Former Dean Details Fall From Grace, Addiction Journey At Forbes Summit

By Victoria Kim 12/13/17

"Within three weeks of trying heroin, I was a full-on IV heroin addict. Within six months... I was waking up and creating a syringe with my infant sleeping upstairs.”

Nicholas deSpoelberch
Nicholas deSpoelberch Photo via YouTube

A former high school dean, whose fall from grace was plastered in the New York Daily News and other newspapers, is now in recovery. Nicholas deSpoelberch chronicled his journey from being the Dean of Students at a prestigious Manhattan high school, to his introduction to prescription opioids, and how it all ended with a very public heroin overdose. 

Speaking at the 2017 Forbes Healthcare Summit in New York City on November 29, deSpoelberch, now a licensed professional counselor, described his gradual spiral that began with prescription opioids and caused him to lose everything. 

This wasn’t his first experience with substance use disorders. When he was younger, deSpoelberch recalled being sent away for three years to get treated for alcohol and other substance misuse.

As a young family man, he became hooked on prescription opioids that he used to treat injuries from practicing martial arts. “I started to notice that if I did not have a prescription, there were withdrawal symptoms,” he said. “One day it was one more, the next day one more. The next week two more, each day.”

Before he knew it, he was dependent on the pills. “It’s almost like a dimmer switch. It can get pretty dark before anybody notices anything has changed.”

But since painkillers are dispensed by doctors and pharmacists and not drug dealers, deSpoelberch kept going. “My rationalization was, I can always go get them legally. I never once purchased illegal prescription narcotics. I was handed them—easily and in large amounts,” he said.

Soon he’d burn through “two or three monthly scripts in a week.” He said some doctors would cut him off, but most wouldn’t make the extra effort to monitor or call out his drug-seeking behavior. 

It was only one time, he recalled, that one doctor really tried getting through to deSpoelberch. The doctor printed out a database of every opioid prescription the dean had filled in the last year, and it amounted to pages. 

“That was the only time in thousands of pain prescriptions that one doctor finally said to me, something is a problem here,” he said, highlighting the lack of oversight that had been normalized among opioid prescribers. 

In the meantime, deSpoelberch had become hopeless and grown distant from his family. “Three years of a semi-conscious narcotic coma and when you’re that numb, you lose touch with family, you lose touch with your kids, you lose touch with yourself and with the joy of being alive and feeling things.”

“As they often say, nobody wakes up one day and says I want to be a heroin addict. It’s usually a much longer, slower slide,” he said. 

deSpoelberch was depressed and his drug use spiraled out of control. “I went to heroin. Within three weeks of trying heroin, I was a full-on IV heroin addict. Within six months I was going through $500 a day. I was waking up and creating a syringe with my infant sleeping upstairs.” The dean would get to Regis High School on the Upper East Side and shoot up at school.

Heroin had taken over his life. deSpoelberch describes his lowest point. “The wheels came off the track and I didn’t know how to stop it. I wanted to die at that point and I didn’t know how to stop using. Because the only compulsion at that point was to keep using.”

On July 11, 2013, he told his wife he was going to an AA meeting and left the house. He used one bag of heroin and overdosed. He was found by a police officer, unconscious in his car in the middle of a one-way street. 

Once the news broke, he lost his family and his career in one fell swoop. “The next day my wife was waking up to front page headlines that she was married to a heroin addict,” he said. He was charged with felony heroin possession as a school administrator.

That was the last time deSpoelberch used an opioid. It was the push he needed to start his recovery journey. He was able to detox and get on Suboxone for four to five months to wean himself off of opioids. He recalled that even members of the 12-step community supported his use of Suboxone. They recognized that deSpoelberch was a chronic case, and couldn’t go from “100 miles an hour to 0” cold turkey.

He now has his family back, and a new purpose. With his platform, he's able to share his experience with others, including the teens struggling with heroin use that he works with, from his very personal perspective. 

“I wanted to express the pain and the hopelessness one feels in this addiction,” he said. There's still hope for anyone, he says. There are resources out there.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr