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Solace Through Exposure

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by Josh Hyatt

It was not an ordinary day in Paris.

While riding in a bus, two men watched the sky darken as they made their way to the Champ de Mars, the grassy park in front of the Eiffel Tower. The father and son, both music fans, had just visited the grave of The Doors' Jim Morrison at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. As they looked out of the windows, they saw people standing outside wearing sunglasses, watching the solar eclipse.

When they finally arrived at the Eiffel Tower, it was about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. It was so dark, however, the tower's flashing lights were turned on. Robert Kochersberger, an associate professor of English, witnessed the spectacle with his son, Charlie.

"It was just a magical sight," Kochersberger said. "That's a really great memory that I have."
This memory of his son, from the summer of 2000, is one of many Kochersberger loves to recall. For nearly five years, however, recalling memories has been one of the few things he can do to be closer to his son. In July 2007, after a long battle with bipolar disorder and substance addiction, Charlie took his own life.

"This is an unusually difficult stew, especially when you look at an upper-middle class family like mine," Kochersberger said. "You just never would imagine in a million years that this kind of thing would happen to us."

Charlie was a bright and talented young man. He was a gifted guitar player, according to his father. He had an amazing sense of humor and wonderful friends. At the time of his death, Charlie was halfway done with his master's degree in counselor education at N.C. State. When Charlie started college, his family realized he was having trouble with depression.

"He was starting to be pretty depressed, at times, when he was in college, probably starting around 18 or 19," Kochersberger said. "Then it was on and off."

Kochersberger and his wife Janet tried to get Charlie to take various antidepressants to help ease his condition. But Charlie wasn't responding well to the medication.

"The person has to want to get better," Kochersberger said. "That is like the basic, universal truth. If the person, himself or herself, is not committed to recovery, from anything, it's impossible to impose it from the outside. We tried. Charlie just wasn't ready to get well."

Later on, the darker of Charlie's demons came to light. In May 2004, Charlie told his parents about his heroin addiction.

"We immediately tried to get on the case," Kochersberger said. "We did everything that we thought we could do."

Charlie went through a rollercoaster of methods to clean up his heroin addiction. Methadone therapy. Suboxone. Talk therapy. Twelve-step programs. He even went through three separate 28-day rehab programs.

"He only made it through one of them," Kochersberger said. "He got kicked out [of the other rehabs] for breaking the rules."

It was during a group counseling session in Greensboro's Fellowship Hall that one of the most shocking details of Charlie's childhood was revealed. On his way to elementary school, he was lured into a truck with the promise of candy and was then sexually abused. For being a "good boy," Charlie's captor gave him a pocket knife.

"Charlie just stuck it in his pocket and went to school and got in trouble," Kochersberger said. "When I questioned him about [the knife], he said that he found it. We just said 'Don't do it again' and that was it."

The nightmarish reality of Charlie's childhood memories were not uncovered until his days at Fellowship Hall, where, during a word association exercise, Charlie's instant response to the word "chocolate" was "knife," which uprooted the repressed experience. However, the recovered memory provided no catharsis. He immediately began seeing a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder, who was absolutely sure the recalled memory was genuine.

"I'm skeptical about these kinds of 'new memories' of things, but I think the fact that we know about the knife makes it pretty real," Kochersberger said.

Then, on July 3, 2007, Kochersberger experienced what he describes as the most traumatic moment of his life.

Around 10 o'clock on a hot summer night, after having gone missing for a couple of days, Charlie showed up at his family home in Raleigh. His mother was out of town, visiting family, but his father was there to welcome him. To Kochersberger, it seemed like a miracle.

Incoherent and stumbling, Charlie agreed to let his father take him to the hospital. After Kochersberger called and told Janet their son was home, Charlie asked his father if he could clean himself up before they left.

"He said that he wanted to brush his teeth," Kochersberger said. "Well, that sounds like something normal. So I said fine, and he went upstairs and brushed his teeth."

When he came back downstairs, Charlie wanted to have a smoke. When at home, he had always gone out on the porch and sat on the wicker sofa to have a cigarette. He went out and closed the door.

"About 10 seconds after he walked outside, an alarm bell went off in my head," Kochersberger said.

From the front door, he saw his son darting for his car.

"He was taking off," Kochersberger said. "And I chased after him. I was too slow. Too late."

