I WAS_RELINQUISHED AT BIRTH
“Running away from home” is bad use of language; if it felt like home, you would never run away.”
“Running away from home” is bad use of language; if it felt like home, you would never run away.”
My birth mom gave me up for adoption in 1962. I spent my first year of life in a place called St. Vincent de Paul’s Women and Infants Asylum in New Orleans until my childhood parents adopted me. They also adopted a boy two years later and had a biological daughter a few years after that. My adoptive dad struggled with alcoholism and, in retrospect I see now, with mental illness. He and my mom were at constant war with each other, creating high tension and fear within the house.
As a young teenager, I was hellbound. I was part of the group of kids who were trouble: we drank, we did drugs, we stole a car. This continued when my mom left my dad when I was fifteen and my mom took me, my brother, and my sister to live with her parents in a small Cajun town called Thibodaux.
I didn’t integrate into the new school very well. I had seen a lot more than these kids… I was smoking weed, I was drinking, I was stealing cars, I had already been to rehab once. I had experiences they couldn’t imagine. I didn’t fit.
And I didn’t fit at my grandparents’ home either. My grandmother was very loving, but my grandfather was old school, an immigrant from Italy with an eighth grade education. I wasn’t fully aware of it yet, but I’m gay. And I think he knew, and I know he had a problem with it. I fought him. I defied him. I was a direct threat to his patriarchal power over my grandmother and mother. We were oil and water and I didn’t belong.
And that’s when I ran away to find a home for good… not even away, but towards something that would be mine.
I wasn’t ready to get sober by any means — I just needed to get out of the house. And I didn’t run away like some kids do and end up on the street. What I did, in retrospect, was pretty freaking smart. I demanded that they put me in rehab. Back in those days, people had health insurance through their jobs that covered such things as rehab for their children, so my parents were covered and I went to a rehab in Baton Rouge.
I had begun unraveling. Rehab put me in halfway house in Kansas, which worked for a while, but then I ended up going back in rehab to Louisiana. And then back to the halfway house in Kansas. Then after that, I was living with friends, finding my own way. After the age of fifteen, I never returned home to the parents who adopted me.
I grew up in two stressful, very intense environments: my parents’ household and restaurants. Working in restaurants was the only job I ever really had.
I was fired from every restaurant I’d ever worked for, constantly in conflicts with the owner or the boss. I was unemployable. I remain unemployable. I need to make decisions for myself.
But fast food chains, restaurants, bars… they worked for me. Part of it was growing up in the South; I could work in these establishments and they didn’t make me wear a little dress. I could just be in my jeans, doing my thing, washing dishes, or whatever it was. It fit my personality. Plus, I like the adrenaline. When the rush hits, it hits, and it’s hard, but you’ve got to function. It’s almost like a little war zone — the adrenaline filling your body and you’ve got to rise to the occasion.
And then I made a major accomplishment when I moved to Boston. I was a heroin addict and and an alcoholic, but I somehow managed to convince some rich people into funding restaurants for me, paying for me to go to chef school and learn the trade.
But I was drunk at chef school. I figured out how to get the keys made to the wine cellar. The minute I got to class, I was pulling bottles up from the cellar. I did finish chef school, but what looks good on paper is that I did it. The reality was: I was a mess.
My business partners in Boston had found a little restaurant next door to Berklee College of Music and we were able to pick the lease from them for twenty grand, so I was sort of handed the keys to a restaurant like, “Here, okay, do it.” I turned this little Jewish deli into a Cajun restaurant.
The restaurant business is full of people who are in dire straits and somehow achieving. It’s a crazy person’s job, and no one articulated that concept better than Anthony Bourdain’s first book “Kitchen Confidential”. First of all, it’s transient. The kitchen staff come and go, the wait staff come and go, everyone comes and goes. It’s intense, so it’s an adrenaline junky’s business.
I was able to keep it together enough to do it, but I had a lot of drama in my restaurants. I was raging a lot, I was angry, I was tossing the pan across the kitchen. I had passion and drive and I was able to convince people with money that I could make it work, and I did make it work, but at what cost to my poor employees? It was always like a storm in the restaurant. It was a swinging door. The first year, I went through over 100 wait staff.
During this part of my life, I overdosed. I was at a bar waiting for the drug dealer to bring me heroin, which I would never recommend. He took too long, and I was drinking tequila, and so by the time he got back I was very, very drunk.
An addict gauges how high they get with one dose of dope at a time. So I did a bag and I didn’t feel it, and I did another bag and didn’t feel it. I’m like, “Ah, man, he ripped me off.” I did the third bag and then I went out.
With a combination of alcohol and opiates, I shut down my respiratory system and quit breathing. This is what kills so many of our artists, the shutdown of the breathing. You die because you’re not breathing anymore. So, I ODed. My roommate, fortunately for me, was an emergency room nurse and he was able to keep me alive until the ambulance arrived.
