Community Stories

Out of Addiction and Despair, HopeSprings

Neil Gunter sounds like he walked out of a great American novel — where he’d probably be sitting on a front porch, talking to young folks about life, love and heartache. And they’d listen because Neil is one of those people you just want to hear, and you want to heed his advice about handling those tumultuous early years.

He might even throw in some French lessons — his joie de vivre is tangible — because he spent so much time in the service speaking the romantic language.

Neil is one of five boys born in nearly consecutive years — there’s a special place in Heaven for his sweet parents who had all of their sons at church every time the doors were open. It was a happy life, simple, and Neil grew up knowing all about God.

“My childhood was … blessed in that I had Christian parents, parents who loved the Lord,” Neil said. “There was no hypocrisy in their lives.”

They were a busy family — you can imagine with five boys so close in age — but they always found time to have fun as a family. Of course, Neil occasionally got into a tussle with his brothers.

“If you asked on any given morning how many spankings might I get, I might have said four, five, six, I don’t know,” Neil said. “I had two brothers who picked on me, and the two younger ones I guess I picked on.”

He was a typical boy who would later go through some heartache, hardships and coming-of-age situations before he returned to the God who blessed him with a loving family.

Addiction Takes Hold

His friends growing up were mostly from church, and Neil lived a fairly sheltered life in Atlanta. He calls it a protective umbrella, where his parents’ faith and habits became his own over time. It was a life he loved, and he thought he would always stay in church. But that wouldn’t turn out to be true.

“Slowly, but surely, I drifted into sin,” Neil said.

When Neil went to college, he hit a rebellious streak that started when a friend offered him a drink at a football game in college. He put alcohol in his soda, got sick, and that was the beginning of a decade-long period of addiction and pain.

“It was a slow journey down a path to addiction,” Neil said.

It was a far cry from his Southern Baptist upbringing of “don’t drink, smoke or chew, and don’t date girls that do,” Neil said. His mother had relatives who battled alcoholism, and she often  warned him of the dangers.

And of drugs, Neil said he “partook heartily.”When Neil went to college, he hit a rebellious streak that started when a friend offered him a drink at a football game in college. He put alcohol in his soda, got sick, and that was the beginning of a decade-long period of addiction and pain.

“It was a slow journey down a path to addiction,” Neil said.

It was a far cry from his Southern Baptist upbringing of “don’t drink, smoke or chew, and don’t date girls that do,” Neil said. His mother had relatives who battled alcoholism, and she often  warned him of the dangers.

And of drugs, Neil said he “partook heartily.”

“Oh my goodness, I can probably better tell you what I didn’t do,” Neil said, remembering the one time he took horse tranquilizer, hallucinated, and thought he was going crazy. After that, he stayed away from hallucinogens.

To be sure, Neil felt shame in living with alcoholism, although he never hit rock bottom. It’s something he thanks God for every day.

“I felt guilty, not only about drinking, but about anything and everything I was doing and saying and thinking that I knew was not scriptural, biblical, and not showing that I loved God,” Neil said. “My faith, to say the least, dwindled.”

But even in the middle of addiction, Neil knew he would get out of that lifestyle. Once, in a profoundly drunken haze, he told his fraternity brothers God would save him from alcoholism one day — words he didn’t remember saying until they told him later.

Parlez-vous Français?

Neil went to college for one year before joining the Navy. It was a time when young men like him could join the military and have college tuition paid for after they served. He went through a six-month, French language program — he’d already studied Latin and Spanish — that trained him for a career in Navy intelligence. Soon he deployed to Morocco and North Africa, where Neil’s role was to keep an eye on communications.

“We were put in Morocco to intercept messages and report them to Washington D.C.,” Neil explained.

He worked there in Navy intelligence for four years, and his alcohol and drug addiction battles continued.

People in the military aren’t supposed to go out and party, but wild things are bound to happen when you put a bunch of bored, young men in a foreign country. After their work was done, they often went out drinking.

“As military people, we were told to keep our profile low,” Neil said. “That didn’t keep us from going to bars.”

He also said many of the Americans walking around Morocco were looking for drugs — hashish or pot — because, after all, this was the 1960s and 1970s.

Neil spent a solid decade drinking, doing drugs and staying away from church. But when he finally came back to God, he found open arms.

Back to Church

After his service in the Navy, Neil moved to Mobile to join his brother at the University of South Alabama. Coming home didn’t mean a clean start, though. Neil continued to drink heavily and do drugs while he studied the one thing he knew better than anything else — French.

“I met a young lady in French class who really didn’t seem to be interested in me, and you know, sometimes that heightens the attraction,” Neil said.

It took a while to convince his classmate, Barbara, that he was a nice guy. But when he did, Barbara and Neil married.

Neil continued to drink and smoke pot behind Barbara’s back, and sometimes he even snuck some of her sipping brandy. Truthfully, Barbara also drank too much, but Neil said she never got into drugs. He also struggled with porn, and years later, Barbara told him she wasn’t sure she could have stayed if things hadn’t changed.

But things did change.

After one year of marriage, their daughter, Leah, was born. That baby girl had a profound impact on her parents. He doesn’t remember who brought it up first, but Neil remembers they were both thinking the same thing at the same time.

