Wheaton parents who lost son to heroin tell families to have hope
Hope, Keenan Clousing wrote just months before his death, is not a physical thing, "but it can clearly be seen."
From his jail cell, he crafted a poem about the feeling.
"Hope is ...
When everything has gone wrong
But you continue to try and do right
When your dreams come crashing down
But you still dream every night"
Hope, his parents say, is what they always had for their 19-year-old son, despite the seven trips to rehab, the multiple stints in jail, the three horrific overdoses and the heroin addiction that ultimately took his life on March 1.
"He had so much hope for himself," Keenan's mother, Patti Clousing, said while sharing his story on a recent afternoon. "He tried so hard, and that's the part that just hurts."
'My childhood was great'
Patti and her husband Joel wanted a big family, but fertility issues led them to pursue adoption.
In 1994, they traveled to Topeka, Kansas, to bring home their third adopted child -- a biracial baby boy they named Keenan. The couple would adopt three more biracial children during the next several years.
Every Sunday, the family attended Wheaton Bible Church. They prayed together at night, and Patti told her children to practice a "specific fruit of the Spirit" as they headed out the door to school each morning.
Last year, while serving time in jail, Keenan wrote a "testimony" about his life. In it, he commended his parents for helping build his foundation of faith by leading a "Christ-like life."
"My childhood was great," he wrote. "The last people I could blame for my hardships to come was my parents."
The Clousings say Keenan's struggles stemmed from a variety of issues, but they know the questioning and ridicule he faced from his peers for being biracial was especially hard on him.
"I think adolescence itself, that whole world weighs heavy on every kid," Patti said. "We can all look back on our adolescence and wonder how we make it through some of those moments."
Keenan wrote that his troubles began in fifth grade.
"I got caught up in my own selfish desires and by 13 my ego was enormous. I was popular, an incredible athlete, smart, girls liked me and I was just fun to be around. I replaced God and put myself as the center of my life."
When Keenan tried, unsuccessfully, to connect with his birth dad during his freshman year of high school, he hit a breaking point.
"That's when he really started spiraling down," Joel said.
Keenan was finishing his freshman year in high school when the Clousings decided it was time to seek help. They sent to him to an adventure camp in Minnesota for troubled teens; he came back refreshed with a positive outlook.
It didn't last long, however.
Keenan wrote that drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana came with his popularity.
He was a star athlete at Wheaton Warrenville South, where his mother is the tennis coach. By sophomore year, Keenan was being groomed to be the quarterback of the football team -- a prospect that his parents say was exciting but put a lot of pressure on him.
Drinking and recreational drug use influenced Keenan to do things that were considered athletic code violations, Patti said. After four strikes, he was kicked off the football team.
Keenan was crushed.
Hoping for a new start and a chance to play football again, Keenan enrolled in a military school in Virginia. That lasted about two weeks.
"I think he came home and just gave up for a while and let the drugs take over. That's when he let it consume him," Patti said, adding that Keenan started using prescription pills and other hard drugs around that time.
"The progression happened really quickly. When they start experimenting like that, they don't know what they're going to get addicted to," she added. "They're kids. They're not thinking 'Could this affect me for the rest of life?' They often think it's a one-time thing going into it, and that they can stop at any time."
Keenan wrote that drugs consumed his life by age 16.
"I dropped out of high school at 17 because I wanted to get high. I was in and out of rehab and in and out of jail. My drug use elevated to heroin and it tore my life to pieces and tore my family apart too."
In the years that followed, Keenan tried enrolling in other high schools and was admitted to seven rehab programs; each lasted less than three months.
"Rehab just is not long enough," Joel said.
Keenan's first heroin overdose occurred in August 2012. It took him almost 18 hours to regain consciousness after being given Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of heroin. A doctor told Patti that Keenan might not survive.
"That was a very scary one," she said.
Patti caught the second overdose quickly three months later, after noticing the odd way Keenan was talking to her. Luckily, a Narcan shot worked right away, she said.
The third time, last July, Joel followed the instructions of a 911 operator and gave Keenan CPR while he waited for paramedics to arrive. Again, Keenan was lucky to survive.
"Even with multiple overdoses that should of put (me) 6 feet under ground I continued in my selfish ways. But in my heart I wanted to change, but didn't know how."
The day after his third overdose Keenan faced his longest jail sentence yet -- six months for drug possession.
"My life was a mess and I truly wanted change. I cried out to God for help and got into my Bible every day ... Through prayer, reading and talking to God on a daily basis I began to feel myself changing through the inside out."
Keenan's Bible was a gift from a friend. The words "The Greatest Comeback Ever" were inscribed on the front.