Though I escaped the monsters of my youth, I was still hellbound, on an unconscious suicide mission. This life-threatening disease was going to kill me. If I didn’t get sober, I was going to die.
I ended up with a drunk driving arrest in Boston, where I was sentenced to a program of recovery. That program finally helped me get sober. I got clean on July 13th, 1990, and have been sober ever since.
I needed to re-invent myself from zero to one. There’s liberation in that. I had to flip the story.
Because the Cajun restaurant I ran was located next to a music school, and across from Boston Symphony Hall, where John Williams conducted, I was surrounded by musicians. They were my customers and my staff. The re-invention of myself began the night one of my waitresses, who went to the music school, brought me to an open mic.
I watched my clumsy waitress, who’d do her best on the floor but could possibly, charmingly, spill her drink on you, transform into a very confident songwriter on stage with a keyboard performing for other aspiring songwriters. This is how it’s done.
I’m watching her and every lightbulb in my nervous system was screwing in, like, “This is me. This is the thing. Oh my God, I want to do that. I want to write a song. I want to bring it to the open mic. This is what I’m going to do. This is me.”
I was always drawn to songs and music. I had a guitar growing up. And I remember, even as a child, listening to the radio, hearing more truth coming out of that box than I ever heard come from my parents’ mouths. Springsteen said, “I learned more from a four-minute record, baby, than I ever did in school.”
I had been sober for a couple of years when she brought me to that open mic. I went home, dusted off the old guitar, restrung it, and became determined to write a song that I could bring to the open mic. And eventually I did.
I didn’t know how it all worked. I didn’t realize it was a step-ladder. I thought songwriters sort of entered fully-formed and were canonized at birth as icons. Very quickly, going to open mics became everything to me. I was determined, but I couldn’t play, I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t write — I was a mess. I didn’t have any confidence in what I was doing.
A music manager friend laid it out for me: “You take a map and draw a circle around Boston 60 miles out, then you try to get gigs 60 miles out in every direction, and then 100 miles out in every direction, and then 150 miles, and at some point you’re in New York City. You’ve got to go to the open mics and build it from the bottom in every city. That’s how it’s done. Your songs are good and getting better. I think you can do this.” I didn’t believe I could do it, but I believed that she believed I could do it because there was no reason for her to lie to me.
After about a decade of working through this absolute terror — writing songs, going to open mics, learning how to be on stage and how to talk to an audience — I decided I wanted to pursue songwriting professionally and moved to Nashville in 2001.
I created art to deal with my alcoholism. Making something difficult and turning it into something beautiful helps move trauma out of the brain in ways that are quite profound. Songs are magic; they become alchemy if the story in them is told true. In three minutes, they can move through huge chunks of time, they can make the experience of being lonely a shared experience, and they can bring us deep into the experience of a stranger, feeling their feelings, stepping into their shoes.
I had a song early on called “I Drink”, and it’s about my alcoholism. I would play that song at open mic, and once, a very established artist who had a record deal, an agent, a manager, an international career, was visiting. She came up to me and said, “Mary, that song is freaking amazing.”
Those moments gave me the confidence I lacked. That song has since been recorded by Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Bobby Bare, and more. That song keeps getting cut and will probably continue to be cut by other artists because it’s the kind of song that’s a career song.
Over the last five years, I’ve been co-writing songs with veterans and their wives through a non-profit called Songwriting With Soldiers, founded by Darden Smith. I fell in love with writing transformative art that transcended my own experience. Because my own story has harrowing moments in it, I had the tools to put a difficult story into a song and how to heal as a a result. I think this is what I’m here on earth to do: tell the hard stories and show the resilience of the human spirit. Songs, written in a certain way, become empathy themselves, and empathy is a deep form of love.
While I followed a wild dream with my career as a songwriter and found the purpose of my existence, I still had monsters under the bed. In my past and my present, the monster has always been the complexity of closed adoption.
I didn’t understand why I always felt alone, not real, eternally falling through space. I had suffered a huge loss — closed adoption is severing — but it wasn’t called a “loss” in my family because to name it as such is threatening to my adoptive mother. In an adoptive family, you take on a persona so you don’t lose the second family. But there was another family out there, a mother and father I was genetically linked to. Brothers, sisters, ancestors… they were ghosts. I felt their presence but wasn’t allowed to speak of it.
The nature of trauma is that you feel like the past is happening now. Fear sets in and becomes the driving source behind addiction. I’ve learned as an artist and a person in recovery that if you can name the trauma, you can work on it. If you name it, claim it, and start to tell it, the monsters under your bed lose their power. You turn the light on them and realize they’re paper tigers and they can’t harm you. A powerful shift occurs and you go from being the story to becoming the storyteller — for me, the songwriter.
Now I am an award-winning singer/songwriter.
I’m not the victim anymore, I’m the storyteller.