Recovering addicts discuss addiction, its impact, and the road to recovery

About 85 people gathered inside the Wilton High School Little Theater on April 20 for the Wilton Youth Council’s It Starts in Your Medicine Cabinet discussion on opioid and opiate addiction.

Among the panel of experts leading the discussion were two local recovering adults, Kera Townshend and Nicholas deSpoelberch, who spoke of their experiences with addiction and recovery.

DeSpoelberch, a 38-year-old Darien resident in long-time recovery for opioids, opiates and alcohol, said addiction “can happen to anybody at any age doing any kind of career.”

Opiates are derived directly from the poppy plant and include heroin, morphine and codeine. Opioids like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet are prescription painkillers that have been chemically synthesized from opiates.

At 33 years old, deSpoelberch said, he lived in Darien with his wife and young child and was “dean of students at one of the best high schools in New York City.”

“I was organized,” he said. “I worked very hard. I was responsible and had a lot of people looking up to and depending on me.”

DeSpoelberch, who had previous alcohol and anxiety issues, broke his hand in a martial arts tournament and was prescribed pain killers — not five or 10, he said, but 40 or 60 at a time.

“Being an anxious person and having a high-stress job with a lot of responsibility, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t really drink responsibly, so this is a good way to sedate myself a little,’” said deSpoelberch.

“It was a way to self-medicate to get a little anxiety off and feel a little more comfortable in my skin with the amount of stress and responsibility that I had.”

For the next three or four years, deSpoelberch said, he was “a functioning opiate addict.”

“I kept my job, showed up to work, was not late,” he said, but painkillers became a way for him to “check out a little bit to feel comfortable and less stressed and make things a little bit easier.”

DeSpoelberch said he became so dependent that his tolerance became higher and his judgment “went out the window very quickly.”

“It becomes something you need and not something you want anymore. You need it just to function to get up and go to work,” he said.

“Things got so bad and my morals went out the window. I didn’t care about the house anymore, I felt my kid would be better off without me, and I just kind of wanted to check out.”

Painkillers to heroin

Four years after being prescribed painkillers, deSpoelberch started using heroin.

“For about a year, I became a very serious … heroin user. I was doing about 30 to 40 bags a day,” he said. “I was taking money out of my account; I was pawning silver at 2 a.m. in the Bronx, and almost overdosed with my wife sleeping next to me.”

DeSpoelberch said that “addiction is a nightmare.”

“All you care about in that state is getting your next fix — that’s all you can think about. Everything else goes out the window,” he said. “To be honest, at that point, I didn’t want to wake up.”

In July 2013, deSpoelberch was arrested in Wilton for possession of narcotics, possession of drug paraphernalia, and retaining prescriptions pills outside of their original container.

“I shot one bag of heroin and was driving down the street … I have no memory of that event,” he said.

“All I know is I was parked in the middle of a street two blocks away from the Wilton police station hours after I shot that bag of heroin, and cops knocked on my window telling me to wake up.”

“The next day my career [was] done, my family was leaving and I thought it was all over,” said deSpoelberch.

By arresting him that night, deSpoelberch said, “that cop saved my life” and he’s been alcohol- and drug-free for close to three years.

Hidden addiction

Townshend is a 25-year-old New Canaan resident living in long-term recovery for alcoholism. For her, she said, “that means I have not had a drink or a drug in over two years.”

Townshend said she went through the New Canaan school system and was “very active in the community.” She was cheerleading captain at New Canaan High School, a member of Rams Recycle and the Pura Vida Club, and danced with the Walter Schalk School of Dance.

“I didn’t even know I wanted everything to seem perfect [on the outside], and I was constantly comparing myself to those surrounding me,” she said.

“I did not have the vocabulary to understand that at a young age what I was going through was severe anxiety and depression.”

Townshend said she had her first drink in eighth grade — “as most of my friends did” — and was binge-drinking by high school. Even though her parents told her she was not allowed to drink, she said, “I didn’t listen.”

“I had firm boundaries. My parents laid down the law and I had activities,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to drink. I thought my parents were strict, and they were. They did everything they were supposed to do.”

Despite her good grades and activities, Townshend said, she still had an underlying addiction.

“I was still predisposed biologically and had triggers throughout my life that progressed this disease,” she said. “I never told my parents I was drinking. They would have to find out when I came home and was throwing up.”

Townshend said her parents set boundaries and consequences, but that wasn’t enough and she found ways to sneak out and disobey them.

Not long after losing a friend to drunk driving, Townshend said, one of her close New Canaan friends died from a heroin overdose.

“He was just the most wonderful person. I miss him all the time, and I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to accept that my friend was dead,” she said.

“This was someone I had grown up in New Canaan with, went to school dances with, had classes with, and had a major crush on. He was the sweetest kid.”

A couple of months after that, Townshend began her journey to recovery and sobriety and is “so grateful” to be alive today.

“I miss those friends so much and I just want to be a voice and have people understand that [addiction] is in our community,” she said. “It is a disease [and] it doesn’t discriminate.”

‘Nobody is safe’

In today’s “overmedicated society,” deSpoelberch said, “nobody is safe” from addiction.

“If you’ve got a substance with a ‘C’ next to it, meaning control, in your medicine cabinet or an ‘N’ next to it, meaning narcotic, you need to go home and either put that away, lock it up, or control that substance,” he said.

DeSpoelberch said when he was younger, marijuana was the gateway drug, but now that gateway drug “is in your medicine cabinet.”

“This is everywhere. Our kids, our young people, our executives are getting hooked on this stuff,” he said.

“It’s getting worse, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, so anything you can do to help, please do. We need everybody involved in this.”

As terrible as it is, deSpoelberch said, “people can get better from this, but the term ‘heroin junkie’ needs to go.”

“We need to be understanding about how serious this is. These are good people this is happening to,” he said.

“We need to work together to break the stigma, because more than any other substance, stigma [and shame] kills more addicts than anything else.”

The full It Starts in Your Medicine Cabinet discussion can be watched here: