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After being clean for nearly 3 years, Steve Renauer fell back into addiction

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  • Steven J. Renauer, of Naperville, died of a suspected heroin overdose.

      Steven J. Renauer, of Naperville, died of a suspected heroin overdose.

 
Dave Orrick
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Aug. 11, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

This is part of an occasional series of reports about the area teens and young adults whose deaths this year are attributed to suspected drug and alcohol abuse.

Dreamt a friend of mine O.D.' d on heroin. I think it's a psychic reading that will come true, or a scare from my higher power to show me what will happen.

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- Steven J. Renauer, "Record of Dreams," July 1999

Steve's vision came true - for himself.

He was found cold and dead in his Oak Park apartment last month two days shy of what could have been his three-year anniversary of sobriety.

Renauer, a 21-year-old, 1999 graduate of Naperville North High School, likely died of a heroin overdose that ended a several-day binge.

His tragic tale tells of a charismatic, intelligent and spiritual young man whose battle against drug addition inspired those around him but left him flawed with hubris, a cockiness that allowed him to believe he had beaten the demon that killed him.

It's a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks about trying cocaine or heroin: Once hooked, you're never safe.

Unlike a Greek tragedy, the audience of his parents, Sherri and Kevin Renauer, didn't see the end coming. While no parents are ever ready for their child to die from drugs, they found Steve's death especially vexing because he had been clean for so long.

In a sense, though, that contradiction was somewhat par for the course for Steve.

Those who knew him speak of a life of contradictions - of a young man who dedicated the last years of his life to saving others from drug addiction but couldn't save himself.

He came from a stable, two-parent, one-sister household - stable except for the havoc he wreaked when in the throes of addiction to any number of substances.

He courted the high school track star, whose love he won with his rebellious charisma. Then he stood her up at prom.

He made his parents proud when he graduated high school, despite living homeless within walking distance of home. Then he walked out on them at a celebratory dinner they had all planned.

'Wild card' youth

"Steven was always a wild card," Sherri says, chuckling. "A counselor once asked us if he was adopted because no one could figure out where it came from. We don't think it came from us. His sister wasn't like that. It was just him."

He always pushed the limit and was usually the first to cross the line. In grade school, he won a contest to see who could hold his breath the longest. He passed out.

As a youth at Highlands Elementary in Naperville, he was athletic, but as he entered adolescence at Kennedy Junior High, it became clear that Steve, an asthmatic, would never run as fast or as far as his friends.

"That's when the behavior started," Kevin recalls. "It's hard in Naperville. He wasn't the star athlete and he could see that. He struggled to find himself."

He still played sports, but he also began to nurture his affinity for music, teaching himself to play keyboard and drums. And he began to get into trouble.

Prankster to junkie

From junior high through high school at Naperville North, Steve evolved from a charismatic prankster to a party animal and eventually to a homeless junkie who became a threat to his family.

Alcohol and marijuana appeared as early as junior high. It's unclear when that led to LSD or when hallucinogens graduated to cocaine. By junior year, they were probably all in play.

His alcohol addiction got him in trouble with the law, but it was cocaine that sentenced him to a life of a drug addict.

Kevin and Sherri engulfed themselves in researching how to deal with a drug-addicted child. They saw therapists and enlisted the help of school counselors, but Steve refused help.

They grounded him, called police, stayed up all night talking him down from bad trips if he came home high. Sherri often drove the streets of Naperville looking for him.

Eventually, they sent him to live with Kevin's mother in the Detroit suburbs and enrolled him at a Catholic School. "You're just hoping against hope that something this drastic would turn things around," Kevin says.

He stayed clean for a short time but soon ran away and wound up living on the streets of Detroit, hitting up train commuters for cash to buy his next fix. After being mugged and threatened with rape, he called his parents up crying and told them he wanted to come home and get clean.

He kept his promise - for the first part of senior year, anyway.

"For the first few months, he seemed so smooth that he could handle everything," recalls Kristin Polancy, his senior year girlfriend. She was the captain of the track team who held the school record for hurdles, a 4.0 student who never so much as sipped beer.

He sought inspiration in Christianity and he combined his faith with his desire to help others.

Candy Rice, youth minister at St. Margaret Mercy Parish in Naperville, recalls Steve speaking to a youth group on a religious retreat.

"It was very powerful," says Rice, who spoke only of the normally confidential "witnessing" with Kevin and Sherry's consent. "It was about his journey through addiction. ...It took a lot of guts to get up in front of younger kids who look up to you and say, 'Man, this is tough, and you don't want this because it sucks.' Kids respond to that."

But his body and mind had become addicted to cocaine, and the drug abuse and rage came back with a vengeance, fueled now not only by cocaine, but heroin as well.

He stole money and jewelry from his parents. One day Sherri discovered the diamond had been pried out of her engagement ring.