His comeback fell short, but not for lack of trying, his parents say. Those words will be engraved on Keenan's tombstone.
Keenan was released from jail on Jan. 24. Six months without drugs had changed him and his parents were thrilled with how great he looked.
"He made a big impact when he first came home," Patti said. "Everybody noticed a big change in him, and he was really excited. He said, 'I know you don't want to hear any more of my words -- you want to see the new me by my actions.'"
And showing his change through actions is exactly what Keenan did. His parents said he made breakfast for his family, helped with groceries, went to his siblings' sporting events, and cared for Jayelyn, the son Keenan fathered in 2012. He showed renewed interest in all his family members' lives.
"Broken relationships with my family are being restored. People who I thought gave up on me are reaching out to me and praying for me. I don't deserve the blessings that the Lord is pouring out in my life."
After a few weeks at home, Keenan moved to an apartment a few miles away. He made a point to text his mom an "I love you" greeting every morning before heading to his job at a meat packing facility in Melrose Park.
But on March 1, Patti didn't get a text. As the hours passed, she had a gut feeling something wasn't right.
The Clousings knew Keenan was having a rough week, as his car had been impounded a few days earlier. They knew part of the reason included drinking, and as much as they hoped it wasn't true, they feared he also was on the verge of turning back to heroin.
"He never texted me back," Patti said. "I thought 'Well, maybe he's not texting me back because I asked him to go back to rehab, and he's probably just frustrated.'"
Patti and Keenan's older sister, Kori, went to check on him about 8:30 p.m.
"My daughter, bless her heart, she tried to do the CPR, but she's like, 'Mom, he's cold.' They didn't even take him to the hospital. He died there," Patti said.
Joel said he had dinner with Keenan a few days before his death and told him he had to get back on track.
"I said, 'Keenan, if you don't make this your moment-by-moment, day-by-day priority, you're going to beat me to heaven,'" he said.
Keenan died just a week before former NBA player Chris Herren came to Wheaton Warrenville South to talk about how he overcame his heroin addiction. Patti had fervently hoped Keenan would get to meet him.
Instead, she found herself attending Herren's speaking engagement with Joel and five children, instead of six. When it was over, she broke down, overwhelmed with thoughts of Keenan's struggle and death.
"Sometimes you want to see him, you want to hug him, and I want to see his reaction to what his little boy is doing," she said, fighting back tears.
"He wanted his life to make a difference, and he had so much hope for himself. I know this wasn't on purpose," she added. "He had goals, he was going to sign up for the ACT test, he was going to go back to school -- he even wrote out his game plan, what he really wanted to do."
Life goes on
Joel smiles at the poster boards and frames filled with photos of Keenan.
There are dated photos from his time in gymnastics, basketball and baseball, and more recent shots of him having fun with friends at a beach and holding Jayelyn.
While the thought of their son's death still stings, the Clousings hope their story will help other families with children struggling with a heroin addiction.
"Let it bend you, but don't let it break you, because the worst thing you can do is let it break the family up," Joel said.
The Clousings said they often disagreed on how they should react to Keenan's actions, which caused some tension in their relationship.
"What we said to each other is we just have to give each other a ton of grace," Joel said. "I think that's the only way we made it through."
The couple agrees, however, that they "don't regret anything we did or didn't do," Joel said. They urge families to attack the addiction "every moment of every day" and to try rehab.
"They don't ever want to go to rehab, but it does give them a chance to think and it gives you tools," Patti said.
"The families that are going through it, you just have to keep trying and don't let go of them. They don't want to be let go," she added, noting that Keenan's addiction angered his siblings, too. "It's something underneath. It's not the drugs. Something's hurting underneath all that."
Joel believes Keenan is in heaven with other family members. His father finds peace in that image.
A counselor from Wheaton Warrenville South visited Patti the day after Keenan died and told her addiction is like cancer. The words have stuck with her.
"Sometimes the chemotherapy works, and sometimes it doesn't. With cancer, we don't know why. And with addiction, sometimes rehab works and sometimes it doesn't, and we don't know why," she said.
Since his death, Keenan's parents have shared his poem and testimony with police officers, rehab facilities and other teenagers.
"Knowing that it is going out to a lot of people, I think that makes us happy for him -- even though he's not here with us -- to know that his life story is touching others," Patti said.
"That's all Keenan wanted to do, is to help kids not make the same mistakes he made," she added. "He even told me that when he was home. He said, 'Mom, I may not be able to reach the masses, but I want to help one kid at a time.'"
Above all, the Clousings stress the message Keenan had for himself: Have hope.
"Hope is all you got, when you got nothing at all."