Sheila Raye Charles finds solace in testifying about her former life as the drug-dependent daughter of the legendary Ray Charles. Photo by: Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Her early childhood and years thereafter were painful, depraving and angst-filled, to say the least. But Sheila Raye Charles didn’t have much to look forward to without having much of her father in her life, the legendary Ray Charles.

Deprived of the doting relationship Charles sought with her father was enough to send her cascading down a seemingly never-ending slope into drug dependency and deviant behavior, which mirrored, in a way, her father’s 17-year heroin addiction.

Charles’ drug of choice was crack cocaine. She grappled with it for 20 years, served three prison terms, and, as a result, lost custody of her five children. She wrestled with what could be described as her demons, but managed to break free after undergoing a kind of Damascus Road experience.

“Sheila Raye has fought off her demons and now has a powerful testimony,” said Wanda Taylor, president/CEO of Ladies in Need Can Survive, Inc., a 501(c) 3 non-profit transitional home for women who grapple with some the same vices and destructive behavior that nearly sent Charles over the edge.

Taylor was impressed with Charles’ riveting story and subsequent breakthrough and invited the singer, songwriter, evangelist, author and former substance abuser to Memphis on Sept. 23 to headline LINCS’s “Taking My Life Back” conference at the Pursuit of God Transformation Center in the Frayser community.

Charles has been telling her story to audiences from a very few to tens of thousands all around the world. The handful of people who came to hear her speak and sing at the Center drew inspiration from her testimony. “It wasn’t my dream to be a speaker about addiction and recovery,” said Charles, who aspired to become a rock star when she was a little girl. “But through my journey of trying to be a rock star, I found myself engulfed in all the things that came with that – sex, drugs and rock and roll – the whole stigma.”

“She is not alone in the vices that had her bound,” said Taylor, who, like Charles, struggled with drugs, sex, errant behavior, and a stint in jail before she found God, then LINCS. She’d made up her mind that the road she was traveling would come to an end.

“It was easy for me to fall in that path, because I was a child in an adult’s body full of pain and hurt and sadness and anger,” said Charles, “all the things that a child goes through when you experience the things that I experienced – sexual abuse, abandonment issues from my father, an alcoholic mother.”

Charles spent a lifetime trying to suppress those “pains, hurts, shames and sadness.” The only way out, she said, was through self-medication. “At the age of 19, I had my first free-basing…I tried it and it was the most wonderful thing I’ve experienced,” said Charles, who would become dependent on the drug.

“I didn’t get addicted then. It was after the age of 24 while experiencing Postpartum Depression.” After Charles’ daughter was born, flashbacks took her back to that grim moment in time when she was sexually abused as a little girl. “I started remembering the euphoria I got from the cocaine,” she said. “I began to use it and it just spiraled down to a point where I literally lost everything
in my life.”

She had become unhinged, destroying herself. She’d become the addict that she hated in her father. “He was an extraordinary man, but a horrible guy,” said Charles, one of 12 children her father pressed to succeed. “My father was hard on us almost to a fault.”

It wasn’t until later on in life that Charles started embracing her father. “Later on I felt cheated that I wasn’t able to be more intimate in his life,” she said. “He tried to show us love, but it wasn’t that ‘father knows best’ love. He didn’t have the tools to parent.”

Charles lives in Minneapolis, Minn. She is married to Michael “Tony” Steptoe. In 2007, she started One Way Up Prison Ministries to encourage women in prison to stay away from trouble and live productive lives, which she had failed to do before turning the page on a sordid lifestyle.

Charles details her story in the recently published book “Behind the Shades: Hope Beyond the Darkness.” It is a moving testimony about “redemption, reconciliation, and healing.” Sheila Raye Charles can be reached at (612) 876-7964.