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Monday, August 8, 2016

NKY Hates Heroin: Fort Thomas Couple Honors Late Son By Helping Others

Holly and Eric Specht, parents of Nicholas Specht.

Three years ago today, the unthinkable happened to longtime Fort Thomas residents Eric and Holly Specht: They lost their son to an accidental overdose of heroin. To lose a child disrupts an expected natural order. The grief, unimaginable.

And yet, through their grief, Eric and Holly have done something remarkable: They, along with family, created NKY Hates Heroin. Its mission: "Providing support and aid to those affected by addiction and their families. Partnering with our communities through awareness, resources and education for prevention."

This is an advertisement. 

Both Eric and Holly grew up in Fort Thomas. They attended Highlands High School together. They played in band together (Eric played the trumpet; Holly played the flute). After graduation Eric got a job at a gas station, the one that used to be by St. Elizabeth Fort Thomas.

"I used to pop in and say hi," Holly says.

"I caught her eye," Eric says.

They both laugh.

They dated for a couple years before marrying in 1980. Eric earned his business management degree from Northern Kentucky University. They stayed in Fort Thomas, first renting and then eventually buying a home on Sherman Ave., the home they still live in today. 

They had two children, Nicholas and Jennifer. Twenty-five years ago Eric got a job at Phototype, a color separating company, where he still works today. In 1988 Holly started a home cleaning and organizing business. She still manages four clients, one of whom she’s had for 22 years.

Nicholas Specht. Photo by Chris Stegner, BluegrassPhotography.Net.

"He was a typical kid, he was a good kid," Eric says, shifting the conversation to Nicholas. "We liked to fish, he liked to walk his dog. Just growing up, he was an outgoing kid, he was very friendly, very personable."

"Very personable," Holly says. Up until the 8th grade, Holly says there were no signs. "He was a happy, happy kid," she says. "He was a smart kid, good grades, did a lot of baseball, did a lot of derby race cars—he did that kind of stuff with his dad—we saw no signs that would bring a red flag to a parent."

It wasn't until Nicholas was in his early teens that his parents began noticing changes in their son.

"There were some overall kind of anger issues and we didn't know where they were coming from," Eric says.

As a teenager Nicholas's parents knew he smoked pot. After high school graduation, Nicholas cut his hand, badly, while working in a restaurant. "And somewhere in that time frame he had kidney stones and I had to take him to the emergency room," Eric says. For both of those instances Nicholas was prescribed pain medication. Although the Spechts don’t know if that's what triggered it, they do know that at some point Nicholas developed a problem with pain medication.

And when Nicholas was 26, they learned something else—he had been molested multiple times, by two different offenders, around the time he was 5 years old. "All of a sudden it explained so many different things that he was going through growing up," Eric says.

And while Nicholas finally had the courage to share that bit of information, he was unable to offer anything more. "He wouldn't really open up at that point," Holly says. "So it's a mystery."

For a couple years Nicholas struggled silently. "We knew something was wrong but we didn't know what," Holly says. And he wasn't living at home, so help was harder to give. 

"No matter how bad it got, he always maintained a relationship with us and the rest of the family," Eric says. "He would still come to birthday parties and all those kind of things. He valued family relationships."

One day the Spechts got a call from the Hamilton County justice system. Nicholas's car had been searched during a traffic stop and drug paraphernalia had been found. "I asked what kind and she said, 'Heroin. We found syringes,'" Eric says. "We were devastated. We were absolutely devastated. We didn't know what to do or who to call and we sure as hell didn't want to talk to anybody about it. We didn't want anybody to know our son was using."

"It literally sent us to our knees," Holly says. "Literally sent us."

"It was devastating," Eric says.

But they did tell someone. A friend of Holly's had a son who was in recovery from heroin use. Holly reached out to her friend, and, as her husband says, went into overdrive attending Al-Anon meetings to learn about addiction—heroin addiction, in particular.

"We wanted our son fixed," Holly says. "We thought, Let's go to Al-Anon. They'll tell us how to fix Nicholas."

At this point, Eric says Nicholas's life was in chaos. Two Tuesdays in a row he was caught by police stealing throwaway phones from Walmart, which the Spechts later learned is common with heroin addicts—the do it for their drug dealers.

"At one point he violated probation and the requirement was that he had to go to Talbert House in Cincinnati," Eric says. It was a three-month program during the spring of 2013.