"I'll kill you all," he told them in one violent rage.

Eventually, they kicked him out of the house and told him he couldn't come back until he was ready for treatment.

"It was ruining the family," Sherri says. "You couldn't go to work because he might break in. You never knew what he was doing, where he was or what kind of trouble he was in."

Kristin set out to rescue her first serious boyfriend, who was now sleeping in a Naperville park. On her way to school, she'd swing by and wake him up. She'd take him to the local gym for a shower.

"I kept thinking I could help him," she recalls, acknowledging she may have underestimated his addiction. "I tried to make sure we had stuff to do together, away from his friends."

But he often ditched school and Kristin so he could party. He later confessed to cheating on her with at least nine girls. On the night of prom, he stood her up until 3 a.m., when he showed up high. They broke up soon after.

Steve managed to graduate, and his parents hoped the achievement might change things. At a celebratory dinner at a restaurant, he told them he had to make a phone call. He didn't return.

The next time they saw him, later that month, he had broken into the home and was in a standoff with his parents and six police officers. At one point, as Sherri pleaded with her son, he lifted his shirt, revealing a large kitchen knife in his waistband.

"You weren't even dealing with him any more," Sherri says. "It was a drug. You'd look in his eyes and it wasn't him."

Sherri and Kevin had the police arrest him. No one was hurt.

When he sobered up, he vowed to do whatever it took to get clean.

Clean and sober

After two days under psychiatric care at Linden Oaks Hospital in Naperville, he went to a 28-day inpatient program at Rosecrance Substance Treatment Center in Rockford and then to Lutheran Social Services in Elgin, where by all accounts, Steve found his commitment to sobriety.

"My first impression was he was a smart-ass," recalls Alex Napiorkowski, his counselor at Lutheran.

Napiorkowski, speaking with the consent of Steve's parents, says his in-your-face, question-everything attitude wasn't the typical poster-boy attitude for treatment. It was better.

"Steve had to fully comprehend what something was in order to accept it," he says. "That's a good trait. Some recovering addicts just know what to say and do to satisfy you. Not Steve. That's what I liked about him. He always challenged and questioned for more."

Looking back, Napiorkowski acknowledges that what 19-year-old Steve may have underestimated was that staying clean doesn't take one or two or three years of staying sober. It's a lifetime commitment.

Surrounded by recovering addicts in the established program, Steve gradually accepted the regimen and soon became a leader.

His parents noticed rapid and extraordinary changes.

He reconciled with them over the rage and the violence. He even stopped slouching, Sherri recalls. "For the first time in years, I saw his shoulders," she says. "I thought, 'Finally, we've got him back.'"

But his core never changed.

"Cocky kid, know-it-all, ladies man, real self-assured." Those were the traits Brett Mathis fondly remembers of Steve. Mathis, a 34-year-old alumnus of Lutheran, was struck by Steve's leadership once he decided sobriety was the path to take.

"If you put three kids in a room, Steve would come out the leader," says Mathis, a recovering cocaine and alcohol addict from Schaumburg who now lives in South Elgin.

He was so impressed with Steve that he set him up as a manager at a house for recovering addicts in Elgin. Similar to a "halfway house," Mathis' "three-quarter house" is a home where recovering addicts live after they have sobered up and gotten jobs but still want to be surrounded by a support network.

Steve, who had begun working in electronics and was paying his way through community college, excelled at managing the house, despite being only 19 in a home of seven other men mostly over 30.

He also reconciled with Kristin, his high-school sweetheart, and they grew closer than ever, often speaking of marriage.

He talked frequently to youth groups and became a sponsor for recovering addicts. He and Kristin organized charity dinners for the homeless and food handouts for the poor.

Kristin went to meetings for loved ones of addicts. Kevin and Sherri had been closely following his progress, and they began attending sessions as well. When Kristin's parents moved away and she was preparing to enter college, she moved in with Kevin and Sherri. Together, the four of them were beating Steve's addiction.

By the beginning of 2002, Steve had been clean 2 1/2 years. He had a union apprenticeship through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and landed a job installing data wiring in the Loop with Justus Communications.

"He'd be on the job on time all the time," recalls owner Don Justus, who said he never suspected a history of drug abuse. "He was a hard-working kid with a great attitude."

The end

At one point, Sherri thought he was ready to come back home.

"No, Mom," he told her. "That's Naperville. That's the whole scene there. It's too much temptation."

But he did go back, at first to try to help.

He began seeing his old friends at Naperville, trying to pitch them on cleaning up.

At the wake, several friends told Kevin and Sherri that Steve had persuaded them never to use heroin or cocaine.

But often his attempts to help were fruitless, Kristin says.

"They'd wave a joint in his face and say 'C'mon, one for old time's sake,' " she says.

