A Second Chance at Life

After six arrests, an upward of six figures in debt, two failed stints managing restaurants, too many family members lost, eleven years of substance abuse and then a subsequent eight ongoing years of sobriety, certain numbers could define a life. Now, at 37 years old, standing at six-foot-four and tipping the scales at a stout 240 pounds, the number that matters most to Mason junior Ray Niederhausen is two: a second chance.

Originally born in New York then transplanted to Peachtree City, Ga. in the third grade, Niederhausen faced trouble adjusting to his new environment. A diagnosis of attention deficit disorder and Tourette’s syndrome in the fourth grade only exacerbated this problem.

Niederhausen has always been a natural athlete. Starting out as a runner — claiming to run a five-and-a-half minute mile at age 10 — it was not until a friend’s push in the eighth grade that he began to play football. It was on the football field where he found relief from the stress of his life.

“What I found was that it helped me to focus on something else,” Niederhausen said. “[With Tourette’s syndrome] there was always this tinge of anger, and the outlet of football kind of relieved my tension and really allowed me to go about my day. That’s when it became more of a therapy than a sport.”

With a newfound focus on football, Niederhausen worked to improve at the sport and earned a scholarship to play at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. Preordained with the build and skill set of an athlete, the piece that never fit was Niederhausen’s focus on school. By his own account, Niederhausen “slept through high school with a 3.0 GPA,” and his lack of focus in school continued into college. This lack of focus and a preoccupation with the typical distractions college students face, Niederhausen dropped out of college after a year.

But the outside distractions got too out of hand for Niederhausen and led him into a downward spiral.

“Alcohol and drugs took over,”Niederhausen said “From the time I was 18 until the time I was about 29, I was heavy into alcohol and drugs.”

Finding himself back in Georgia, Niederhausen’s addiction was fueled by working two jobs, simultaneously delivering pizzas at one restaurant and making pizzas at another. For about three years, it seemed to him to be the standard protocol of heavy social drinking for someone his age.

“At this time, it’s not so much hardcore alcoholism. I’m waking up, taking care of my day and drinking all night. Kind of your standard 21, 22-year old life, you know?” Niederhausen said. “Hanging out at bars, banging lots of chicks, smoking weed and shit.”

In 2000, at the age of 23, the owner of the restaurant where Niederhausen was making pizzas came to him with an offer.

“He said, ‘Ray, I don’t have the money anymore and I’m going to lock the doors, but if you want to buy the restaurant, you can. I’ll sign it over to you,” Niederhausen said. “I needed a job, and I didn’t want to look for a job, so I got an attorney to look over the contracts and bought a restaurant when I was 23.”

With no prior experience of business or managerial experience, Niederhausen put all his assets and effort into operating a restaurant.

It was with this restaurant that gave Niederhausen a steady supply of money. He saw a lot of people come and go in his life, whom he considered friends at the time, but in actuality only enabled his ongoing substance abuse. According to Niederhausen, it was at this time that his heaviest abuse of substances occurred.

Because of his substance abuse and free-wheeling attitude toward money, Niederhausen lost the restaurant in the span of two-and-a-half years.

“At this point, I’m not even worried about the debt I incurred — which put me well into six-figure debt — or the business bridges I was burning, or the personal friendships I was burning,” Niederhausen said.

While losing the restaurant and facing a growing mountain of debt, Niederhausen found himself in trouble with the law.

“The legal system decided they wanted a piece of me as well, and I went ahead and got myself arrested six times. Drinking while driving, drug charges, and you know, I could’ve fought a lot of them but I never fought them. I was guilty. I did it,” Niederhausen said. “So I took my punishment, and I spent quite a bit of time in county lockup — over a three year period, I was in there about a quarter of the time.”

While Niederhausen was facing legal issues, he was dating a girl. In a half-hearted attempt to offset the influence of substances, they decided to have children.

“We thought it would be a good idea, and thought it would sober me up, if we had some kids. So, I have twin boys, now nine years old and that didn’t work,” Niederhausen said. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this will definitely be the thing that cleans me up,’ after a couple of ill-fated stabs at rehab.”

Following the birth of his twins, Niederhausen again checked into rehab. His relationship with the mother of his twins fell apart, and Niederhausen left rehab for another time, leaving behind his twin boys in Georgia. After another relapse of his substance addiction, at 26 years of age, his parents intervened and tried to light a fire under him by kicking him out of their house and subsequently out of Georgia.

Ray Niederhausen

(Amy Rose/Fourth Estate)

Niederhausen then found himself in Pensacola, Fla. for three months, living with some of the few friends he had left, John and Tabitha, and it was under their care and interest that he began an earnest attempt to put his life back together.

“I credit them with keeping me alive long enough to realize that I could be some sort of contributing member to society,” Niederhausen said.

It was then that Niederhausen made a call for a lifeline to his older brother, Michael, who moved to Fairfax County to remove himself from getting caught up in Ray’s spiraling youth life.

“He called me at a low point in Florida and asked me for help. I could hear in his voice that he wanted it, so I agreed to let him come up with me,” Michael Niederhausen said in an email interview. “As for his troubles, I knew what was going on and kept tabs, but also knew I had to stay in Virginia and take care of myself.”

When Ray arrived in Fairfax, Michael made sure that he was entering a place of understanding and love.

“I always want to make sure he was taken care of. I’d [taken care of Ray] before and it nearly killed me, so I when I moved to Virginia, I was doing it in part to get away,” Michael Niederhausen said. “When he moved to Virginia, he knew that part of our agreement was him getting help. It was tough love, but done in love. I wanted him to be better.”

