Clayton Perry preferred to live his life on his own terms.
But after the Columbus native realized the consequences of heroin use made goal that nearly impossible to achieve, the 29-year-old began to believe it was too late to reclaim his destiny.
He died Oct. 11 at his family’s Columbus home of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, the county coroner ruled. The synthetic opioid is considered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to be 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Perry’s was Bartholomew County’s 23rd fatal drug overdose of 2017, and the eighth from fentanyl.
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In the final two months of the year, those numbers would increase to 12 fentanyl overdose deaths, the most of any opioid; and 30 fatal drug overdoses overall, 26 of them opioid-related, the coroner’s office reported.
More than six months after Perry’s death, many of his friends and family members are still shaking their heads in disbelief.
For girlfriend Breanne Rose and Perry’s father, Rick Perry, overhearing others using stereotypes to classify people fighting addictions is difficult to hear.
“They aren’t just junkies out on the street, dropouts, or a guy cooking meth at the trailer park,” Rose said. “Clayton was the smartest person I ever met. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a better person.”
It was exceptionally painful for Rick Perry to hear a co-worker advocate that opioid antidotes shouldn’t be administered to heroin users after a second overdose.
Since the coworker was unaware of Rick Perry’s personal experiences, the father said he chose not to respond.
“While he is not a bad guy, that remark does show ignorance,” Rick Perry said. “I wish others could understand that when it comes to heroin, you don’t just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and walk away.”
From an early age, Clayton Perry exhibited an appreciation for science and math, his parents said.
As he matured, a strong fascination with mechanical and high-tech items developed, Rose said.
“Clayton loved to take things apart to figure out how they work,” she said. “His brain was always working.”
When he was a fifth-grade student, a computer repairman quizzed young Clayton on his knowledge of software and hardware. The technician was amazed the boy got all but one of the questions right, said his mother, Kim Tarr Perry.
As his peers enjoyed sitcoms or video game fantasies, Clayton Perry was far more into science documentaries, his father said.
“He liked to delve into subjects like time, space and physics,” Rick Perry said. “I asked him one time ‘What is light?’ And he explained it in a way that was over my head.”
As he matured into a young man, Clayton Perry was nothing like the awkward or anti-social intellectuals often portrayed in popular films or television.
After listing a multitude of positive attributes that included funny, inspiring and relatable, Tarr Perry said her son “could charm you with them all.”
Perry also cultivated an interest in art and music that included drawing, painting and teaching himself to play the guitar and piano.
“He was never pretentious or pompous about his intellect,” said Clayton’s younger sister, Maggie Perry.
That said, he was never interested in academic recognition either.
Perry didn’t pursue post-secondary degrees because that path would require studying things that did not interest him, his father said.
Nevertheless, his son was able to certify himself in several areas of information technology without college courses, which enabled him to land a position as an information technology technician for The Republic.
While words such as fearless, self-confident and adventurous are frequently used to describe Perry, friends and family remember him for his love of spontaneity.
For example, he left for a week with little preparation to travel to Colorado to climb a mountain.
Rick Perry recalls another instance when he saw his son packing his car and asked what he was up to. Clayton Perry simply replied he was going camping “west of town.”
No indication was made that “west of town” meant 1,600 miles to Yellowstone National Park in western Wyoming.
“Most people plan and save for such a trip, but Clayton didn’t believe in what others would call being practical,” Rose said. “The moment he got that trip in his mind, he was ready to go.”
Reaching a destination was never the main point of a trip for Clayton Perry, his father said.
“It was the thrill of not knowing what would happen next,” Rick Perry said.
While possessing several positive attributes, Perry was by no means perfect, people close to him said.
Although never diagnosed with mental illness, he did display alternating periods of elation and depression, Rose said.
“He could also be very bullheaded — especially if he had been drinking,” Rick Perry said. “And when he did drink, it was often to excess.”
The heavy drinking began after Perry was diagnosed with diabetes at age 16, his mother said. A friend convinced him that alcohol could help control negative symptoms, she said.
One example of irrational behavior was when Perry was riding with an intoxicated motorist who was pulled over by police for erratic driving.
Although never threatened with arrest himself, Perry became confrontational and yelled profanity at the arresting officer, Columbus Police spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said.
When told to stop walking away, he ignored their orders and ran off — only to be later caught and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting law enforcement, Harris said.
That incident exhibited what Maggie Perry described as her brother’s disregard for authority and conventional values.
Although she believes he displayed traits of an addictive personality, Maggie Perry said her brother rejected that diagnosis.
