Today, Teresa Nickell is a successful woman who works with
“women in need of hope,” because she was once that woman herself. (Courtesy photo)
By Gaye Bunderson
Desperation: A state of hopelessness
Of all the gifts given to Christians, Teresa Nickell was given the gift of desperation, and it benefited her twice in her life.
Considering a past that included a harshly critical mother, selling marijuana at school in the eighth grade, abuse from a stepfather and subsequent rage from her disbelieving mom – who kicked her out of the house at 14 – it’s no wonder that Nickell reached her rope’s end. But before that end, she’d endured a life of homelessness, incarceration, abusive husbands, and addictions that covered a spectrum of dangerous drugs and alcohol.
At 57, Nickell’s story entails decades but also includes salvation, career success, a good marriage, and experience as an author and public speaker.
Nickell chronicled her life in a book titled, “The Girl In Your Wallet.” Some of the information in this article was taken from the book (as noted), some of it comes from a brief interview with Nickell in person, and some of it comes from a speech Nickell made to a group at Eagle Christian Church. The book is a comprehensive account of Nickell’s life; this is an abridged version.
When asked how she survived her childhood and her twenties, and why she finally sought help, she said, “I got tired of going to jail. I was given the gift of desperation. I had nothing left.”
That marked the first time desperation turned her life around, and it gave her the willingness to aim for something higher. The transition started, oddly enough, when she was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. In the book, she tells how, at age 26, her misdemeanors became felonies and she was put in the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma, Wash.
Out on bail, she was advised by someone she’d met while behind bars to go the state welfare office, admit she was a drug addict, and hopefully qualify for the state’s free drug treatment program. She did that and was immediately sent to rehab. There, she was able to talk to a counselor, and it gave her hope. After sharing many details about her difficult and sordid life, the counselor commented, “Wow, aren’t you tired? Living a life like that must take a lot of work.”
Nickell: Yes, she was tired.
Then the counselor asked her if she’d ever considered suicide.
Nickell: She had not.
The counselor asked, “Really? Why not?”
Nickell: The silence that ensued offered her a moment of clarity.
She writes in the book: “I had exhausted everything and everyone. I had nothing left. If I were to survive, I would need to change.”
She was ready to do the hard work.
The counselor suggested she attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and though some may remark that AA isn’t a Christian program, she nonetheless found the Lord through it. The 12-step program opened her eyes when she got to Step 5 and “admitted to God, to oneself, and to another human being the exact nature of [her] wrongs (www.aa.org).”
She was 29 when she accepted Christ, and in His grace, He gave her time to work through her past. “I was foul-mouthed, abrasive, and street-hardened. I was not easy to be around,” Nickell admitted. But a cherished Scripture was, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10).
She was beaten down from years of struggling to survive, living in an abandoned building with other hardcore addicts, scraping by not just on her wits alone but by lying, manipulating, maneuvering, and working the system any way she could. She was married at 17 and had a child at 18. She lost custody of her son at age 22.
She got strong mentors through AA, who steered her patiently through the process as she climbed the high, craggy mountain of recovery. It all took time. Her favorite mentor was an older woman named Joyce K., who guided Nickell, listened to her, persevered with her, and eventually led her to accept Jesus as her Savior. In fact, according to Nickell, “God would use this woman to save my life.”
As time progressed and she continued the recovery process, she pursued a vocation, earning an associate’s degree in commercial baking. It was to be the beginning of a road that led to her owning her own business – a long road but one which would be profitable for her.
Her career launched when she went to work for a man named Bob, who owned a commercial bakery in Spokane, Wash., Nickell’s hometown.
She had a knack for the work and found herself gifted in business skills, such as process improvement. She’d sit in on sales meetings, eventually became a salesperson, and found her street smarts served her well in that capacity. “I just had to take the dishonesty out of it,” she said.
Past survival skills turned into business problem-solving skills.
No one she worked with knew of her past, and they all trusted her. So, she said, “I decided to become trustworthy” – a huge lifestyle change for a woman who, at age 13, had been given pot, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and LSD by her father’s biker friends.
