The following letter was published in the SF Chronicle following the death of Malcolm Graham ’09.
By Ricci and Vernae Graham August 26, 2016
In the hope that we can help other families confronting addiction and mental illness, we are sharing our journey and our prolonged fight for our son, Malcolm Rushe Graham. Malcolm died of an apparent heroin overdose just as he was attempting a fresh start. Although it is difficult to write this just hours after being informed our beautiful son passed away, we feel compelled to do so.
Some may think this is too personal of a story to share in this manner. We feel drug addiction is an issue that must be addressed out loud, in public. We need to speak out about the heroin epidemic that few comprehend and too many accept as it continues its slow yet insidious invasion into our lives.
Malcolm, who was injured while playing football during his senior year at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, became addicted to prescription pain medicine after two knee surgeries. His addiction was further complicated by his struggles with a mood disorder, leading to encounters with the criminal justice system and repeated stays in treatment centers.
There was a time when we thought he had defeated his addiction, when he had evolved into the person we knew he could be.
For two years, Malcolm was sober, immersing himself into what became his true passion: mixed martial arts. The sport became a welcome source of discipline that provided the structure and support missing in his life. He was clean and loving life — the young man who we worked so hard to raise and nurture.
Then something happened: A demanding full-time job that no longer allowed him the freedom to train and participate in activities sponsored by the gym. He was learning computer coding, and taking prep courses, but all these activities proved just too much. He began to suffer from panic attacks. During this time, we urged him to get back on his prescription medication for those symptoms, but unbeknown to us, he had already eased back into the use of opioid-based paid medication, followed by the deadly plunge into heroin use and addiction.
Over the years, we’ve reached out to an endless line of physicians, drug counselors, therapists, judges, lawyers and police officers. So many of you have been wonderful, but your counsel wasn’t enough to save Malcolm. He was denied what could have been a lifesaving drug by our insurance company even though his outpatient treatment center insisted that he was a “perfect candidate.” The insurer declined the use of this drug because it was recognized to treat alcoholism, not opioid addiction. The treatment center appealed several times over two months. All the while, Malcolm was slipping away.
Shortly after the final denial, his outpatient treatment facility said he needed a higher level of treatment and recommended a rehab center in Sacramento.
So, in April, Malcolm was admitted. Three weeks later he was released to the center’s sober living environment apartments and assigned to an intensive outpatient program. Many good things can be said about these programs, but one constant is they’re not designed for a Millennial. The curriculum is dated and doesn’t hold the attention of young people who have grown up with technology integrated into their lives.
After three short weeks, Malcolm was released. The reason given? He no longer needed inpatient care. We were shocked: It didn’t take three weeks to become a heroin addict and certainly doesn’t take three weeks to break the addiction.
The addiction treatment system is broken and needs a complete overall. The new White House drug czar, Michael Botticelli, gives us hope. He is a recovering alcoholic who recognizes addiction as a disease that needs to be treated like any other disease.
We also need to take a look how other countries are dealing with heroin addiction. Portugal has significantly reduced the number of addicts in recent years; there the stigma is being lifted. We need to look everywhere for solutions — beyond any boundary, real or imagined.
As we sifted through Malcolm’s school memorabilia, we came across an essay about if he could help the homeless, then he would. And he did. During many of our travels to treatment centers, hospitals and in our quest to find him safe housing, we always were amazed when he would stop, in mid-step, after noticing a homeless person, and offer to help in whatever way he could. That is who Malcolm was.
It’s too late for Malcolm, who turned 25 on July 25, but it is not too late for those who are still suffering. They need help, they need the resources and care that so often are denied by the bureaucracy of the health care system. The health care insurers, who so eagerly accept payment of our premiums, are just as eager to deny the care that could keep our loved ones alive.
Heroin addiction is cruel and relentless, leaving a path of pain, hopelessness, shame and ignorance. We must recognize it is an insidious disease, not the mark of a person’s character. We must pull together and do all we can to defeat this epidemic, because the next Malcolm Rushe Graham is just another 911 call away.
Our son is no longer suffering. He will always be our highly intelligent, funny, moody, gorgeous, somewhat shy, silly son. He had a heart of gold and was extremely loyal to his true friends.
Good night, sweet prince! You’re in God’s hands now.
Ricci and Vernae Graham live in Oakland. Malcolm Rushe Graham passed away Aug. 14 in Denver. If addiction is an issue that concerns you, then please donate to the New Leaf Recovery Foundation in Lafayette; Free At Last Community Recovery in East Palo Alto; Narcotics Anonymous World Services; any drug treatment research center.