Nick deSpoelberch had it all — fine job as dean of students at a prestigious New York City private school, wife, kids and nice house back in Darien — until he didn’t, undone by heroin. Then he recovered.
Now the Darien resident is an addiction and mental health counselor in Bridgeport making a third of what he used to make. But he’s free of heroin and happy.
deSpoelberch related his story Nov. 5 at the panel discussion on heroin in Darien, “,” sponsored by The Depot youth center and Darien Police Department. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of his talk in his words.
“Heroin in Darien” is a series of articles based on the panel discussion “Straight Talk-Lifting the Veil: Facing the Hidden Drug Epidemic in Darien” on Nov. 5. Previous articles in the series:
- Heroin in Darien 1: How Bad is Heroin Use in Our Town? This Bad
- Heroin in Darien 2: Signs of Addiction in Your Kid & How to Reduce the Risk
Future articles will focus on addiction treatment and where to find other resources to learn about the subject.
(We’re not using quotation marks but we are using elipses, “[…]” when we remove any part. This is almost the entire transcript.)
What Nick deSpoelberch said:
My name is Nick deSpoelberch. I’m a Darien resident in recovery. […]
I think that from a law enforcement perspective, from a medical perspective, from a counseling perspective, all this has been covered so well that my job is really just to give some of the blood and guts to what the experience of going through this was like for me, to, you know, lend that aspect to it.
I grew up in Rowayton, Conn., had a nice upbringing, […] intact family, good brothers, but going back even to being kind of a young boy, I can remember very clearly having what some people call sort of the ‘dis-ease’ of self, of feeling — I had good circumstances, but I wasn’t happy anyway, which I guess is a testament to the fact that substance abuse doesn’t necessarily care about circumstances, it’s how you perceive the world.
And I perceived the world — I was just unhappy, uncomfortable in my own skin — low self-esteem and just sort of uncomfortable, and typically that makes for an easy recipe for some substance that will take you out of that or make you feel a little more comfortable or less insecure about yourself.
So I’m going to try to get as fast as I can to the midpoint where the opiates come into the picture, but from the age of 12, I was experimenting with a lot of drugs that were around, especially in the ’80s — marijuana and hallucinogens […]
If the kinds of drugs we’re talking about tonight [heroin, opioid prescription medications] were here when I was growing up, it’s very unlikely I’d be here, and that’s part of the reason that this is so concerning, what we’re seeing going on.
I was sent away when I was 15 years old by professional escorts to four years of theraputic boarding schools to take me out of that environment. […]
One thing that I found in my experience that’s called “progression,” that’s talked about in recovery. If you have an addictive personality or you’ve developed a substance abuse pattern with any substance, whether you stop for a week, a year or 10 years, when you begin again, you typically don’t start from scratch. Your brain’s already learned to seek that substance impulsively, and that’s always been the case for me.
So after five years sober, when I decided I was pretty lonely and still uncomfortable, I decided to drink again, and my junior and senior years in college were essentially a kind of a two-year blackout.
I drank three or four times more than I ever did before, was introduced to cocaine, started selling cocaine, doing Ecstasy. It was just kind of a nightmare once again.
Now, it never got good, it never got pleasant, never got fun, but each time I started and developed that habit, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop.
I graduated from college, and I knew drugs and alcohol had sort of destroyed a lot of happiness in my life, so I made a well-intentioned decision to try to do something useful with my life, something meaningful to try to fill that hole that typically my brain had told me to fill with drugs and alcohol, and so I really set out to do that. […]
I worked for 5 1/2 years at Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital in Katonah, N.Y., as a mental health worker on an adolescent in-patient unit. But I was still never a normal drinker, so I’d work with these kids, and I loved it. I loved the work and I would still race home to the bars and not ask for, you know, a Coors Light. I would ask for a triple shot and a chaser.
I was still […] needing more and more of whatever substance. But I was a pretty functional addict at that time, and the meaningful things helped to fill the hole of meaning, enough that I didn’t need to use it all the time or anything like that.
I went to school and I got a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, and I got a fantastic job as a guidance counselor at one of the best high schools in this country — in New York City. And for three years I was a school counselor at a high school on Park Avenue.
I loved it. I had a four-hour round trip commute. I worked hard. Didn’t do any drugs. And I loved my life. It was probably the happiest I ever was, without any drugs or without drinking frequently.
Two months after I met a wonderful woman [and I got married], I got my second DUI [arrest for driving while under the influence]. So at that point I said, “Now, obviously, nothing psychoactive works — you need to stop it all.”
Off of it, and back on
So at that point I decided, “OK, I’m going to stop.” I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol or a single drug for two years, and things got infinitely better. I got promoted from three years as a guidance counselor to dean of students, school administrator at 32 years of age, was making $112,000 in education.
I had a nice house in Connecticut. One child born. I had it all, and I was happy at that point.
Then there came that night where I said to my wife, “Honey, I think I can have that one glass of wine.” And she said, “You know, I think you’re right.”
And that was something that was difficult for me and is difficult for people with addictive personalities or trouble with substance abuse — I was able to control everything. I worked hard, was in command and control for 540 brilliant male adolescents. I showed up. I was never late. I was responsible. I was a good husband to my wife — so she tells me — and a good father. I was present — I really was, and I worked hard.
