Image caption: Charles Aubrey Rogers, April 26 1995-June 5, 2015

“My demons up against me and I’m facin’ them now
I wear the face of a clown,
I feel so unloved, because of the monster created from drugs.”

–From the rap song, “Just to Hurt,” by Charles Aubrey Rogers

My son Charles wore the mask of a clown to hide his depression and I saw references over and over in his song lyrics I read after his death. Later, he would use drugs and alcohol to numb those feelings which led to his addiction and was a contributing factor for his suicide. I was fooled into thinking he loved life more than anything because of his amazing sense of humor.

To me, his constant need for get-togethers and the non-stop revolving door of friends illustrated his love of life when it was in fact an act of desperation–his way of keeping himself alive. Because if he had friends in his space at all times, he wouldn’t think about taking his life nor would he act on it. And if he were entertaining enough, no one would turn him down and they’d want to be with him. They always did.

For years, there was a nagging feeling that Charles’s constant need for companionship and a sense of humor that could only be defined as a creative genius had a deeper meaning or a mask. I did ask. And I never got the full answer although he came close once. Ultimately, I would learn he was afraid of what he’d do to himself if he wasn’t surrounded by friends.

He would die by suicide in 2015.

“I keep my sadness masked with a flask
I got sorry to borrow, I’m hollow.”

–Rap Song Lyrics from, “How I Feel Inside,” by Charles Aubrey Rogers

Laughter is great medicine

Laughing together with a group? There is a connection like no other. But so often humor and making jokes is a facade to deeper feelings of depression, sadness, and despair. Why is it those with the biggest smiles often hurt the most? I would go so far as to call humor a great coping strategy. And it is.

But it can easily morph into an avoidance strategy. Or in the case of a lot of people, a way of telling someone about your despair in code–by joking about it. A joke is a more acceptable and easier way to deliver a message. And when someone is struggling with depression, they do want to tell someone. Only a lot of us don’t ask because we don’t know to ask. And if they do we don’t know what to say and we think we have to fix it.

Robin Williams said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it is like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”

I think Robin Williams nailed how Charles felt

Williams died by suicide on August 11, 2014, less than a year before Charles did, on June 5, 2015.

Charles talked about Williams obsessively. Funny, I never asked why. I just chalked it up to Charles’s quirky conversations of which he had many. There was a niggling sense of discomfort about it but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Sifting through all of the conversations we had to find the deeper meaning would have taken every hour of every day.

I do believe Charles communicated his pain through a series of jokes, clues, and puzzle pieces and had the intelligence to present them sideways and through the back door so you didn’t have time to fully decode what had been said. Just in case. He wanted to tell and didn’t want to tell at the same time.

When things are very dark, some people have an instinct to want to take the edge off of it for themselves and others. Humor is a way to do that.

What I’ve noticed is that people who are deep feelers, combined with high intelligence and a sense of humor often struggle with times of great despair that can activate a depressive state or even suicidal thoughts.

While Charles used humor as a coping mechanism, he also used it to hide his despair which he was ashamed of. And I also think he was afraid we’d try to “help” in ways he didn’t want to be helped. His song “I Don’t Wanna be a Patient,” (the song is also here and here on Amazon) illustrates that constant back and forth in his head–the self-awareness, anger, blame, and stubbornness.

He was never one to take a traditional approach and when we did, it didn’t work. I remember the one and only counselor who did rap therapy had made progress with him. It was the only time we’d see Charles start to heal. Unfortunately, that counselor would be charged with sexual misconduct with a female patient, so he was whisked away from the school from which Charles attended and my hope crumbled as my son’s mental health spiraled downward.

The question is, are you using humor to avoid or to cope?

Charles didn’t use as much self-deprecating humor such as joking about depression or even suicide. And the self-deprecating humor is often more of a red flag. I thought the whole time the son with whom I was so close was brimming with confidence. He masked that well, too. All that mask-wearing had to be exhausting.

When he finally posted online statements that indicated his state of mind, no one took him seriously. It was so easy to say, “He’s the jokester. He’s just kidding.” He would kill himself three days after his last online declaration. But if you see the series, you can see his screams for help. There were some in between that were not so dripping with despair so even if I had not been blocked from his account, would I have been able to piece together all those clues? Below is but one example.

june2 7am
See the series of Charles’s last tweets here

I know now what sounds like a goodbye letter or an “I want to die” message in person, by text, and online because I trust what my gut is telling me. And now that I know what I know, I reach out by DM, and find friends who know the person.

We all need to take death threats seriously no matter if they are directed inward or towards others. Ask that person to talk and gently allow them to pull down that mask in private. It may not be suicide but it may be depression or some other trauma and if we intervene and offer support early, perhaps it won’t ever become a crisis.