Saturday should be a special day for Seattle television personality Penny Legate. After all, her daughter Marah was born on that day 21 years ago. But while she plans to celebrate the occasion, it’ll be difficult because Marah won’t be there. The young woman died of a heroin overdose in 2012.
“If somebody had told me I would have a daughter who was addicted to heroin and would die of heroin, I would say no, no, no. That’s not my story, that’s not my life. But that, in fact, is my life and I’m here to say it can happen to anybody,” Legate says in a conversation with KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.
Legate has dedicated her life to sharing Marah’s story and her family’s experiences in hopes of helping others. This year’s death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman and other recent stories underscore the continuing epidemic touching all walks of life.
The former KIRO TV anchor and host of KING TV’s Evening Magazine says the first thing people need to realize is what they think about addiction and addicts is likely wrong.
“It was about a child that had every opportunity and every gift that a human being could have. She was funny, she was beautiful, she was talented, she was a standout athlete, a great dancer, she had lots of friends.”
But as she reached puberty, Marah started struggling with depression, insecurity and anxiety. Her family got her professional help, trying everything they could. But nothing seemed to work.
“Somehow, some of these kids are so extra sensitive or so incapable of managing, maybe we don’t bring the right treatment to them, the right psychiatrist whatever it is, they start to self medicate,” Legate says.
Marah spiraled out of control. Her family sent her to multiple treatment centers, including a three-month stay at a specialized adolescent facility in Arizona. Sadly, after staying clean for awhile and working a program of recovery, she relapsed on the opiate Oxycontin and ultimately turned to heroin.
“Shortly before she died she goes ‘mom, I just want to be normal, I don’t want to be an addict.’ A lot of these kids don’t choose this way but it gives them comfort. And she said ‘it’s the only way I feel normal is when I’m using.'”
Legate has painfully learned far more about addiction then she ever wanted to know. And she says society far too often gets it wrong.
“I think we need to understand how addiction works. I think we need to stop judging people who are addicts. Believe me, I’ve been in that category…we need to stop thinking of addicts as throw-away people because they’re not. We need better prevention and education for kids at a very young age and their parents.”
The message seems to be slowly getting out. Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder devoted his weekly video message to what he called the ‘urgent and growing public health crisis’ of heroin addiction and overdoses. Federal data show heroin use rose 79 percent nationwide between 2007 and 2012, with the number of overdoses increasing 45 percent in the last decade.
In the wake of her daughter’s death, Legate created the Marah Project. It’s a non-profit providing paid internship opportunities for kids in the Middle College program – alternative high schools that are part of the Seattle Public Schools’ safety net program. Legate says it’s the reason Marah was able to graduate from high school on time.
Through The Marah Project, students who Legate calls “Marah’s peeps” not only earn money, but they also get valuable work experience and have something on their resume.
Legate doesn’t have any immediate answers for parents seeking a solution. But she says she never gave up, and encourages other parents to hang in there.
“I get a sense from Marah that she’s got a hand on my shoulder and she says ‘mom you did everything.’ She knew how much I loved her.”
As Marah’s birthday approaches, Legate admits the pain for her, Marah’s sister, and her father never goes away.
“We just try to keep it together and talk to people and do what we can,” she says. And while Marah’s 21st birthday will be difficult, Legate says they’ll also celebrate the joyous occasion that brought such a beautiful girl into their lives.