She would ask her son, Rivers McGraw, the same question every morning, as far back as his elementary school days: “Are you going to be a leader or a loser today?”
“A leader, Mama,” he would answer.
At the age of 16, he had more than $20,000 in a savings account. He worked for every cent, cleaning poop from port-a-johns and garbage out of Dumpsters at his mother’s company, Gotta Go, in Flora.
“He was probably the only (football) player at Jackson Prep who had a full-time job and went through two-a-day (preseason) practices at the same time,” Lauren McGraw says of her son. “A loser doesn’t do that.”
Ricky Black, his football coach at Prep, calls Rivers “a coach’s dream” and “the ultimate teammate, a loyal person who played hard and would do whatever job you gave him.” When playoff time arrived each year, Rivers was one of the few players who started on offense and defense.
Former teammate and quarterback Ryan Buchanan remembers Rivers as a hard-nosed player who proudly performed the less-than-glamorous work of a fullback. “It was an honor for me to play with a guy with that much passion,” Buchanan says.
But 20-year-old Rivers McGraw, who loved dogs and hunting and big trucks, was fighting a monster that society wraps into a neat and tidy word — addiction.
He saw love. Lots of love. But he saw no hope, no light, no future. So on the morning of Nov. 10, at an apartment in Oxford, Rivers took his life with a gun. He was buried Nov. 13.
Rivers sent a text moments before pulling the trigger. He wrote: “Mom, I love you, and I hate to do this to you. I’m so sorry I failed you and embarrassed our family. I just can’t do this anymore.”
Lauren read it immediately.
She called him. No answer.
She texted him: “Mama is on her way. If you’re trying, you’re not failing. No matter what is happening, it’s OK. I love you.”
She sent the same text again and again without a response.
By the time she was halfway to Oxford, his death was all over social media. Lauren hadn’t seen it, though she began receiving texts saying “We love you” and “We are so sorry.”
“I thought, ‘He’s in the hospital. I’ll get him, take him to (University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson) and he’ll be OK,” she says.
A friend phoned Lauren about the time she was passing through Grenada, an hour from Oxford.
“Lauren, will you pull over?”
“No, I’m going to be with my son. He needs me.”
“Lauren, I need you to pull over.”
“Don’t tell me my son is already dead.”
“Lauren, don’t make me say it.”
Nothing anyone can say
In the days following Rivers’ suicide, Lauren’s phone was flooded with voice messages and texts from other parents who had lost children to addiction. The common theme of the messages: “We will do anything to help you.”
“I appreciate them all. And I know they are still hurting,” Lauren says. “But there is nothing anyone can say that will bring my son back. And that’s just the way it is.
“His light burned so bright, he was so beautiful, he touched so many people. I’ve heard from so many of his friends. They all call him ‘my best friend.’
“But my son is in the ground, and I would be on my knees wanting to die right now if I thought I couldn’t make a difference.”
Lauren’s message to the public and to lawmakers: Addiction should be treated as a mental health issue, not a crime.
“Let me make this plain,” she says. “Rivers killed himself because he thought he was going to prison for his third DUI. The sad thing is, he wasn’t. His first DUI had been adjudicated and on his second one, in Jackson, they did no field sobriety test and the toxilizer didn’t work. We were still waiting to go to court for that.
“But in his mind, prison was the next step. My son would be alive today if he’d thought he was going to rehab instead of a cell.”
Lauren has joined forces with Ole Miss law student Josh Horton, who has waged his share of personal wars with addiction. He asked in a Facebook post shortly after Rivers’ death: “What is it going to take to realize that the stigma and criminalization associated with substance use disorder is killing people and destroying families?”
Horton added: “We must provide the resources, education and tools to proactively combat this epidemic. We’re going to start with the defelonization of simple possession, and instead of jail time, mandated treatment by properly run treatment facilities, of which there is essentially nothing in Mississippi provided by the state for offenders. Then, access to community resources for recovery upon release.”
21 million Americans suffer with substance abuse and 90 percent of addicts are not being treated
Right now, the one option to jail time is drug courts in which participants go through long-term treatment and counseling, sanctions, incentives and frequent court appearances. For first-time offenders who successfully complete the program, their felony is wiped off their record, giving them a chance to start fresh. But the courts are not statewide, and the numbers of participants they can take are limited by funding.
Horton wants to present a petition to the Legislature in January. Before Rivers’ death, Horton had just fewer than 1,000 signatures. By Saturday, that number had risen to nearly 5,000.
On Thursday, just nine days after the presidential election, CBS Evening News chose to lead its broadcast with a surgeon general’s report calling for “a major shift” on treating addiction.
The report said nearly 21 million Americans suffer with substance abuse, and it affects more people than cancer. Yet, 90 percent of addicts are not being treated, and the economic impact of addiction is $442 billion.
Said CBS medical expert Tara Narula: “It’s a call to action for a public health crisis that affects individuals, families, society. The number of Americans affected by substance use disorders is as many as are affected by diabetes.”
“One of the best things this report did is to tell people that we really need to change our attitude about substance misuse and addiction. We need to understand that this is not a moral failure, not a character flaw, not something we need to be ashamed of.
“This is something that is a chronic disease of the brain. And we need to treat it like a chronic condition. We need to approach it with a public health approach, as we would any other condition.”
Such a move is too late for Rivers McGraw. It’s too late for two other young people I have written about in recent months, young people whose parents — just like Lauren — fought to keep their child alive, to get them clean, keep them clean.
Rivers, who eventually told his mom he had been using drugs since high school, enrolled at Mississippi State University in the fall of 2015. In early October, he was stopped by police for speeding and placed into custody on suspicion of DUI. While officers were arranging transportation for those in the vehicle with Rivers, he fled the scene. He turned himself in the next morning and was charged with escape, DUI and a number of traffic violations.
Lauren bonded him out and immediately took him to a facility in Arkansas known as Capstone Treatment Center. She paid approximately $100,000 for her son to be treated because insurance didn’t cover it.
“They were good,” she said. “They were strict, but they were also loving. They gave each patient a dog — a beautiful, registered lab. You had to train it, clean it. Many of these kids in there had never had an animal. But if you finished the 90-day program, you got to take the dog home with you.”
Rivers’ chocolate lab, Drake, became one of his best friends.
During family night, when family members and the patients gather for a group discussion, parents were asked to make a poster board of their biggest fear. Lauren’s featured a highway headed to a cemetery.
My son would be alive today if he’d thought he was going to rehab instead of a cell.
“The other parents were crying … but I was being honest,” she says. “And I told Rivers right then, ‘If you don’t change, this is where you could wind up.’”
Rivers worked full-time, helping build bridges in Rankin County. He also attended counseling January through June.
Rivers requested to transfer to Ole Miss for the 2016 fall semester. “He was embarrassed and didn’t want to face his friends at State,” Lauren says. “He went to summer school online and did real well. Things seemed to be going great. But when he got to Ole Miss I noticed his grades began to drop.”
She noticed Horton’s post on Facebook and saw that he was at Ole Miss. “I wrote to him and asked, ‘Would you please tell my son to go to an (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting?’ He wrote back and said, ‘I’ll take him to one with me.’”
On Nov. 8, election night in America, Horton took Rivers to an AA meeting. Rivers phoned Lauren the next morning.
“Mom, it’s the best AA meeting I’ve ever been to,” he told her. “I’ve already found a sponsor. He’s a pilot.”
That night, he went out with friends and was stopped by Oxford police. He was arrested and charged with a DUI. Friends bonded him out in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Rivers located the arresting officer on Facebook and sent him a message, asking if they could meet for coffee or breakfast. “Just to talk,” he wrote. But the officer was on duty all night and went to bed as soon as he arrived home. He didn’t see the message until it was too late.
Rivers called a friend and asked if his father, an attorney, could help with the DUI. When he didn’t hear back immediately, he called again and left a message: “I need to know something,” he said.
At 11:07, alone and afraid, he texted his mother for the final time.
Billy Watkins is a columnist for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.