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‘God, Please Get Me Through This’: Lamb of God’s Mark Morton on Devastating Grief and Drug Addiction

Read an excerpt from the guitarist’s new memoir, ‘Desolation: A Heavy Metal Memoir’

Lamb of God's Mark Morton

Hachette Books

For 30 years now, guitarist Mark Morton has been best known as the riff architect and lead guitarist for Lamb of God, the groove metal band that rose to mainstream prominence with the New Wave of American Heavy Metal in the mid Aughts. He has put out solo releases — 2019’s Anesthetic and 2020’s Ether, but now he’s stepping squarely into the spotlight by himself with the release of his autobiography, Desolation: A Heavy Metal Memoir, which he cowrote with Ben Opipari. The book is out now.

In addition to stories from the road, Morton opens up about his personal life in the memoir, reflecting on the death of his newborn daughter in 2009 and how that tragedy and the mechanics of being a part of a touring band put him on a path to substance abuse. It’s the story of how he walked out of hell, his own personal Inferno, and recently celebrated five years of sobriety.

“Through a lens of hindsight and recovery, I made friends with my past and found value in my most difficult days,” Morton said in a statement. “I hope that by offering my experiences, I can create a point of connection and commonality. There are a lot of fun stories in here and a few really sad ones. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share them.”

Here is Morton’s prologue to Desolation, which he titled “God, Please Get Me Through This,” setting up the rest of the book:

It’s 1 a.m. and my heart is thumping so hard in my chest I can hear it. My hands are shaking. My chair feels like a roller coaster. Waves of vertigo flood my head, and my stomach is in a free fall. I’m scared. Sweat pours down my face in recurring hot flashes. My vision fades in and out, a blurry tunnel narrowing from all sides.

I stare at the desk in front of me, trying to focus. Over on the hotel table there are one and a half turquoise 80 mg Oxycontin pills left over from the five I’d scored earlier that afternoon. These are among the heaviest of pharmaceutical opiates, pills normally prescribed to treat extreme pain in terminally ill cancer patients. But I don’t have cancer.

I calculate the math through the fog in my head. I’ve taken 280 milligrams. I’m still under my self-imposed but loosely observed daily limit of 300 mg. Even for an experienced pill junky like me, that’s a dangerous limit. It could easily be a lethal dose, and it most certainly would be to someone without my level of opiate tolerance. But that blurry boundary I’ve set is an attempt to manage my addiction. It’s an attempt to feel like I’m in control. It’s an attempt to stay alive. Because I don’t want to die.

The bottle of Absolut Vodka I pulled from my tour bus earlier and shoved into my backpack before checking in is on the desk. I’ve put a pretty good dent in that too, but a little more than half the bottle remains. There was a time when I used to only drink beer with these strong pills. Another attempt at a boundary. But lately I’ve started drinking hard liquor with my Oxys to jumpstart the effects. And though I typically prefer the strongest pharmaceutical opioid painkillers, when I can’t find the right pills, I’ll snort heroin or do any other opiate I can get my hands on. Sourcing my habit feels like a full-time job. It consumes a great deal of my time and money. I’ve accepted the lifestyle. I know I’m an addict and I live with it.

But tonight, it’s all turning on me. I’m not doing the alcohol and drugs — they’re doing me. And now I’m panicking. “Fuck. Is this what an overdose feels like?” I think to myself. “I thought I’m not supposed to feel it coming.”

The veins in my neck throb. My arms and legs are numb. “Calm down,” I tell myself out loud. “Take a deep breath. You’re just freaking out.”

My eyes start to feel heavy. My head snaps upright, adrenaline and fear pulling me back from another involuntary nod into unconsciousness. So many times before, I’ve eagerly anticipated the soft, slow drift past the wandering carefree daydreams and into the gentle dreamy Eden that heavy opiates create. But this time, something is wrong. I’m not sure why, but the drugs are hitting me different. It feels erratic. I’m anxious and agitated. I stand up and pace frantically around the room, hoping to snap out of it.

My posh Midtown Manhattan hotel suite is a short walk from Madison Square Garden. My band Lamb of God will be playing there the next two nights after today’s day off. We’re in the middle of the biggest tour we’ve ever done, opening for Metallica, the world’s biggest metal band, across three continents. Early in our career, we would’ve scoffed at the idea of playing huge stages all over the globe with some of the world’s biggest bands. For a band as extreme as ours, that would have been unthinkable. But now we’re doing it. This should be a triumphant moment.