Despite the success, Nickell continued to mentally and emotionally relive all the bad things she’d done. The memories wouldn’t disappear. They cycled through her incessantly, and as her income grew, she sought the help of mental health professionals.
Still, she soldiered through those moments, determined to leave her past behind. “I began to understand I needed to go all-in. It was time to go after my relationship with Christ with the same dedication I had given my addiction.” The Lord continued His work in her, as she continued to improve in her career.
After working with Bob and learning what she could, Nickell was chosen to set up and run a new 12,000-square-foot bakery in Kent, Wash. It was challenging, but her career continued its upward climb.
The learning curve was wide. Some of the problems she encountered included: troubling employee practices; non-profitable customers; and the costs of small production runs. One of the highest hurdles was handling the company’s finances.
“I was skilled in many areas,” Nickell said in her book, “but Bob did not teach me how to run the finances.” The company suffered as a result. Nickell gave herself a pay cut, made a short sale on her home, and returned her Acura to the car dealer. At the culmination of her struggles, in 2012, she sat alone in private and did the unthinkable: she shouted at God. “What do you want from me?” she asked. “You said You would never leave me, but I’m not feeling You in any of this!”
Then, God did the unanticipated: He spoke back and in her spirit said, “Finally.”
She was finally ready to give everything to Him, not just her spiritual growth but her entire life, including the business. She felt she was being prompted to hire a bakery consultant, and that’s what she did. In the years from 2005 to 2017, this is just a little of what was accomplished at the bakery (a brief synopsis from the book, followed by two quotes, also from the book):
- Annual revenue increased from $1.9 million to $3.6 million, with distribution in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska
- Exceptional customer service
- The hiring of a veteran of the baking industry as operations manager
Nickell explained about the hiring, “My two-year commercial baking degree would not keep us competitive in the marketplace, and I knew it. I had taken the bakery as far as I could with my limited schooling. We needed automation and experience.
“I began to realize I had been capable the entire time. I had looked at myself and seen only the high school dropout, the convicted felon, and the drug addict, not understanding that I was no longer any of those things. It wasn’t until I reached the end of myself and submitted it all to God that I had the privilege of watching what He would do through me. It was another example of the gift of desperation.”
She later retired after an impressive run in the commercial bakery business.
“God let me know my time there was complete. On December 31, 2016, I signed the final sales document and walked out the door for the very last time. I was brought to tears when I had the privilege of walking into my church’s finance office and giving them my donation from the sale. The entire journey with the company being completed with an act of obedience just levels me. I am not worthy, yet He loves me.”
Nickell now lives in Star, Idaho, and spends her time working with women who are imprisoned and/or addicted. “Women in need of hope” is what she calls them. She’s a national speaker for Prison Fellowship, and said of herself, “I’m sassy and straightforward. People call me when they want someone who’s passionate but direct. I have a great deal of compassion and empathy; I’m an encourager but am also intolerant of those who resist personal responsibility. In my own story, I know I had choices every step of the way. Sometimes – just sometimes – I wasn’t a victim. I was a volunteer.”
Today, Nickell and her current husband, Scott, support the Boise Girls Academy (BGA) in Nampa, a program she wishes had been available to her as a young woman. The couple helps through: 1) giving monthly to BGA’s scholarship fund, 2) service projects at their facility with Rockharbor Church, and, 3) bringing awareness to this Teen Challenge program. Nickell has also committed to donating 50% of all speaking fees to BGA throughout 2023. (Learn more at https://boisegirlsacademy.org/)
Nickell connects with her son now, who even told her that her decision to give him up to paternal in-laws was the right decision at the time and she needed to stop hammering herself with guilt over it. She also healed her relationship with her mother before she passed away in 2021.
She married three times but said God definitely brought Scott into her life. The two of them share jokes and even get a little silly sometimes. “I do silly stuff all the time,” Nickell said. It’s a way for her to experience the childhood she never had.
“I am no longer suffering. I am living in victory.”
For more information, go to teresanickell.com.