an uglier side of myself, his dad, or Charles himself are printed here as they were written. And words that best expressed his point of view are woven into my story.
Concerned that rap was a bad influence, we made attempts in middle school to steer his interest away from this style of music. The commercialized rap marketed to tweens and young teens catered to their emerging rebellious nature and fed our fears as parents. The homogenized, pop-culture rap is what Charles called “crap rap.” This, he argued, was not the same as artistic rap, stories from the soul. He wanted me to know the difference and, engaged as his pupil, he presented a convincing argument for artistic rap.
He recorded his poetic thoughts in spiral notebooks as well as black-and-white granite composition books that he bought from the drug store. Over the years, he filled up thirty or more of these journals. At the time of his death, we were left with a mere six of them. Kids at the therapeutic boarding school he attended took many of those journals and I asked his counselor why. To me, that was the worst possible violation. She said Charles shared his words with others and connected in a way that made them feel they had to take a piece of him with them. It was a part of their survival.
The songs were handwritten in stream-of-consciousness style. Those lyrics poured onto the page in perfect rhyme with minimal punctuation or editing, no line breaks, and he crammed the words on the page, using every available space including the margins. Most of the spelling and grammar is correct except where he took creative license.
He was quick on his feet with stand-up comedy and on stage, always adjusting his humor to the audience and holding them captive. The spotlight loved Charles; that’s where he came alive. When he would freestyle—raps created and performed in the moment—his friends and fans were in awe of how easily and fast the words would flow, and they craved those words like a drug.
About a year before he died, Charles and I were sitting on the deck outside of our Midlothian, Virginia, home where he and his older brother, Richard, grew up. A few of his videos had been posted online and he had shown none of his writing to me, although he did share some song titles. I would have been alarmed by the lyrics and my instinct would have been to insist on professional help. He didn’t want help, at least not the traditional kind. A tortured creative soul, he was never able to follow a path he didn’t carve himself.
On the deck that day, I asked Charles, “Why are all your raps so depressing? Can’t you write something more lighthearted?”—as if I could wash away his darkness and push him into the light. That question demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the genre of rap and what it meant to him. I had essentially told him the darkness in his soul was too ugly to put on display. No wonder teens and young adults are such masters at hiding their depression.
I hope the words written by my son help readers understand the complex brain attack known as suicidal thinking, the gifts that often come with it, and the mental illness that often triggers it. I hope my story and his lyrics help people recognize what it’s like to live with someone who suffers from diseases that are not often recognized as such: the agony and heartache of both the sufferer and the family. Just maybe, it will help others learn how to love someone who is lost inside addiction or mental illness.
Charles wanted to be famous. My husband and I had doubts he could have handled fame, but he meant for his raps to be shared.
After years of holding onto them, I’m ready to love and let go because those words helped me understand depression and the “why” behind addiction and suicide.