“That’s when the Lord started talking to us,” Neil said. “Are we actually going to raise our daughter to know the Lord, and we’re going to live like we don’t know Him? After a series of conversations and decisions, we shared, we said, ‘Let’s go repent,’ and the Lord forgave us and took us in as prodigals.”

Neil quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey — never looked back.

“(God) took away two things when I gave my life over to him: a vile, terrible mouth and … my addictions,” Neil said.

They joined a church, made new friends, and learned how to have fun without alcohol.

Missed Miracles

Next came Neil and Barbara’s baby boy, Brent, and their little family was complete. Things were going very well — until the day their 16-month-old son had a bloody nose. Barbara took him to the doctor and was given the worst news ever. This next part is hard to read. Your heart just breaks for the Gunter family.

Brent had leukemia.

Neil and Barbara took their baby boy to Seattle for specialized treatment. Neil was encouraged when doctors said his bone marrow was a match for transplant — a one in 10,000 chance.

“We thought we were going to have our little miracle with my bone marrow working,” Neil said.

Statistically, things looked good for Brent, but anyone who has been on the wrong end of a statistic knows they don’t mean anything for the ones who aren’t cured.

The transplant didn’t take.

What should have been a 90-day stay in Seattle turned into a six-month stint — Brent required a sterile environment while doctors tried to figure out why his body rejected his father’s bone marrow. They performed another transplant, but it, too, failed.

When Brent died, Neil, Barbara and big sister, Leah, were devastated. But Neil knows Brent’s life had a bigger purpose.

“He showed me early … that the only way to make sense of a 2-year-old’s death is that God gets glory from it,” Neil said. “We were created for His glory.”

Losing Brent isn’t the only hardship Neil has faced in his life either.

“My testimony includes God’s faithfulness, His sovereign plan for my life, to mold me to look more like Jesus through the death of a son, the murder of my oldest brother for his watch … and a few years after that I lost my career job of 13 years. … Then I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer,” Neil explained. “All of these things are part of my testimony that I give to anybody or everybody who will stop to listen and give me long enough to share God’s faithfulness … through heartache, struggle and heart break.”

The Special Two

In chaos theory, there’s something called the butterfly effect — something so small as a butterfly flapping its wings in one location can cause a hurricane somewhere else. One small change can cause a ripple that affects something so much larger. For Christians, that small change is part of God’s sovereign plan. Every life detail happens because God wants it to happen, and one day every detail will bring Him glory.

That’s how Brent’s death was. It was tragic and devastating, but if that one thing hadn’t happened, baby sister, Lindsay, wouldn’t have been born. If Lindsay hadn’t been born, then she and Leah wouldn’t have opened HopeSprings Counseling. And without HopeSprings Counseling, so many people wouldn’t have gotten the professional help they needed.

OK, we know what you’re thinking — maybe Lindsay would have been a surprise pregnancy and everything still would have turned out the same. Not really. Barbara didn’t want to have another child. Both labors had been hard, and the emotional toll on the family was just too much. So Neil had undergone the surgery men so love to talk about. But then Barbara changed her mind, and he had the procedure to reverse things. Neil notes that was worse than the initial surgery.

Soon the Gunter family learned they were expecting another little girl, Lindsay.

“Lindsay has always known growing up that had her older brother not died, she wouldn’t have been here,” Neil said. “We were done having children. … (but) God decided to take her little brother home and give her life.”

It’s a hard idea to wrap your head around. Neil and Barbara are great parents, so Brent probably would have been a great human being as well. Still, they believe God wanted Brent in Heaven and Lindsay on Earth for this bit of time.

When she was 15, Lindsay decided she wanted to be a Christian family counselor. Leah went into social work and worked at Department of Human Resources for eight years. But when Lindsay was close to finishing her education, Leah felt called to join her in Christian counseling. They worked under another professional counselor before starting HopeSprings Counseling.

The sisters had seen a void — there was no place for Christian counseling between Albertville and Owens Cross Roads — and they set out to fill it. Neil helped financially and by praying for his two daughters. Both women say they couldn’t have done it without their father.

These days Leah and Lindsay focus on counseling first responders, veterans and others with PTSD, as well as those with marital problems, foster care obstacles and other issues.

And Neil is still using every breath to tell the world about God’s goodness. The latest? Neil’s PET scan showed no cancer!

There’s an old saying that hindsight is 20/20, but it’s more for Neil. He sees his past as proof that God never left him, even in the dark days of addiction or the darker days of illness.

Neil may be facing an uncertain future remaining cancer-free, but he is certain of one thing: God is, and always has been, in control.

Leah and Lindsay are sharing their father’s story with the community for one, truly inspirational reason: HopeSprings, the non-profit ministry the sisters manage, would not have been possible without their father’s initial investment, continued support and testimony about God’s faithfulness in throughout his life.

Leah explains it this way: “While we have helped many people, it is difficult to share (their) stories due to confidentiality. We thought this would be a great way to share our story … because we want the community to understand the heart of HopeSprings. … We know how much our dad loves telling anyone he meets about how Jesus saved him, and we also know how much he loves supporting his daughters. (This story) will be the neatest expression of his already established legacy.”

About the author


Jessie Harbin

Jessie lives in Meridianville with her husband, baby and four dogs. She thrives on chaos, and loves finding good news stories where you least expect them.

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