Beating the odds
Used life’s adversaries to choose a path to success
By JENNIFER FARNSWORTH
For The Leader-Herald
The cycle of drug and alcohol can be very difficult to break out of, almost seeming impossible, which makes Becky Sawyer-McGraw’s story of courage and resilience so amazing. She and her family are working to beat the odds, one day at a time, and she hopes the progress she has made in her personal and professional life will inspire others.
Sawyer-McGraw’s mom, Lori Luke, knows her daughter is extraordinary, and she wants the world to know her daughter’s story. She said her daughter, now 30 years-old, grew up in their Perth home which was run by drug and alcohol abuse, yet she managed to will her way out, and find a life full of promise.
“My daughter is an angel to everyone, anyone she meets, anyone who needs anything, she is the person who would stop by the side of the road to help someone in need, “said Luke.
Luke has also made great progress in her life, alongside Sawyer-McGraw. She knows that she brought her daughter into an unhealthy environment, and has made the selfless decision to use her mistakes to help others living in this era of a drug abuse epidemic. Sawyer- McGraw, who today is an accomplished professional, said her life began with her mother, stepfather and two younger sisters. Her parents, as well as her biological father, were drug addicts, and struggled with addiction throughout her childhood. One of her most traumatic memories is of her stepfather going to prison when she was just 10 years-old.
“I was in the fifth grade when the SWAT team flocked our home, and I was the one to greet them at the door. Even though my parents tried to keep me and my siblings sheltered from what they were doing, as a child you knew something was wrong and could not stand having to be put upstairs for “grown up time,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
Sawyer-McGraw said on weekends she would travel an hour to see her biological father and grandmother, who she said has been the most positive influence in her life. At the age of 15, she moved in with her father, not knowing at the time that he was a drug addict as well.
“When I turned 16, I became his personal taxi, picking him up from various crack houses in the middle of the night, or jail for a DWI. I had missed so much school that I almost did not graduate because I was too tired to get up in the morning to go to school,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
The vice principal at Broadalbin-Perth at the time stepped in and made it clear to Sawyer-McGraw that in order to graduate she had to find a way to put herself first. One day he brought her down to his office and said she had to make the decision to be in school for the remainder of the year, or she would not graduate. She said it was at that moment that she knew she had to make a change.
“He cracked down on me and told me I needed to be in school every day. And I did, and graduated with high honors, “said Sawyer-McGraw.
After graduating, she attended Schenectady County Community College and obtained her associate’s degree in human services, as well as chemical dependency counseling.
“I originally started out to be a vet as my step father always did exotic rescue and we had an infinite love for all animals, but decided my calling was helping people that had been in my situation and ensuring they knew that there are always choices to be made, “said Sawyer-McGraw.
At age 18, she began working at Montgomery Transitional Services, a youth group home in Amsterdam, while going to school full time. Shortly after, she moved to New Hampshire where she attended the University of New Hampshire and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She then went on to Boston University to pursue her doctorate in psychology and Juris Doctor degrees. During this time, she was also trying to assist in raising her younger sister and her stepfather was having health issues, eventually dying from cancer in 2011.
“This had all put more pressure to be the backbone of my family, while they lived in New York and I lived in New Hampshire, “said Sawyer-McGraw.
Luke said it was the pure determination of her daughter to continue to fight through these dire circumstances.
“She was a staple in pulling us all together,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
It was this determination during this time, to live a different life that kept her going, according to Sawyer-McGraw. It was the inspiration for to take her experiences and turn them into a passion for helping others.
“I have always been very strong willed and knew from a young age that I wanted to be the first person to graduate from high school, as well as college, and I was not letting any of that get in the way. This cost me a lot of friends, as well as family as they had taken a different road with drugs or other things. I watched drugs tear my family apart, kill many friends, and then moving on to suicide in which I lost a longtime boyfriend to in 2015,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
After her stepfather died, Sawyer-McGraw said her relationship with her mother began to deteriorate. She explains that her mother was continuing to make unhealthy choices that were affecting the entire family.
