I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in a home filled with chaos. Home was an ever-changing address, with my parents’ fights the only constant. My dad enjoyed his plethora of drugs, and my mom enjoyed pushing his buttons and being the victim. They finally decided to call it quits when I was 11 years old, but not before I got some startling news: The man I had called my father wasn’t really my father.

My grandma revealed the truth to me in an angry, drunken stupor right before breaking the news of the divorce. It was absolutely crushing. I had grown up with two younger half-brothers from my mom and the man who I thought was my dad. But now I learned that I also had two younger half-sisters on my biological dad’s side. I couldn’t help taking this revelation as a message that I was unwanted and didn’t belong. This paved the way for a series of poor choices that led me to the foot of the cross.

My biological dad made minimal effort to see me before he died of cancer in 2008. After my parents’ divorce, I lived with my mom and two younger brothers. She continued to choose men who were prone to addiction and violence. When they turned those violent tendencies on me, I decided it was better to become a monster than to let myself be devoured by one.

I started beating girls up at school and being rewarded at home for my victories. I was eventually expelled, leaving me to complete my schooling that year in the mental health ward of a hospital. Once I returned home, I ran away repeatedly and would stay with friends until their parents turned me away. My mom, having had enough, sent me to live with my grandma in Fort Scott, where I started my freshman year of high school.

But I was kicked out soon enough after a confrontation with my teacher, and I finished the school year elsewhere. During my sophomore year, I moved back home, and my mother and I got along like rabid dogs. When my 16th birthday came along, I went to school, dropped out, went home, packed my bags, and moved in with a friend in Fort Scott. This lasted about two years before I started bouncing back and forth between there and Kansas City.

My mother’s mirror image

Over the next 20 years, I gave birth to two sons of my own and married a man that was the sum of every man I had ever known. He was wild, abusive, addicted to anything that made him feel good, and promiscuous. I became the mirror image of my mother, mastering the art of pushing my husband’s buttons and then playing the victim, always convincing myself I could change him. It took over a decade before I realized I could never win this war. Finally, I filed for a divorce and decided to leave him for good.

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At first, I handled everything well. I went to work, raised my boys, and occasionally had a girls’ night out on weekends when the kids were with their dad. I kept myself busy to keep my focus off the unbearable emotional pain I had pushed far below.

Eventually, though, it made its way to the surface, and I began to unravel. Girls’ night turned into every weekend. Every weekend turned into a meth addiction, which caused me to lose my job. Now bills were piling up, and I had to find a way to make money without disrupting my addiction.

I made a phone call to a friend I grew up with in Kansas City, who helped arrange a source of meth I could sell. Everything moved quickly from there. Within a few months, I was making a few thousand dollars a day and spending it just as quickly. My house was a revolving door of addicts, boyfriends, guns, and drugs. I started using the needle and decided it was best to send my children to live with my grandmother.

After a boyfriend broke both of my wrists, I had a lawyer draw up papers leaving my children to my grandmother in case something worse happened. I knew I was either going to end up dead or in prison. My addiction took precedence over everything in my life. At this point, all I wanted to do was die, but that was all about to change.

Making amends

Three years into my addiction, I found myself at a complete stranger’s house, suicidally depressed, injecting a needle filled with a large amount of meth into my vein. As the needle fell to the floor and landed in the old carpet like a dart, I collapsed to my knees on the verge of losing consciousness and cried out to God to save me. I wasn’t prepared for how he would choose to respond.

As a child, I had attended various Catholic and Christian schools alongside public schools, and my grandmother was a strong Christian believer. Perhaps, having spent so much time with her, I knew in that desperate moment that salvation could only come from God.

A few weeks later, I stopped at a house to drop off some drugs. When I arrived, I saw a woman I had bad history with, so I confronted her and put her in the hospital. I was arrested a week later and found myself facing 21 years in prison, so when I was offered a plea agreement of 8 years, I gratefully accepted it.

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After spending three months in county jail, I started attending the ministry group organized by a local church for inmates. Toward the end of one service, I approached one of the church members. We prayed together, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.

I received a Bible and some reading materials, which I delved into eagerly. I read the Bible so frequently that the pages started to wear out, and I had to carefully tape them back together. I found solace in verses like Jeremiah 29:11, which speaks of God’s plans for his people, and 1 John 3:18, which speaks of expressing love with actions rather than mere words.