"At the end of those three months it was like we had gotten our son back," Eric says. "He looked healthy. He had a totally different attitude about his use and he acknowledged that it was a problem and that it was something he needed to work on. He acknowledged he needed help."

Holly says at one point Talbert House called, with permission from Nicholas, to tell them how well he was doing. "He was doing so wonderful he even got to help lead a class one time," Hollys says. "What that meant to him was incredible."

But a short time later, he was gone.

"He was out of [Talbert House] for maybe two months when he relapsed in our bathroom and that's when we lost him," Eric says. "I was sitting in this chair, actually, and his dog came in and was pushing against me. Holly had gone up to go to bed and finally I realized he was in the bathroom. The door was locked and I was banging on the door and trying to kick it in and Holly was on the phone with 911. Finally, I had to go down and get a crowbar and pry the door open. He was on the bathroom floor, I couldn't get the door open, and we lost him. We didn't know. There were so many things we didn't know."

There's a moment of silence and then Eric says, "Two really noble things happened from his death. One, he was an organ donor. Five people are living lives maybe they wouldn't be living without his organs. Then the other thing was NKY Hates Heroin."

While Nicholas was still in the hospital as an organ donor, Holly's brother, Chris Stegner, told the Spechts that he had an idea. A graphic designer, Stegner came up with a logo for NKY Hates Heroin and a skeleton of a website. After the funeral, he showed it to the Spechts.

"We said, hell yeah," Eric says. "Let's just go with it."

Photo by Chris Stegner, BluegrassPhotography.Net.

If NKY Hates Heroin can be summed up in one word, it's support. Time and again the Spechts felt a lack of support when it came to Nicholas's addiction.

"Part of what we're trying to do with NKY Hates Heroin is to provide support and resources to the people who are going through the same thing we went through," Eric says. "Support to those families, support to addicted people and just trying to provide help. If we can provide any words of warning in trying to reduce the stigma in what it means to be addicted—the stigma is the one thing that got in the way with us."

The root of the stigma? Eric says it's anger stemming from the misconception that drug addiction is a choice.

"I know now that Nicholas had become addicted to opiates and that heroin was just a cheaper, very available way to keep his addiction going," Eric says. "In very short order you're no longer doing it for the high. It takes more and more to get you high and that's harder and harder to get that amount of heroin and in fact you don't want to get high you just want to get through the day without getting sick. And it's a sickness unlike anything you can imagine. And so that is what is driving so many people that are addicted. And thinking that it's a choice—that's no longer a choice for those people than more than it's a choice for me and my next glass of water. Do I need a drink right now? Well, no. Do I need a drink tonight? Well, probably. Do I need water tomorrow? You're damn right I need it by tomorrow and by tomorrow night I'll do almost anything. I need water. Well, that's how it is with heroin.”

Holly says that we often hear of, say, a sports injury birthing addictions. A patient becomes addicted to opiates, which leads to heroin use. "One thing that we're trying to bring more awareness on is trauma," she says. "Emotional trauma, whether it be rape, incest or divorce or whatever ... We're finding more and more there's a direct correlation between addiction and mental health." 

Emotional trauma, in particular, comes with stigma. Stigma, Eric says, gets in the way of healing. "And we've got to get that stigma the hell out of the way and the only way to do that is to understand that it's not a choice for them to use," he says.

And there is still so much the Spechts don’t know—they call the not knowing one of their ultimate frustrations. They also strongly believe that an eight to 10-day detox followed by 30 days in a recovery house isn't enough. With Nicholas, they tried to get him to see counselors while he was sober.

"I'll never forget him saying, 'I'm off drugs now and I can feel everything. Now what I am I going to do?'" Holly says. "We need an entire wraparound program. We can't just throw someone into a rehab, 30 days, 90 days, even 12 months [and say] OK, bye, you're fixed. No, you're not."

The Spechts talk about flags a lot.

"There were numerous red flags," Eric says.

"Not enough that we thought he would die," Holly whispers.

 Growing up with an alcoholic father, Eric says he thought he understood addiction to a degree. "I understood part of it but heroin addiction is so different," he says. "The timeframe you have to deal with is so much shorter, heroin is so much more powerful, the tolerance for it builds so much quicker."

And here's what happens when heroin users stop using: "As quickly as your tolerance builds, it leaves you as well, and so if you relapse, it's the classic thing—people relapse and they die," Eric says. "That's what happens because your tolerance leaves you so quickly, even using a much smaller dose."

Perhaps one of the biggest pieces of support NKY Hates Heroin provides is the printed "Resource Guide For Those Facing Addiction and Their Loved Ones." The 71-page booklet contains information on medical and non-medical detox, counseling and therapy, drug testing, halfway houses, mental health services, Methadone, Suboxone, Vivitrol, family services, support groups and more. Distributed in hospitals, schools, jails and police cruisers, NKY Hates Heroin has printed more than 21,000 to date. Recently they've partnered with St. Elizabeth Healthcare NKY, which is now using its own monies to print and distribute the booklets throughout their hospitals.

The front of the booklet lists three questions: What do I do? Where do I go? Why is this happening? These are the same questions Holly asked before Nicholas died, desperate to get help.

Before Nicholas went to Talbert House, she said her head was spinning. She didn't know where to go or who to ask for help. "One day, it was bad," Holly says. "We were fearful. I put him in the car, I don't think I told Eric I was doing this, and we drove literally up and down 75, from Cincinnati to Florence. I said, 'OK, Nicholas. You're going to choose a hospital. You're going to choose an emergency room. We're going to go in there and you're going to tell them you're going to kill yourself."

"Because then they had to do something," Eric explains.

"I still remember his face," Holly says. "And when we finally, he finally, chose one, we went in. I backed off and let him talk to them. We went into a little room, I guess they talked to him and screened him and whatever. It all happened within an hour. We were in and out of there within an hour. They said, 'OK, we're going to release him.' And I said, 'So what do I do? Where do I go?' So the nurse went to her desk, got a piece of paper and scribbled down six or eight ideas. I got on my cell phone as they were releasing him and started calling. 'No, we don't do detox. It's $4,500 a month. We're full. There's a waiting list for six months. They're closed.' I struck out except for The Healing Place in Louisville. So after going through that horrible experience, that's where the guide came from."

"That was our very first dream, our very first goal of NKY Hates Heroin," Holly says. The second edition came out in April, with 26 additional pages.

Today the Spechts along with many other grieving parents, family members and organizations continue to spend countless hours in Frankfort, Ky., pushing for legislation and forcing change.

Holly also has been a huge supporter of Kentucky's Casey’s Law, passed in July 2004, which "provides a means of intervening with someone who is unable to recognize his or her need for treatment due to their impairment. This law will allow parents, relatives, and/or friends to petition the court for treatment on behalf of the person who has a substance use disorder."

"Holly has helped, I don't know how many people," Eric says. "She used to be on the phone nightly, shepherding people through Casey's Law." He, again, brings up heroin's power and the short timeframe loved ones have to work with. "I'm not negating or minimizing what it's like to be an alcoholic or live with that but this is so much more powerful, you just don't have the same timeframe at all," Eric says. "You need to get a handle on it and get in front of it as quickly as you can."

And Holly, sitting in her Fort Thomas home, on the phone, night after night, has helped so many loved ones do just that.

There are many success stories. NKY Hates Heroine has sent two people, a young man and a young woman, to the Spokane Dream Center in Spokane, Wash. The man went to Highlands High School with Nicholas. "One night, at 11 o'clock, my brother forwards me an email from a young man and he basically said, 'I don't want to die,'" Holly says. "And we ended up getting him help." Prior to this, at about 33 years old, the man hadn't been drug free since he was 16. He graduated the program in October.

Both Holly and Eric devote a lot of time to speaking to schools (including Fort Thomas Independent Schools), organizations and churches. 5K Walk & Run. Photos by Chris Stegner, BluegrassPhotography.Net.

Through fundraisers (their biggest being the 5K Walk & Run, which raises around $40,000 to $50,000 each year) and donations, the organization has used monies to help, for example, supply 10 users with the Bridge—a device worn behind the ear that greatly reduces withdrawal symptoms when going through detox.

Eric and Holly Specht. Photo by Chris Stegner, BluegrassPhotography.Net.

NKY Hates Heroin is small but mighty. While many volunteer their time and talents, the day-to-day responsibilities of the organization are handled mostly by Holly, her brother, Chris, and her father, Noel Stegner. The board is made up entirely of family, as well Nicholas's best friend's wife-to-be. They are all continually humbled by the donations and trust given to them.

To learn more about NKY Hates Heroin, go here.
Email the organization here.
To donate, go here.


  1. I am so very sorry for your loss, may God Bless you and your whole family.

  2. All I can think of is to say is God Bless you both for your journey in helping other people, other families through your grief of losing your beloved son. I admire you both very much. Peace to you and your family.