Kristin and Sherri say his attempts to sway his friends clean may have been a fatal error.

"I think in the end that was his downfall," Sherri says. "He connected more to helping these other people than he did to helping himself."

He began seeing the old crowd without telling anyone and went to support groups less frequently. He started having an occasional drink.

"I began to see the old signs," Kristin says. She broke up with him, although the two remained close.

But Steve had beaten heroin and cocaine. He had been clean for two years, he was 21 years old, and it was time to move on. Or so he thought.

He moved into an apartment in Oak Park, where he was closer to his job in Chicago.

It wasn't until Steve left Sherri a message two days late for Mother's Day that she suspected something was wrong.

When they finally got him on the phone, he told them he was sick. They suspected it was heroin.

What they didn't suspect was that within days the knock on the door of their Naperville home would be by a police officer escorting a police chaplain to tell them their son was dead.

Epilogue

With the clarity of hindsight now, those who know the power of drug addiction say Steve signed his death certificate when he left his regimen of treatment.

"He said, 'This isn't for me anymore,'" Mathis recalls. "I think he thought that old 'It's gonna be different this time.'"

For a while it was. Steve was drinking on nights and weekends and occasionally smoking pot, but he was staying away from the cocaine and heroin.

"The problem is, for a guy who's a heroin addict, that's the light stuff, and you need more," Mathis says.

Ronnie Cox, a 28-year-old electrician who roomed with Steve in Oak Park, suspects Steve's growing confidence made him think he could handle it.

"The kid had everything going for him," he says. "He walked into something he thought he could handle because he had been clean so long. But Steve was a binge (partier), and you can't beat heroin."

The culturally rich neighborhood on Harrison Street overlooking the Eisenhower Expressway suited him with its art galleries and cafes featuring his flavor of local jam bands.

Many of the buildings in the neighborhood were being rehabilitated by recovering heroin addicts of the 1970s, and there's a treatment center within a block.

But the open-air heroin and cocaine markets on Chicago's West Side aren't far away, either.

As early as March, Steve had gone back to cocaine.

Cox says it was a chance encounter in late June with someone he had known from treatment - but who had returned to drugs and was panhandling at a local gas station - that led Steve to drive to the West Side and buy the heroin that killed him.

"It's true: He really did always tell people to stay away from heroin because he knew it was bad," Cox says. "This came out of nowhere. I can't explain it."

Several days straight of heavy heroin use, and Cox found Steve dead one morning.

Blood tests by the Cook County medical examiner's office will determine exactly what stopped his heart, but Sherry and Kevin say they know enough.

"He would be so disappointed in himself because you don't work that hard for that long to let that happen," Sherri says.

"I guess somehow we always knew he would -"Kevin starts, but cuts himself off. "But then, he was clean for so long that we really thought, 'This time...'"

Mathis says Steve Renauer's sudden demise is a cautionary tale.

"Don't give up on the program if it works," he says. "Stick with people that are working the program and supporting you. Can you make it without it? Yeah. ...But more often than not, you'll end up like Steve."

Help for dealing with addicts

Editor's note: The Daily Herald asked drug counselor Al Turner to offer some advice on battling addiction.

When an individual is in the throes of an addiction it affects all of his or her family members. So how do you stay healthy yourself and still be as helpful as possible to the loved one caught in an addiction?

As an addiction counseling professional, I suggest a three-pronged approach. First, educate yourself about the disease of addiction. Second, take care of yourself first. Third, seek all the help and support you can muster.

In order to help an addict, you must first understand the problem. It is not a matter of self control or a moral issue. Addiction has biological, psychological and social components. Learn how these different aspects of the disease interact to keep the addict stuck in cycles of abstinence and relapse. Perhaps the easiest way for most families to educate themselves is by going online and gathering information. An excellent place to start is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) web site at www.nida.nih.gov.

The stress of living with an addict can be devastating. Learn to say no. Eat right and exercise. Keep your word to yourself.

I have seen many professionals burn out trying to work in the field of addictions. An untrained family member doesn't stand a chance without learning what works and what doesn't when it comes to helping the addict.

Do not be afraid to ask for help. Seek as much professional and lay help and support as you can get. The family members of addicts who have been in our programs have recognized the need to be with each other and have formed a peer support group that meets twice a month to exchange ideas and help support each other. Our family support group is open to the public. It meets at 4 p.m. the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.

Finally, I would urge you to keep in mind this all important fact: "You didn't cause it and you can't cure it." Stop blaming yourself - Now! That won't help the addict or you.

Al Turner is a supervisor of outpatient and continuing care services at Lutheran Social Services in Elgin.

He is a Certified Alcohol and Other Drug Counselor (CADC) with a master's degree in human services.

He has worked in the addiction treatment field since 1994.

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