'My Heart Still Beats' Part 3: Mark (Transcript)
"There were three things you could be good at: fighting, drinking or sports. So, I stink at sports. I can't fight. But I guess I can drink."
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MARK LEGRAND: The thing in Arlington was, there are three things you could be good at: fighting, drinking or sports. So, I stink at sports. [Laughs.] I can't fight. And, uh, but, I guess I can drink.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: Frost fell on my windshield...
BESS O'BRIEN, HOST: That's singer-songwriter Mark LeGrand and you're listening to My Heart Still Beats, a project from Writers for Recovery and Vermont Public Radio. I'm Bess O'Brien. My Heart Still Beats features conversations and original writing from the recovery community all around Vermont. People in recovery from substance use disorder, and people helping those in recovery rebuild their lives.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: I need four walls, a door, and a window.
BESS O’BRIEN: I first met Mark when he played a few songs for the Writers for Recovery book signing party in 2016. I liked his voice and his soulful lyrics. He's a real fixture in the Vermont music scene. He's been writing and playing music ever since he was a kid, and along the way music even helped save his life. Mark grew up in an alcoholic family and then struggled with his own addiction. The story starts in his childhood in Arlington Vermont. Here's Mark.
MARK LEGRAND: You know, I was kind of a lone kid. But was also a traumatized kid because I'm coming from an alcoholic home. So, my dad's a decorated, disabled war veteran, so he's coming from trauma. My grandfather died at 49 years of alcohol abuse.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: When you talk about your dad, who was an alcoholic, how did that play out in the household?
MARK LEGRAND: My dad was a periodic drinker. When he would have his first drink, he would drink, you know, for days. And then he would stop. And he might stop for six months, you know. As a young child, when I was about 5 or so, was the first time I became aware that something was wrong. My dad had a hemorrhage in the bathtub and the ambulance came. So I do have a memory of being a little boy wondering what's wrong, and somehow I got put together that it had to do with drinking and dad needs not to drink anymore. And as a child, you often internalize that, feel it's your fault. You know, if I was a little bit more lovable or if I was better at baseball ... All that stuff.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: What leads up to your own addiction? What's sort of the history of how you start to unravel?
MARK LEGRAND: Now, fortunately I didn't pick up a drink until I was 16. I'm very grateful for that. I got to experience not being addicted to drugs and alcohol, you know, for my first 16 years of my life. But it was Halloween night and I think I was just 16 and I flipped my mom's Corvair and luckily land in a swamp. I was just a smoldering bed of coals, and alcohol was the gas.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: What was the rock bottom? What was the thing that turned you around? I mean, when did you say, "I have to get sober, I can't keep going on like this"?
MARK LEGRAND: Um, I said to my girlfriend at the time, "I've never had a big birthday party." My birthday is on Christmas Eve. And people are generally busy. So she says, "Oh, OK, we'll put you on a birthday party, we'll do a birthday party." So what I do is I get horribly drunk at my own party in front of the whole town. And I'm just like, "This has got to stop," you know?
I just woke up with this sense of impending doom that was at least a thousand times greater than anything I've ever felt before. So I say to myself — I think it's like the 28th of December — I say, "I'm going to quit drinking on New Year's Eve." And that was my last drink.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: I need four walls a door, and a window, and a town that won't hurt anymore. I need a guardian angel beside me, to pick me up off the floor.
MARK LEGRAND: Music is my connection. I connect with music in a different way than I connect even with people. I started when I was in high school. I got 10 bucks to play a high school dance. And I left that 10 dollars on the kitchen table, and my dad, man of few words, walked by and said "Did you make that money playing music?" And I said, "Yeah." And I got this little — I'll never forget it — this little glimpse of, like, "good job." I'd never heard "good job."
Also, I'm falling in love with all the hopeless romantic songwriters. Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings — they're all singing my song. So they start singing stuff like, "take back the weed, take back the cocaine." Or, "I'm sick and tired of waking up sick and tired." And I'm starting to identify.