He pounded on the windshield while Charlie put the car into reverse.

"Stop! Stop!" Kochersberger screamed to his son.

With an extremely blank expression on his face, Charlie took a last look at his father before driving away.

"That was the last I saw of him," Kochersberger said.

Two days later, Kochersberger drove to the Wake County courthouse on Fayetteville Street, hoping Charlie would show up for a court appearance due to a probation violation. The family had posted a hefty $25,000 bail to guarantee Charlie would return to court. He did not. The judge said the bail was forfeited and issued a warrant for Charlie's arrest.

In the foyer of the courthouse, Kochersberger's phone buzzed. It was a message from a Raleigh police officer. After returning his call, Kochersberger asked him what had happened, but the officer would only say, "I need to see you at your house."

"And I knew," Kochersberger said. "I knew. My insides were ice cold."

Charlie had died just a few blocks from the family's home that same day. He had pulled his car into a parking lot, run a hose from the exhaust pipe to the interior of his car, and killed himself with carbon monoxide poisoning.

"Moments like that -- you just can't believe what has happened," Kochersberger said.

The next month, Kochersberger was back in the classroom. What he did not expect was the impact his English 214: Introduction to Editing class would have on his life.

"And that class that I had, I really think they saved me, in a way," Kochersberger said. "It was a wonderful group of people. The students had hope. They had hope in a way that Charlie had lost his hope."

At the very end of the semester, Kochersberger confided in his class the story of the worst summer of his life.

"I felt like I kind of owed it to them because they had been so helpful to me."

To this day, he has told Charlie's story to all of his classes. Kochersberger waits until later in the semester, after connecting with his students, to share this personal aspect of his life. His goal: to encourage people to seek help if they have a family member or friend that is in trouble.

"By golly, every single time I have done it, people have come up to me after class and said, 'Let me tell you about my brother,' 'my mother,' 'my father,' 'my boyfriend,' 'my girlfriend,' 'myself,'" Kochersberger said. "I think a lot of us don't realize there is tragedy in the world."

One of these students, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared her story with Kochersberger in the fall of 2009.

"It was really cool to hear a professor talk about such a personal thing and share it with people in such a good way," she said. "I've had the same thing; I've had an issue with addiction. It was refreshing to feel like I wasn't alone. It was my first semester there, so I felt kind of like I had been thrown into this situation where nobody really knows me or knows my personal past."

The former student, who overcame her cocaine addiction shortly after Charlie died, said after trying the same month-long rehabs as Charlie, it was a long-term, three-month program that finally helped liberate her from drug dependency.

"It was bittersweet because I survived what his son did not survive," she said. "But [Kochersberger] helped me in a sense that I felt a connection with him, and I felt connected to something at State besides my interests in my studies."

Since realizing the potential his son's story has to help others, Kochersberger has printed multiple works in various media. He's had two essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which describe the first class he told his story to and the story of an intervention he had with a student with an opiate addiction. He's also written an op-ed regarding suicide in The News & Observer.

Within a few months of his son's death, Kochersberger began writing a book about Charlie's struggles and how his family has handled it all. It also includes a section on practical ways to find help.

"I'm not writing a cautionary tale," Kochersberger said. "I don't want to do that. I do want to write something that could be helpful to families in similar situations."

His former student, who refers to him simply as "Dr. K," thinks the story will establish a level of connection similar to the one she felt with him in the classroom.

"If somebody reads Dr. K's story, they're probably going to have some more motivation to help the people in their lives that are struggling with these issues, and they're going to have more hope," she said.

Kochersberger wishes he had approached his son's addiction head-on, and hopes to encourage other families in similar situations to do the same.

"I would say go at it full strength," Kochersberger said. "If we were doing it again, I would go for a long-term residential rehab immediately and not dick around with any of the lesser stuff. I think the most important thing that someone can do is really take the illness seriously and attack it full bore, instead of trying to do things gradually."

Kochersberger's book is still in a state of revision. He expects to be done with it by the end of this summer. He is hopeful a publisher will accept the piece. By wrapping up the book, Kochersberger only expects to experience a small feeling of solace.

"It will give me closure on the book," Kochersberger said. "It's not going to give me any closure on the loss of my son. I miss him desperately and I think of him repeatedly every day. And that's going to continue as long as I live."