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Sharing pain, sparing drugs

Ray Charles’ daughter talks substance abuse with Turners students

Sheila Raye Charles, daughter of Ray Charles, talks to Turners Falls High School students about her battle with drugs. Recorder/Paul Franz

Sheila Raye Charles, daughter of Ray Charles, talks to Turners Falls High School students about her battle with drugs. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

TURNERS FALLS — Sheila Raye Charles, daughter of soul music legend Ray Charles, spoke Wednesday about her early life and struggles with addiction to an assembly of Turners Falls High School students.

Charles and husband Michael Steptoe described similarly promising futures derailed by drugs. Steptoe described turning to crime and drugs after accidentally involving himself in a holdup as a high school student and losing his athletic scholarships.

Charles described experimenting with a series of drugs beginning with marijuana at 12, looking for an outlet in a childhood marked by her mother’s alcoholism, her biological father’s absence and heroin addiction, and years of abuse by her stepfather.

Charles said she moved on to quaaludes and acid when marijuana stopped having the desired effect.

“Still trying to medicate the pain, still trying to find a way out to escape the hurt, still trying to fit in to exist, to be somebody, trying to find something to take away the sadness that I had in my heart, and I’m here to tell you today that no substance is ever going to work — it works for a minute, then the next thing you know that substance will have a hold of you and then you’re in a worse position than you were when you began,” Charles said.

Her early experimentation ended with what became a 22-year addiction to crack cocaine, three federal prison sentences and the loss of her five children.

Charles said early attempts to stop using crack ended because in withdrawal she was left with the weight of her original pain and all the things she had done since for drugs. As a result, she said three of her children were born dependant on cocaine, one very premature.

Charles and Steptoe both said they found God in prison, rebuilt their lives and met one-another. Charles said she had a supernatural experience, and afterwards took full advantage of what clinical help was available in prison.

“There’s nothing out there worth losing your life or your mind,” Charles said.

Kimberly Alderman-Shapiro, a high school special education teacher, saw Charles speak at a Springfield school and arranged for her to speak in Turners Falls High School.

“I thought it just would be beneficial due to the fact that you know teen pregnancy is still an issue, but more so in western Mass. you have a tremendous drug problem with pills, heroin ... She was addicted to crack cocaine, but it still shows you how low a drug can bring you,” Alderman-Shapiro said.

The school has taken other prevention steps, including bringing in a doctor, a police officer and members of the RECOVER Project, the peer-to-peer recovery group with an office in Greenfield.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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