“I made decision that I could not have her negativity and bad choices in my life as I was also struggling with my father being ill while I was going to school, working, and raising my sister,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
In 2010, Sawyer-McGraw made the decision to step in and get her mother help, whether she wanted it or not. Luke credits the decision by her daughter as lifesaving, and although Sawyer-McGraw does not regret doing it, it was difficult.
“I basically tricked by mother by telling her I was taking her to get ice cream, and I then brought her to the hospital where I had her committed into an inpatient mental health treatment facility due to a nervous breakdown because of my father’s health, and her opiate and drinking issues. After her release, she did very well and we began to rebuild our once unbreakable bond and relationship,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
Remarkedly, Sawyer-McGraw said she has never used an illegal substance. She said she did find herself in a situation where prescription pain killers had been prescribed to her for severe back pain, and she found herself in a support group for chronic pain sufferers. This is a growing concern for many substance abuse professionals, as they see more and more people struggle to get off prescription painkillers. Sawyer-McGraw said she knows what addiction looks like and quickly took the right steps to not become dependent.
“I consider myself a success story with the given circumstances and life I was born into. Aside from the opiates [I was prescribed,] I have never touched a drug in my life, and I’m only a social drinker,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
In addition to pursuing her doctorates, Sawyer-McGraw said she spends much of her time raising awareness around “things that have captured her heart,” including drug abuse and suicide awareness.
“I speak across the country as far as San Diego on suicide awareness, as well as drug abuse, overcoming it, living with it, and loving an addict, as well as the difference between being an enabler or trying to help. Every month I raise awareness for certain monthly awareness causes by speaking out at schools, setting up booths in public places, leading walks, movements and candlelight vigils; especially for suicide awareness,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
Sawyer-McGraw has received many awards including the Spirit of NH Award Outstanding Citizen Award, the Volunteer of the Year from the Providers Council/Caring force of Massachusetts, Outstanding Human Service Impact Award by Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, the Carballo Award, the “Class of 1899 Prize, Erskine Mason Award and Universities Women’s Award from UNH.
She also worked closely with professor and mentor Supreme Court Judge James Carroll to create NH’s first “Recovery Court” similar to the New York state drug court. She has also hosted events for St. Baldrick’s and St. Jude’s, volunteers at the Legion Post 337, Galway Fire Dept., Toys for Tots, Salvation Army, food pantries, walks for multiple sclerosis, assists in LGBT awareness, as well as volunteering with the Center for Disease Control to raise HIV awareness, education and free testing. She provides free in-home counseling to veterans who cannot access mental health counseling or need assistance in finding resources.
In 2015, Sawyer Mc-McGraw was named Miss New Hampshire and was the fourth runner up for People’s Choice in the Miss America Pageant.
“During my reign, my platform was suicide awareness, which including much of the above stated volunteerism and awareness. I genuinely enjoy this, especially as I am able to tell me personal stories from growing up in a family surrounded by drugs, living and surviving domestic abuse and verbal abuse, witnessing deaths far too many times due to overdoses, as well as being in love with an addict. I feel connecting with my audience on a real level helps connect more to the people,” said Sawyer McGraw.
Looking to the future, Sawyer-McGraw she will continue to help others and make a difference through volunteering with local causes. She has been invited to INBOUND 2017 at the Boston convention center to speak on leadership, social issues and inspiration. She will stand alongside Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, John Cena, Dr. Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar and Yuval Dvir from Google.
“A small town, 30-year-old girl from Broadalbin, being noticed for something as simple as my passion, being invited to speak out at this convention with 92 countries, with an expected attendance of over 19,000 people. It’s the most amazing feeling and honor that I have had,” said Sawyer-McGraw.
To learn more about finding help with substance abuse and prevention visit www.oasas.ny.gov for a list of resources.