Fifteen years earlier in Richmond, Virginia, we had started out jamming in basements and garages with little aspiration to do much beyond the punk and hardcore underground. In those early days, we were as much a drinking club as we were a band. But when we did play, it was furious and intense. Blending the influence of local math metal heroes like Breadwinner and Sliang Laos with more conventional thrash influences of bands like Slayer and Pantera, we wrote our own music from the start. Stitching together massive grooving riffs with off-time, tightly syncopated rhythmic cadences and blistering blasts of pure noise, we began as an artsy, instrumental grindcore band. To characterize the extremeness of our sound, we cheekily named ourselves Burn the Priest — not exactly a brand for mainstream consumption.

Imagine a steel box full of nails and broken glass. Now douse it with kerosene, light it on fire, and roll it down a long, steep, winding staircase. That’s what we sounded like. After a short time performing at local parties and warehouses as an instrumental act, we added a singer. Randy Blythe’s infernal scream not only completed the sonic elements of the band, but he was also the physical and visual embodiment of the chaos we had been creating musically. We renamed ourselves Lamb of God.

It was magical. We were a burning car crash: jarring, unhinged, and impossible not to watch. Somewhere between the cases of beer and the bong hits, we had created the cornerstone of our sound, a sound that would carry us far beyond any level of success we could’ve imagined. We went from a dingy Richmond basement full of empty bottles and cigarette butts all the way to Madison Square Garden and beyond.

But that beyond is now coming down fast as I struggle to remain conscious between realizations that I might be in trouble. I pace around my hotel room trying to walk it off, then look in the mirror. My pupils are pinpoints. My face is bright red, splotchy and sweaty. My heart is still pounding, my arms still tingling. I’m scared. Dizzy, I sit on the bed, lay back and lose consciousness again. Jolted awake, I snap back up and taste vomit burning the back of my throat.

God, please get me through this. It’s funny how people get religious when shit hits the fan.

Three months earlier, I said a similar prayer in desperation. My firstborn daughter, Madalyn Grace, had contracted a rare and still largely unexplained bacterial infection during delivery. Doctors struggled to find out what was wrong as she deteriorated rapidly in the hours after her birth. Once her condition was properly identified, she was airlifted by helicopter from Richmond to Charlottesville, Virginia, for further treatment. Watching the medics wheeling her into the ambulance for the short ride to the helipad, I ran to my truck to make the drive while they flew. I drove 90 mph down I-64 west and got to the hospital in Charlottesville before they did. I watched the helicopter land. They told me later that she died twice during the flight.

God, please get her through this.

For a short time after arriving in Charlottesville, Madalyn was stabilized as we hoped for some sort of recovery. But that hope didn’t last long. In the late afternoon of August 14, 2009, I sat in the neonatal intensive care unit at University of Virginia Medical Center on a chair in front of a window with a panoramic view of the Shenandoah Mountains. The medical machinery in the room hummed and beeped, but everything still felt quiet. As I cradled her tiny body wrapped in a hospital blanket and whispered to her how sorry I was that this world had made her so sick, my two-day-old daughter Madalyn died in my arms.

In the days after Madalyn died, I had no clue what to do. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the despair I felt. What began as a leave of absence from a thrilling world tour to be home for the joy of Madalyn’s birth had turned into a nightmare of death, anger, and sorrow. It was excruciating to sit still in all that grief. So fifty days after my daughter’s death, I rejoined the tour to escape the reality that was consuming me at home.

Back on the tour, everyone was still having a blast. Lamb of God was attaining unimaginable new heights as a band, and people were celebrating. But I was crushed by grief and trauma. My bandmates were loving and supportive, yet nobody really knew what to do with me. I don’t blame them. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I disappeared into a black hole of drugs and alcohol.

Now back in this New York City hotel suite, I’m sinking deeper into that void. I wretch and try to clear my throat of the lingering taste of stomach acid. Hoping to break the heat flashes and to shock myself into coherence, I strip down and stagger to the shower, turning the water as cold as it will get. I stand as long as I can under the cold water. The heat flashes finally subside, and I stare at the shower tile thinking about how pathetic this is. I wrap myself in a large bath towel and lay on the bed, still soaking wet, staring at the ceiling. I wake up shivering a few hours later. It’s over. But it’s a long way from being finished.

Madalyn’s death didn’t turn me into an addict; I was already well into that process by the time she died. I had been drinking for decades, and my hard drug use had progressed from being sporadic and recreational to being commonplace. The fire was already lit. But the trauma of my infant daughter’s death, coupled with my own inability to process the accompanying grief, poured gas on the flames of my steadily progressing addiction.

Horrible things sometimes happen to good people. And when a horrible thing happened to me, it accelerated a descent that I have come to believe was already inevitable. I don’t blame the depths of my addiction on Madalyn’s death. My short time together with my firstborn daughter is not reduced to the nightmare of self-destruction that followed her passing. That’s only part of the story.

Excerpted from Desolation: A Heavy Metal Memoir by Mark Morton. Copyright © 2024 by Mark Morton. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

From Rolling Stone US