Since he was able to stay away from alcohol and some controlled substances for long periods of time, Perry believed he had the strength and willpower to overcome whatever challenges he encountered, his father said.
Starting the slide
Although Perry did not like using marijuana and refused to indulge in methamphetamine, evidence began to emerge that he was using cocaine and LSD, his father said.
“The path he was taking kept getting deeper and darker,” Rick Perry said.
Shortly after resigning his information technology position with the media company and citing plans to permanently move west, Perry began to use heroin, his father said.
“Eventually, he got to the point where he was lost and unable to find his own way back,” Rick Perry said.
The consequences of heroin use not only quickly caught up with Perry, but eventually overwhelmed him. He was charged with possession of a narcotic drug and unlawful possession of a syringe in July 2016.
The resulting travel restrictions and court hearings forced him to cancel his plans to start a new life elsewhere, his girlfriend said.
“That took a lot of light out of his life when he could no longer pack up on a whim to go exploring,” Rose said.
Since the court also prohibited Clayton Perry from having any type of a firearm, the hunting trips he had enjoyed since childhood were also forbidden, Rose said.
Restrictions tightened further when he had to surrender his driver’s license after being arrested for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. That was followed by a third arrest in September 2016, for driving while suspended.
Between July 2016 and May 2017, Perry was arrested five different times after leaving his full-time job at The Republic — including possession of heroin and possession of cocaine.
With his natural depression worsened by heroin use, Perry became increasingly convinced that everything that made his life worthwhile was over, his father said.
“He had made threats about killing himself,” Rick Perry said. “And I don’t think Clayton was afraid to die.”
The father recalled a time when a police officer appeared at his door to tell him his son had posted a online photograph of himself with a gun to his head.
After being revived from a heroin overdose while sitting in a car outside a local tavern, Perry later told his father that he had intended to kill himself, Rick Perry said.
When he appeared before Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin, he described his revival from the overdose as an inconvenience and nuisance, the father said.
After Clayton Perry spent a month in jail for probation violations from May 18 through June 19 of last year, his mind was finally clear enough that he began trying to regain a purpose for his life, Rose said.
“He was excited about getting help,” she said. “He wrote to me that his dad was trying to get him into residential treatment centers in Indianapolis or Bloomington.”
But after coming to the realization that long-term care was not affordable, Perry made one final effort to use his willpower to reclaim his life, she said.
Although initially apprehensive about entering the St. Peter’s LifeWorks recovery program, Perry eventually began looking forward to attending the two-hour meetings three times a week, his father said.
“He knew it was helping him, and he enjoyed talking with and relating to others like himself,” Rick Perry said. “When he was about three months into it, I could see he looked better and brighter.”
And for the first time, Clayton Perry began expressing a desire to one day have a wife and children that could accompany him on his travels and adventures, Rose said.
Falling into Relapse
But by September, a series of frustrations and setbacks began leading him back down the dark path toward a relapse — something that nearly all heroin users experience during recovery.
It was likely a return to excessive alcohol use that brought back the old feelings of deep depression and hopelessness, Rose said.
Perry also began acting out in ways he had never displayed before. Desperate behavior during the final month of his life included borrowing money under false pretenses, Rose said.
Addiction specialist Dr. Theodora Saddoris of Columbus describes that type of behavior as showing the impulsive side of addiction after heroin has damaged the part of the brain necessary for free will and making rational choices.
What’s left is a person with an overwhelming desire to avoid the pain of withdrawal symptoms, Saddoris said during a local forum.
“I tried so hard to work with Clayton and push him into trying to make himself better,” Rose said. “But he would push me away until I backed off.”
When the mind games Perry played began to erode Rose’s self-esteem, the single mother of three felt she had no choice but to cut off all contact with him, Rose said.
But on the evening before his death, Perry sent an email to Rose to inform her that a West Coast relative was offering him a place to stay, Rose said.
After Perry asked about how she felt about him moving away, Rose replied that he should go. She then told him she would be coming over to his house the next day to retrieve her personal items, Rose said.
Tired of fighting
When Rick Perry picked up his son from outpatient treatment the night of Oct. 10, the two spent the drive home discussing music, the father said.
After arriving home, the father heated up a plate of biscuits and gravy that his son took downstairs to his bedroom.
Clayton Perry was last seen alive at about 11 p.m. by his sister as he passed her in the living room on his way to the bathroom, his father said.
“We had no idea there was anything wrong,” Rick Perry said. “I still thought he was going to whip this addiction.”
