One choice could be your last choice

Mother copes with loss of son, spreads awareness of drug dangers

Debbie Autrey displays a portrait of her son, Will. Will died of drug overdose in 2014.
Photo by Sara Vaughn
Debbie Autrey displays a portrait of her son, Will. Will died of drug overdose in 2014.

Will was a unique, bright young man.

Will was an honor student and in the Gifted and Talented Program at Arkansas High.

Will was selected by his teachers to attend Boys’ State his junior year.

Will was well-liked and stayed out of trouble during his high school career.

Will graduated in 2013 and chose to experiment with drugs.

Will Autrey was 18 years old when he died of a Tramadol overdose on April 25, 2014.

“I was just shocked,” said Debbie Autrey, Will’s mother. “A lot of people go through an experimental phase. Teens are going to try things. [With] the dangers in today’s world, you may not make it out. My son made a choice. That’s what it boils down to: his choices. Unfortunately, he was not one of the ones to make it. I know that if he was here today, he would take it all back for anything.” 

Sara Vaughn

As a young boy, Will was not the typical child who loved to throw mud and run from girls with cooties. He took Taekwondo in elementary school, which led to his passion for Asian culture. During middle school, Will’s serious nature and knowledge of politics captured the attention of his teachers.

“Will Autrey knew more about politics that anyone I’ve ever known; that was his passion,” Debbie said. “When he was in middle school, I would get so mad because he would make me wait until 4:00 or 4:30. He would be in [his class] talking to all of his teachers. [They] would be circled around him, talking about politics.”

Will soon outgrew Taekwondo, and his interests wandered outside of politics as he entered high school. Will liked to study Judaism and became even more fascinated with Asian culture and how other countries operated.

“I had no problems with Will in high school,” Debbie said. “He was just a great kid. Part of the issue with him [was that] he was easily bored. He was one who liked to dip his toe. You could tell him no, but he wanted to find out for himself.”

Debbie noticed that Will’s charming personality was progressively disappearing during July after he graduated up until the end of that year.  As Will’s once boy-like behavior morphed into an apparition of his former self, Debbie realized there was something wrong. Eventually, Will was asked to move out in late December.

“I confronted him, and, of course, [he said,] ‘Mom, I’m not doing anything. Don’t bring your work home,’” Debbie said. “He said he didn’t want to leave, but it was tough love. Tough love does work. I believe I had my son three months longer than I would have had him had I not used tough love.”

Will was back home.

Will was doing great.

Will was proud of his mom and held her hand and kissed her cheek at Central Mall.

Will’s behavior was changing.

Will was using again.

Will was 24 days away from turning 19.

Will Autrey died on April 25, 2014.

“In my generation, we would experiment with things, but people weren’t dying,” Debbie said. “Now the drugs that are out there, they’re astounding. It has nothing to do with how you were raised. Will had a lot going for him. But it came to my home. I’m a statistic now.”

Debbie also went through an experimental phase in her teenage and college years, but quickly grew out of it. With the rapid desensitization of drugs, many teenagers and young adults are not aware of how easily Will’s mistake can happen.

“He was just experimenting, and he didn’t make it out,” Debbie said. “Why do some make it out and some don’t? I don’t know. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t mean to die. He didn’t think he would die.”

He was my only child. He died April 25, 2014. The last I knew of me, Debbie Autrey, the way I’ve always been, was on April 24, 2014. I’ll never be that person again.

— Debbie Autrey

Debbie is a mother.

Debbie has been a therapist at South Arkansas Youth Services for 25 years.

Debbie was close with Will.

Debbie traveled over the years with Will to Mexico, Galveston, Disney World and St. Thomas.

Debbie bought Will a passport two months before he died.

Debbie did all of the right things and taught Will the dangers of drugs, but

Debbie Autrey  still lost her son.

“I’ll never be the same,” Debbie said. “He was my only child. He died April 25, 2014. The last I knew of me, Debbie Autrey, the way I’ve always been, was on April 24, 2014. I’ll never be that person again.”

So now, Debbie hopes to honor Will’s life; to make sure that he isn’t defined by one decision; and to convince other young people they aren’t immune to death.

“People say that it only happens to broken homes,” Debbie said. “No, it struck my home. This tragedy came to my home. It can get anybody at any time, any where, any place. Don’t ever say it won’t happen to you. Don’t ever say ‘I won’t be that stupid, I would never try that.’ My son said the same thing, and it boils down to that choice. If you decide to make that choice, you’re deciding to play Russian Roulette with your life.”