As I sat in county jail, my mind began to recover from the effect of all the drugs. I found myself overwhelmed with remorse for what I had done, and I wanted the opportunity to make amends with the woman I had hurt. I slid my back down the cold, white cinder-block wall and adjusted my orange jumpsuit. I pulled my knees into my chest, clung to my Bible, looked up with tears running down my face, and asked God to make the way.

The next morning, an officer pulled me into the hallway to inform me that my victim had just been arrested. Because of my good behavior, he said, the authorities didn’t feel it was fair to ship me to another county to be held until I was sent to prison. Instead, they would let me decide whether I wanted to be housed with this woman or relocated to another jail. My head spun in disbelief, because this is not something that happens normally! I knew right then that God had heard my prayer, and this was my opportunity to put up or shut up.

As my victim entered the jail pod, you could see the fear all over her face. She went straight into her cell and crawled up into her bunk. I gave her a few minutes and then made my way over to her door. I told her she was safe and invited her to eat with me. In the following weeks, I managed to reconcile with her. We both expressed our apologies and started setting aside time every day to explore the teachings of the Bible.

We exchanged Scripture passages that resonated with us and even marked, signed, and dated our favorite verses in each other’s Bibles. Occasionally, I still glance at those pages, and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes, witnessing to how God worked within the confines of that jail. I’ll always cherish the memories of how God started to mend my brokenness. It’s incredible how he turned the devil’s plan to destroy me into something positive, spreading waves of healing to everyone around me.

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I spent the next seven years in prison, earning all my good time. The experience was overwhelming, but I used the time to grow closer to God, and I established a godly reputation among the prison staff and my fellow inmates. I became a leader of a women’s Christian ministry inside the prison, and I started prayer groups in the dorms. Women sought me out for guidance, friendship, and prayer. I also tutored women for their GEDs, filed their taxes, and cut their hair. God used me in countless ways and continued to grow me in the process.

God never wastes a hurt

I was released in 2020, and, soon afterward, I married my high school sweetheart, who works as a paramedic. Adjusting to his schedule took some getting used to, as did the experience of being a stepmother. During my husband’s absence for 48-hour periods, I readily assumed various responsibilities.

Each morning, I diligently woke up to prepare breakfast and lunch for the children before driving them to school. I assisted them with their homework, accompanied them to their sports activities, and provided care when they fell ill. It was important to me to create a healthy routine as a family.

During this period, I also started rebuilding other relationships in my life, including the one with my brother Canaan. We didn’t have many opportunities to talk while I was in prison, so it felt good to reconnect with him.

He was employed as a millwright and journeyed across the globe for work, which meant I didn’t have the chance to see him frequently. However, we made sure to stay connected through phone calls and occasional text messages to let each other know we cared.

Fortunately, he managed to join me for Christmas during my first year out of prison, and it was truly special to share that time with him. I recall making a conscious decision not to take any pictures that Christmas because I wanted to immerse myself in the present moment, rather than being preoccupied with my camera. Little did I know this decision would later bring about regret.

In May of 2021, my brother was found dead in a Colorado hotel room from a fentanyl overdose. He was away on a job when he died. We had been planning his 38th birthday party, but now we were planning his funeral.

After dealing with the initial impact of my grief, I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to help families that might be suffering in the same way. I began mentoring incarcerated men and women as well as recovering addicts in my community. I sponsored a fundraiser to bring awareness to issues of mental health, addiction, and the relationship between them.

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I also wanted to help diminish the stigma attached to seeking mental health services. We seek medical help when our bodies fail, so why wouldn’t we seek other kinds of help when life seems overwhelming? As part of this calling, I recently accepted the position of president on the board of directors for the Salvation Army and Compassionate Ministries in Fort Scott.

God never wastes a hurt. He is using my past to brighten others’ futures. I pray that God will continue to use my words to give voice to those who need it. When he pulled me out of the darkness, he gave me one hand to cling to him, and one hand to pull someone else out.

Tanya Glessner is the author of The Light You Bring, a memoir, and Stand Up Eight, a collection of personal testimonies. She has also published several daily prayer journals and is currently at work on a daily devotional.

[ This article is also available in español. ]