So I would say the people who first turned me on to the possibility of sobriety are actually outlaw country musicians who are either going to die or get sober, you know? So, I started singing and and people started to respond in that way that they respond. And if you write hundreds of songs for long enough, you're going to get a few good ones.
And writing a song, it gives me a sense that there's some meaning to sadness, that there's some meaning to contrast, that there's a meaning for suffering. And music is — it trumps every drug.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: It was me, that called them on the phone...
BESS O'BRIEN: So Mark got clean, but years later his two daughters started using in ninth grade, and eventually got into opiates. One of them ended up in jail. Suddenly Mark was trying to get his kids clean while also staying sober himself.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: What was it like as a father and as somebody in recovery who started to see both your daughters go down the road of addiction, get addicted to opiates — what did that feel like?
MARK LEGRAND: I think I lost my mind when that happened, in some ways. I think I felt as if the ground I knew was just pulled out from under me. Tremendous guilt. You know, guilt to the point where you become guilt.
First time I saw my daughter in handcuffs, I wrote "The Hard Way." You know? "I've seen you in ERs and cop cars." That's all happened. All that stuff — all the services, the lawyers, the courts. One of my daughters did seven months of time in jail in Chittenden County Women's [prison]. It was really hard.
BESS O'BRIEN: Over the years his daughters got better. I asked him how he makes sense of it all.
MARK LEGRAND: So the only way I can get around it was, I had to put it into music, I couldn't wrap my psyche around. How'd you feel when you knew your daughter was drowning?
MARK LEGRAND, PERFORMING: This is called "Shooting Star." And this is probably the first time I wanted to paint a compassionate picture of addiction.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: There's a light that shines for me. Out On Highway 63. Whispered secrets in the dark and I was blinded by her spark. Oh, I seen comets in the night. But this one, boy, she's a meteorite. Burning through the atmosphere, of the choking smoke and the stinking beer. Tell her: She's shooting star."
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: What would you say to parents, what advice would you give to parents who are struggling with their children who are addicted? Especially to opiates, but any kind of addiction, and what would you say to them?
MARK LEGRAND: Well I would say first of all, don't fall for the illusion that the only thing wrong is your kid. Right? If you're married, get yourself into marriage counseling, because this can destroy the marriage. Um, find a support group. I get together with a group of parents every Monday night. And one of our guidelines is, nobody tells anybody what to do. We cannot tell you what to do. We can tell you our experience. It seems to be very effective.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: ... 'Cuz the nights are long, her train of pain rolling on. Tell her: She's a shooting star.
BESS O'BRIEN: Today Mark is parenting his grandson, and he feels like maybe this time around the cycle will be broken. His two daughters are still doing well. I asked him how he stays hopeful.
MARK LEGRAND: I'm rooting for love and compassion. I really am, with addiction. Sick people respond to love. It's a disease. And they have a disease. One thing I noticed was touch, you know? Put your hand on their shoulder. It's amazing. Because when's the last time you did that? Because you're so scared that they're going to die. That's OK. I would — that's a normal response, to protect yourself. But they need that touch. They need to know that you love them. They love you.
MARK LEGRAND, SINGING: ...With your eyes. If love finds you, it never dies.
BESS O’BRIEN: That was Mark LeGrand and this is My Heart Still Beats.
My Heart Still Beats is a production of Writers for Recovery, made possible with support from Vermont Public Radio and the VPR Innovation Fund. Producers for this series are me, Bess O’Brien and Gary Miller. Erica Heilman edited the series and Angela Evancie is VPR's managing editor for podcasts. The music in this episode was by Brian Clark. Writers for Recovery is made possible through major underwriting from the Vermont Department of Corrections, The Rona Jaffe Foundation and Nat and Martha Winthrop.
For more information about Writers for Recovery and how to join a workshop go to: www.writersforrecovery.org.
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