Late the next morning, Rick Perry peeked into his son’s room, but couldn’t see him. Thinking his son was in the shower, Rick Perry started walking back upstairs before he was suddenly struck by a feeling that something was wrong.
That prompted the father to go back downstairs and take a closer look. After entering the room, he saw his son curled up on the floor. He called his son’s name, but there was no response.
When he touched his son’s body, it was cold. A moment later, Rick Perry saw a syringe that still had some heroin in it.
Spread across his bed were new pens and art paper that had arrived by mail the day before. On the corner of one page was written three words: “Tired of fighting.”
Six months after Clayton Perry’s death, people who were closest to him are not certain what ‘tired of fighting’ meant.
While Rick Perry acknowledges it might have been intended as a suicide note, he said no one can be sure.
Those words are especially haunting for Rose. She frequently wonders if Perry was saying he was tired of trying to fix their relationship that she ended.
“But he could have just been tired of fighting with himself,” Rose said. “Or just tired of … everything.”
What is certain, as with almost every overdose death, is that loved ones will wonder what they could have done to prevent the death, according to grief counselors.
For Tarr Perry, those feelings stem from being largely estranged from her son and knowing there will never be an opportunity to mend their relationship.
Five months after her son’s death, Tarr Perry suddenly became so emotionally overwhelmed that she had to be relieved from her retail duties for a half-hour at a local pharmacy, she said.
Although such feelings are natural, healing will take a long time, mental health experts say.
While still in bereavement, both Rick Perry and Breanne Rose believe there is a lesson for others from their tragic loss.
“The people who are dying from heroin are not nobodies,” Rose said. “Sometimes, they are those you would least expect to die that way.”
For Rick Perry, the lesson is that fighting heroin addiction is beyond a matter of will or self-control.
“Clayton was an extremely strong-willed person who conquered everything he wanted to do,” the father said. “He truly wanted to get away from his addiction. But with heroin, you really have to have somebody there to help you.”
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”About this report” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in history.
With alarming frequency, opioids — including prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl — are killing Americans, including an increasing number in Bartholomew County.
The Republic is taking a yearlong look into the public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and that crosses all socioeconomic lines.
Addicted & Dying will tell the harrowing stories of people with drug addictions and families who have lost loved ones.
We will talk to doctors, addiction specialists, law enforcement officers and others on the front lines battling a problem that is ruining lives and putting mounting pressures on social service agencies, hospitals, the judicial system and the economy.
Beyond that, Addicted & Dying will explore solutions and a path forward — what treatments and approaches work, what communities can do and how to help people in need.
The project began with a three-part installment in January.
TODAY: Today, people closest to Clayton Perry describe how he lived — and how they have been shaken by his death.
MONDAY: Jim McClelland, Indiana’s executive director for drug prevention, talks about the state’s efforts to slow the opioid crisis. And researcher Ryan Brewer, an associate professor of finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, talks about a new study on the impact of opioid misuse in Indiana.
Got an idea for our project? Contact us at [email protected].
[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Where to learn more” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
To learn more about efforts to fight the opioid crisis in Bartholomew County, visit the website for the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County at asapbc.org/.
[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”About fentanyl” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
Frequently asked questions about fentanyl from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Q. What is fentanyl?
A. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It is a powerful anesthetic that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is most often used with patients who are already taking other opioids to relieve chronic or breakthrough pain such as the pain caused by cancer.
Q. What are fentanyl-related substances?
A. Because fentanyl is synthesized, chemists can create a wide range of similar synthetic opioids ranging in potency. One of the more commonly abused fentanyl-related substances is carfentanil, which is about 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
Q. Why is fentanyl dangerous?
A. In its purest form, fentanyl is a white powder or in grains similar in size to grains of salt. It only takes a small amount of fentanyl to cause a severe or potentially deadly reaction. As little as two milligrams is a lethal dosage in most people.
Q. What does fentanyl do to the brain?
A. Like heroin, morphine and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opioid drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain’s reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation.
Q. What are the effects of fentanyl exposure?
A. They resemble those of heroin and include euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, confusion and sedation. With repeated exposure comes tolerance, addiction, respiratory depression and arrest, unconsciousness, coma and death.
Q. What is fentanyl’s legal and medical status?
A. Fentanyl is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for limited use as an analgesic (pain relief) and anesthetic, although it is often sold illicitly. Fentanyl is a Schedule II narcotic under the United States Controlled Substances Act.