Looking at Spencer Nicholls today, it's almost impossible to imagine him at 17, close to death
Looking at Spencer Nicholls today, a happily married father of three and a board member of a successful addiction recovery centre in Western Australia, it's almost impossible to imagine him at 17, unconscious on the floor of a public toilet foaming at the mouth and close to death after yet another heroin overdose.
The blonde 45-year-old is boyish and irrepressibly joyful. He is an absolute Duracell bunny of a man when he speaks to crowds about his work, hopping and bouncing on stage like he has hidden springs in his shoes.
Yet 30 years ago that is exactly where Spencer was – passed out on the filthy floor of a public toilet. Hopelessly addicted to heroin, cocaine, alcohol and promiscuity by the time he hit his early teens, he was destined for an early grave.
Ironically the person who rescued him and called the ambulance that night was his drug dealer – who himself had gone to the toilet to shoot up some drugs.
That wasn't the only time Spencer almost died. When he was 13, he was high on LSD at a beach party in his hometown of Kent in the United Kingdom. Seeing 'pretty things' in the distance, he followed them – and walked right off the pier into the freezing water.
He would have drowned if not for the fact that he suddenly saw 'an unbelievably bright light' that led him to shore.
A few years later, he was a passenger in a stolen car being driven by a friend who was high from sniffing petrol.
Travelling at more than 100kmh in the middle of winter, the car shot around a corner, skidded, spun on the icy road, clipped another vehicle and flipped, catapulting Spencer through the windscreen, into the air and head first into a field turned to rock by ice.
Spencer blacked out. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he realised was that his head was underground. The next thing he realised was that against all odds, he was not dead.
Yet even with all these near misses, he could not break free from his addictions. As it turned out, he could do nothing to help himself. But God could. Spencer is a living testimony of that because today, the former heroin and crack cocaine addict is a pastor in one of Perth's largest churches.
"I think I was born with that propensity to addiction," Spencer told Challenge.
"Once I started taking drugs and alcohol and got involved with the sex scene I just couldn't stop."
It wasn't that he didn't try to kick his addictions. He went to several rehab centres and would stay clean for a while. But invariably the old habits would resurface and before long he would be back to square one.
Finally he was sent to a hospital that was part rehab centre, part asylum. "We could hear the screams coming from the asylum," Spencer remembers. "It was a way to scare those of us in rehab that we could become like that if we didn't get clean."
It was there that Spencer met the man who would change his life – an old village chaplain who visited regularly.
"It was mandatory for the patients to attend his talks even though we didn't want to," Spencer chuckles. "The day that I was there, he read the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
"Everyone else turned their backs to him but somehow something about that story touched a nerve in me, gripped me. As I heard it I thought to myself: 'I'm the son, I'm the son.'"
The story of the prodigal son is about a young man who demands an early inheritance from his father and leaves home with it. Before long, he squanders all of it on fast and loose living and has to go back to his father to beg for forgiveness. The father, who in the story represents God, shows his son great mercy instead of anger, and welcomes him back with open arms and a big party.
After the service, Spencer approached the chaplain who told him to kneel down that night and simply say "God if you're real, show yourself to me".
Spencer did indeed pray that prayer before going to bed that night. "I didn't know who I was praying to," he laughs. "God, Allah, Jesus they were all the same to me. I just said 'God'."
Thankfully, God had no problem identifying Himself and answered in extraordinary ways. Beginning the next day and continuing for weeks, Spencer met Christian after Christian in the most unexpected places.
"First it was two really attractive girls from a local church youth group who came to visit one of my friends at the rehab centre," Spencer says. "Then I was moved to another rehab centre and shared a room with a guy who told me the whole gospel story because his mother was a Christian. After that, someone else came into my room with a Bible and invited me to church.
"That's when I realised the God of the Bible was the true God. I didn't suddenly get Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims popping up all over my life, only Christians. I had asked God to show Himself to me and this was how He did it."
Not long after that Spencer, now at last knowing who he was praying to, asked Jesus to come into his life. Instantly something completely foreign to him settled in his heart – peace.
"That was one of the biggest changes in my life," Spencer says. "I tried using drugs to find peace but it never worked. Then I asked Jesus into my life and that was it – the peace came, the uneasiness left.
"I realise now I was in the grip of a greater power. I began to sense another voice leading me in a different direction. I'd always wanted to change but I never had the strength. In fact, I was completely powerless against those compulsions. But miraculously, now that I had God's strength in me I was actually able to say no and turn my life around."
Soon he went back to university and graduated. He became involved with the youth and children's ministry in his local church. Feeling God was calling him to be a pastor, he went to Bible College.
One night, as he was praying for direction in his life, he says he had a vision.
"I saw my past unfolding; my old life, the many times I nearly died. Then I felt God say very clearly to me, 'I've saved you for a purpose. If you'd died then you would have gone to hell. But I saved you for a purpose.' That's when I knew for sure I was called into the ministry."
Spencer's life is now dedicated to helping others who are in the same struggle he was. He is one of the pastors who runs a recovery program called Tenacious House, a residential program that helps men who have had life addiction problems find their feet again. He is also a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and acts as sponsor and mentor to their programs.
"The reality is the propensity towards addiction has not left me," he admits. "God did not take that away. What He did do was empower me to make different choices."
He pauses, chokes up a little. "I am so grateful for my life today. It's a miracle, a miracle. Only God could have done it.
"There is absolutely no way I would be alive today if not for Him. If He hadn't saved me, I know for sure I would be institutionalised or dead."•