By Ryan (Red) Nehls
There is no way for me to recount the first forty-two years of my life in a few hundred words, so I will highlight some of the bigger events that led me down the path to God. Plus, the good part really started a little over two hundred days ago.
My story is all too common yet shared not nearly often enough. I am the product of a broken home. I had an alcoholic and addict for a father and an orphan for a mother. They divorced when I was seven. Although they both did the best they knew how to raise us kids, the dysfunction left its mark as a hole that would take me forty-two years to finally fill. I tried in so many ways to fill this emptiness. My mother worked multiple jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food in the cupboards. This led my younger sister and me to fend for ourselves many evenings and forced me to have to play the role of the parent well before my ninth birthday. I started acting out and getting in trouble at school to get attention. It did not take long before acting out for attention turned into drinking and drugs.
By the age of thirteen, my abuse of drugs and alcohol had become a nearly daily occurrence. I started to fail all my classes and concluded, “Why bother?” I was skipping classes to get high and doing my best to merely slip through the cracks of life.
By the age of fourteen, addiction’s ugly hands had a complete grip on me. To this day I couldn’t tell you why I thought stealing a car was a good idea, but at the time it made perfect sense to me. Of course, it did not take long to be spotted by the police. After all, I was fourteen, driving by myself at ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning. I proceeded to lead the police on a two-and-a-half-hour pursuit. I was facing serious charges as a minor, having drugs with me in the stolen car.
God had other plans for me, and the charges were greatly reduced. I spent less than a year in a detention center. I was determined to do right. No way was I going back. I pulled a complete turnaround – no drugs or alcohol. I put everything I had into school to get back on track.
I then met my first love and things quickly escalated. By the time I was fifteen, she was pregnant. My son was born April 4, 1996. We were blessed with him for a few hours before his heart defect took him away. Way too young to completely understand or even begin to deal with this loss, we pretty much ignored it and tried to continue with life. Before long she was once again pregnant.
We were told that our baby girl had the same heart defect as our son and more than likely would not make it full term, but if she did there was a chance for a transplant after birth. On November 4, 1997, our daughter was born. Gracie fought and made it until November 11, 1997.
Now completely devastated and only seventeen years old, my first experience with God caused me nothing but anger. Soon after, the kids’ mother fell ill, and we thought it was depression. By the time she went to the doctor it was too late. In the spring of 1998, she was diagnosed with cancer. Although I asked her to marry me, she said no. God called her home that September. By the age of eighteen, I had experienced more pain and loss than most do in a lifetime. I thought my life was over. I didn’t know then that God would use these events to lead me to Him.
Those next twenty-five years were pretty much set on repeat of a vicious cycle of pain, drugs, shame, and guilt. The last year of my drinking was a complete nightmare. I wanted to stop but just couldn’t. Things were building up, and I knew it would not be long before I reached the point where there would be only one way out.
On November 28, 2022, it all came out. Sitting with a bottle of vodka, cocaine, and a 9mm handgun, I was going to stop it all one way or another. I was completely broken and could see no way out. Forty-two years of pain, anger, abandonment, betrayal, guilt, and shame all came rushing to the surface, and much like David crying out to the Lord from the mountaintop, I screamed.
Looking back, I realize that was the first time I had ever prayed, and let me tell you, God answered. At that time, I worked with a gentleman named T.J. Vasquez. Three years prior, T.J. had started a recovery group for alcoholics and addicts, Sober Soldierz. [Click here to read article.] God had planted a seed three years ago to answer the first prayer I would pray! That’s how God works. And not once in the last year had I even thought to contact T.J., but that night the idea hit me square in the face.
I got in touch with him, and the next day I attended my first Sober Soldierz meeting. I heard so many others talking about going through so many different trials of life but that God was taking care of them, and He would provide as long as they surrendered to Him. I wanted that God in my life. I did not just want to stop drinking and drugging; I wanted a new life. That’s exactly what I found. That’s what God has given me.
That hole in my life, that emptiness, was now gone. I started chasing God and recovery. By surrounding myself with people that had what I wanted, as well as daily Bible study, prayer, and praise, God gave me a complete heart transplant. He took away my anger, shame, and guilt and replaced them with empathy, compassion, and love. God was there the entire time, but I had not been allowing Him into my life.
God does not come busting through the door like John Wayne; He politely knocks every morning, and it is up to me to open the door for Him. I can now look back on life events that used to bring heartache and be grateful for all the painful steps that have led me to where I am today. God knew I needed to be completely broken to search for Him. He knew what it was going to take to make me the man that He says I am. Today I truly believe I am living the life He says I should, being the man He says I am. Of course, I make mistakes and fall short every day, but I have grace and mercy from the blood of Christ. I am just trying to be a better man, a better Christian every day by spreading His word of redemption, salvation, hope, and the message that WE DO RECOVER. Glory to God! And thanks to Open Bible and Sober Soldierz. I didn’t need twelve steps; I needed twelve apostles.
In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. All power to Him forever! Amen1 Peter 5:10-11, NLT
About the Author
Ryan (Red) Nehls is a member of West Des Moines Open Bible Church in West Des Moines, Iowa, and active in the recovery community. He lives his life putting God and recovery first, reaching out to others to pull them out of the darkness of addiction through the hope and life of Christ Jesus.