And it comes down to that amazingly frustrating thing of “How can I do all this and not control a liquid?” — right? And the inability to correspond those two things.
So I had that one glass of wine that night — and this is where, you know, progression can really get scary. I had that one glass of wine that night and a month later it was a big bottle of wine, so I could have three-quarters and my wife could have one glass. Two months later, it was two big bottles of wine, so I could have one and three-quarters and she could have a glass.
Two months later, it was a bottle of Absolut in a closet, so when she went to change a diaper, I could race back there, drink straight vodka, go back — and essentially what happened is, my alcohol abuse progressed so quickly and so fast that I just couldn’t keep up. […]
A lot of times people in substance abuse talk about living sort of “fragmented lives.” I literally kind of split down the middle […] on one side of my life I was this respected school administrator who had earned through hard work the respect of all these kids, faculty, people, and then on the other side was this blackout drunk at night — and they were so disparate and so far apart that I couldn’t correlate them, and I couldn’t stop drinking either. And I literally, just — I fractured, and I started going away from myself very fast. And what happens — when, in my case, I was that out of control and didn’t know what to do or how to deal with it — sometimes another addiction will pop up. […]
I had surgery and I was given Percocets [an opioid, prescription pain medication] and I said, ‘Now this is perfect, because I can take these and feel mellow and feel comfortable,’ and the progression is rapid and it’s frightening, and the tolerance you build is amazing. […]
My success was kind of my ultimate undoing, because it began with — I would take two Percocets if I had an extremely stressful business meeting, and I would take two Percocets if, you know, I didn’t like the cartoons my children were watching in the morning. So over […] the last two years I was using — I was in a sort of semi-conscious narcotic coma.
I was taking a month’s supply of Oxycontin [another opioid prescription pain medication] or Percocet or Vicodin [yet another] in two or three days, and I would wake up in the morning and just shave with my iPhone light on because I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I was gone. I was fake. The part of myself that I used to know was long gone, and I didn’t know how to get it back, but I also didn’t know how to stop using. […]
After two years of that, I decided I didn’t care about the job, I didn’t care about the prestige, the money, and frankly I thought my kids would be better off without me.
So I went, just as they described [other experts on the panel had spoken about how those addicted to prescription opioids would turn to heroin, which is less expensive and creates a more pleasurable “high”], to what else is there, there’s heroin. So I started snorting heroin.
Within three weeks, I’m an I.V. heroin user [using a needle intravenously to get high through the blood stream], and within three months I’ve gone from one bag a day to seven bags at a time, and I am waking up an I.V. user and putting on my nice jacket and standing at the Noroton Heights Train Station with all the finance people and lawyers and drinking wine and getting in my car in gridlocked traffic and drinking straight vodka, and the last month I was out, I got in three or four car accidents.
I lost 28 pounds the last month I was shooting heroin, and I wanted to not wake up. I just kept hoping, “Don’t wake up this time. Don’t wake up this time.” I wanted to die, and I just couldn’t stop using.
One night for me, God or whoever it was, intervened [for] me in the form of a law enforcement personnel. When I told my wife I was going to an AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting, I shot one bag of heroin and I overdosed, and nine hours later I was uncionscious, parked in the middle of a one-way street two blocks from the Wilton Police Station, and an officer is knocking on my window with a Maglite [heavy flashlight] yelling, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” and I woke up.
Next day, I was arrested for felony heroin possession as a school administrator, and everybody who I had ever met in my life, and the thousands of kids who looked up to me and my wife — and mother of my three young children — woke up to front-page headlines in this town, News 12, [New York] Daily News, etc., etc. [and read] that she was married to a heroin addict.
And I was taken to a detox center, and reporters were knocking on my door and asking my 4-year-old where his Daddy was and did they know where his Daddy was. And that was his fourth birthday.
It’s what needed to happen [to me]. I’m glad it happened.
At one year’s sobriety, I found that Wilton police officer and I thanked him. I said, ‘I know you were just doing your job. Frankly, doing your job, you saved somebeody’s life. I don’t know that my kids would have a father if you hadn’t found me that night and followed it through.”
See the full video of the panel discussion on Darien TV79 (deSpoelberch tells of his experiences starting at about 1:05 on the recording [and continuing for about 13 minutes], which you can skip to using the bottom bar on the video screen):
And since that time it’s not an easy road, as has been described here. I’m mostly here because I took advantage of professional help, […] but also mostly because other people in recovery showed me how to live one day at a time and beat this thing, and without them, I wouldn’t be here.
Seven months in sobriety, I was hired as a mental health and substance abuse clinician in Bridgeport at a residential [facility] where most of the people I work with make my story sound like a dime tour of Disneyland, and 18 months later, I’m a licensed professional counselor.
I work mostly with people in addiction. I make one third of the money that I used to make, but I’m three times as happy. I love the life I have to day. I love being here with all of you guys. […]
This is the most addictive substance there is, and we’ve got it in our medicine cabinets. You can buy it on the street, and we’ve got heroin everywhere. So please, stay active in this. Pay attention. Work together. This needs a team approach. This needs a village, and I think by doing this we can save a few more lives. […]
For me, I’m just grateful to be alive. I’m just grateful to give back. I’m grateful that I can hug my children when I go home tonight, and they actually trust me and love me. And I guess that’s it, so, thanks.