“Well, Dad, I love you.”
“Son, I love you, too, ole buddy. I’ll talk to you soon.”
That was the last conversation between Drew Nichols and his father, Curt Nichols, on the night of Labor Day 2011 after they spent the night together watching a movie and trading one-liners and jabs.
The next day, Sept. 6, Drew died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs he purchased from a friend. He was 19.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we had that opportunity as a father and son, if that is going to be the last conversation on this Earth, that we had that level of conversation, of love for each other,” Curt said while speaking during the International Overdose Awareness Day event Tuesday night at Crossroads Community Park in downtown Seymour.
“I know that not all of you were given a gift like that, but that doesn’t take away the love that you have experienced with your loved one, and it most certainly doesn’t take away the love that I’m sure they had for you,” he said while standing near a table with framed pictures of people who died from overdoses.
Tuesday marked the second time Nichols shared his story during an International Overdose Awareness Day event in Seymour, organized by the Jackson County Drug-Free Council. The other time was in 2015 along with his wife, Jeanne, and their youngest son, Spencer.
Again this year, Spencer, now 27, talked about his own battles with addiction and also his path to recovery.
Despite coming from what he described as “a pretty well-off family,” Spencer said he got into weed at 14 and then pills.
“There is no bounds on the socioeconomic scale of who is an addict,” Spencer, the youngest of four Nichols kids, said. “I think it’s stigmatized. It affects everybody. I’ve seen lawyers, doctors. I just want people to know that they like to think of it as a physical problem, but it is a mental problem with physical attributes. I know there are many days I thought I wasn’t enough.”
He was 17 when his brother died. He considered him his “right-hand man.”
“That was like half of my heart just ripping out. I had a lot of hurt in my heart from losing my brother,” he said.
In a three-month period, Spencer lost his brother, and his baby’s mother left him.
“My parents had both of each other to confide in. Both of my sisters had their husbands at the time to confide in. It was me and a 6-month-old baby and my dog. Those were my only friends, and I hurt so much,” he said. “I had anger with God. I didn’t like where my life was heading. I had a kid at a young age when I had dreams and aspirations to go out into the world, but it just seemed like life wasn’t fair for me.”
Spencer said he tried to use drugs to suppress his feelings.
“From my experiences, if you’re going to be dumb, you’ve got to be tough, and I was dumb,” he said. “I got knocked in the head a couple of times, went to jail a couple of times, been to different rehabs everywhere.”
Then he finally asked himself, “What am I willing to lose to realize it’s enough?”
“I remember I would be on lunch break at work watching friends throwing a football on a sunny day, and I was too dope sick to get out of the car,” Spencer said. “That’s part of when I realized ‘What am I doing to myself? I can’t even function without this.’ That is a horrible feeling that one little bag (of drugs) is the difference from you being a hospitable person.”
Fortunately, he received a lot of support from Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I didn’t know how to deal with myself, and there are a lot of wise people in those walls that want to help you. They care for you when you don’t care about yourself. They will love you whenever you don’t love yourself,” he said. “If you can just muster up enough courage to go into one of those meetings, you will not regret it. They always say, ‘The meeting you don’t want to go to is the one you need the most,’ and that is the truth.”
There is a healing process there along with love and camaraderie that he never experienced with his so-called friends when he was using drugs, he said.
“It made me live this wonderful life now,” he said, noting he is the maintenance supervisor at a hotel in Madison, is engaged and has family and friends who love him. “I wake up every day happy and excited to get out of bed. I might not make the best money, but it’s a lot better than what I was doing. I’m just thankful I’m here. Every day, I wake up and I think my life is a dream.”
He said he’s glad his family never gave up on him, including his daughter, Maddie, who is now 10.
Spencer got arrested before her birthday two years in a row, but she was his motivation to break the cycle.
“She is my world. She was my only friend when I had nobody,” he said. “There are many nights that I would talk to her while I was rocking her wondering ‘What am I going to do with my life? How am I going to shape up for that little girl? How am I going to make my parents finally proud of me?’ It’s just through knowledge and understanding that I do have a problem, I need to face it.”
Admittance is the first step, he said.
“You’re going to go through a lot of pain, but it’s so worth it in the end,” he said. “It does get better with time. There’s acceptance, and I just try and live my life today to make (Drew) proud, to make my dad proud, to be the person that I wish I would have found whenever I was in the early midst of addiction.”
To those battling addiction, Spencer encourages them to use the resources available, including recovery programs and harm reduction.
“It took a lot of meetings and a lot of self-searching to get where I am today, but there is hope,” he said. “I’m really so thankful that this community has the resources to help people like us, and it does get better. It truly does. I’m living proof that there is grace and redemption. I’m so thankful that I’m the person I am today.”
Curt said for many years, he had an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach not knowing if he was going to get a call with bad news about Spencer.
There was always a sense of concern, doubt and anger about what Spencer was doing to himself and his family, Curt said.
In talking to his son during the recovery process about why he used drugs, Curt said he realized Spencer didn’t know how to survive without them.
In Spencer’s walk to sobriety over the last two years, Curt said his demeanor has really changed.
“He said, ‘Early on in these recovery processes, I kind of phoned it in, wasn’t serious about it. But you know what? I’m not going to get better until I want to get better,'” Curt said. “We’ve gone through all of the deceit, the lies, the things that go along with that, and that’s part of the addiction process where those traits are present just about every day until that time when Spencer said, ‘I want to get better. I will beat this.'”
Curt told Spencer he’s proud that he decided he wants to live.
“Some have asked me, ‘How can you really go through that as a family? Why did you just not kick him out and give up?'” Curt said. “I have a heavenly father who has not, will not and never will give up on me. How can I give up on my son?”
That faith and knowing God is love is what helped Curt and his family get through it all with Drew and Spencer.
“The family unit coming together to support each other along with a faith-based community has been critical in allowing us to move forward,” Curt said. “The love that we have is something to celebrate. … It’s amazing how love tends to bring people together.”