Ray then sought the help of Fairfax County Alcohol and Drug Services and went through a detoxication and 90-day program to address his substance abuse. Michael saw the improved disposition that Ray faced with this particular stint in rehabilitation, opposed to Ray’s previous attempts at rehab.

“Once he started his rehab stint, I could tell that he was committed to getting better. He couldn’t hide behind his intelligence and smarts and had to actually accept that he was there to get help. He embraced it for the first time,” Michael Niederhausen said. “In previous attempts, he used to toy with the psychologists and therapists. The stories are quite hilarious when he did it, but also quite sad because he wasn’t using it to get better. In Fairfax, he dove in and made it happen. They treated him not as an alcoholic, but a person with problems. And they helped him treat his problems, not just his substance abuse issues.”

And Ray himself found more motivation to see this rehab program through.

“[Through the program] I realized I didn’t know how to live anymore and it taught me how to live again,” Ray Niederhausen said. “I got out when I was 29 years old and was kind of like, ‘Oh shit, I can start over again.’”

(Amy Rose/Fourth Estate)

(Amy Rose/Fourth Estate)

Ray Niederhausen has been sober for eight years — and counting — as a result of his commitment to the rehab program.

With another chance at life in a new setting, Ray set out to get back into the working world and restart in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Although his background of legal issues prevented him from earning any meaningful work, it was one day that Niederhausen’s life again took a sharp turn, but this time, for the better.

He enrolled in culinary school.

Working in a kitchen had always been a constant in his life, and Niederhausen found himself enrolled at Stratford University in Tysons Corner, Va. in 2008. During his time at culinary school and upon his graduation, Niederhausen bounced around at various restaurants in Washington, D.C.

It was one restaurant in particular that was Niederhausen’s favorite place to work, but not for the actual job. It was because he found the woman who would become his wife, Jennifer.

In 2009, he began dating Jennifer while he was a sous chef and she was working at a wine store connected to his restaurant.

“[Niederhausen] was the only chef that was remotely polite to me during the events and he took the time to explain some professional kitchen etiquette so that I could move around in the kitchen during the event without getting underfoot,” Jennifer Niederhausen said in an email interview. “That kindness set him apart and our professional relationship developed from there.”

Following his rehab, Ray wanted to be honest and upfront about his background and history to those around him, and with Jennifer it was no different.

“It was while we were still only co-workers and not yet dating that he mentioned the kids and his history. At this point we were both interested in each other, but neither knew the other one was thinking about potential romantic terms. I suspect he purposefully gave me all that information up front so that he didn’t drop it on me after we started dating,” Jennifer Niederhausen said. “My first reaction was, ‘this guy has way too much baggage, dating him would be a disaster.’ It wasn’t so much the history itself that was overwhelming — he is not the first addict or person with kids I’ve ever met, of course, but it was a lot to consider when evaluating a person to potentially date. However, our personalities kept drawing us together. We have just the right balance of similar and opposite personality traits that together work well.”

Ray’s attraction to Jennifer was instant.

“When I met my wife, I knew I was going to marry her,” Ray Niederhausen said. “I never was able to be friends with a woman [prior to his marriage], and she made me realize what it was to have a best friend, a true best friend, and why they say that your partner needs to be your best friend in order for your relationship to work. ‘”

The two were wed and ready to start their life together, when again, life brought another turn from the path that Niederhausen set out.

In 2011, just three months newlywed, Niederhausen received a phone call from Georgia. It was the mother of his twins.

“Boom, I got a phone call that said, ‘Ray, I need you to take the kids,’” Niederhausen said. “There were some things going on in Georgia, so I amicably received custody of the twin boys, who I really hadn’t seen that much of in five years.”

Niederhausen had only seen his twin boys, Tyler and Nathan, 9, from time to time on visits and the occasional vacation, his only constant connection to them was through his line of child support. The Niederhausens welcomed the boys into their home without hesitation.

“[This] was an opportunity to bring the family together, and my wife and I opened our arms to the kids. And it was tough because on one hand, I really wanted my kids to be with me, but on the other hand, I had no fucking experience with how to raise kids,” Niederhausen said. “I’d always been good around kids, and then I got my kids, I was like, ‘uh, oh god.’”

“Neither of us were ready to be full time parents – we still aren’t – but it was without question the right thing to do for the boys. It is hard every single day. Just when things start to get easier the kids throw another curve ball our way and we sift through the latest puzzle piece by piece,” Jennifer Niederhausen said. “But if we had to do it all over again I know we’d both choose to fight for custody every time. Now that I am experiencing being both a mother and a stepmother I can say that being a stepmother is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

(Courtesy of the Niederhausen family)

(Courtesy of the Niederhausen family)

While going through arranging custody of his kids, Niederhausen was laid off from his job as the executive chef of a restaurant in Rockville, Md. Both Ray and Jennifer realized that the life of a chef — five to six nights a week in a kitchen — was not conducive to the family life they wanted, so Ray refocused on becoming a full-time student at age 33.

Throughout his time working in kitchens, Niederhausen was taking online classes at Northern Virginia Community College and continued his education there following his decision to become a student full-time.

In early 2013, things had reached a sense of normalcy for the Niederhausens, the twins were settling into their new home in Virginia and the family was expecting another addition to the family, Ian, now one-and-a-half. But in January 2013, life threw another obstacle in Ray’s path.

“I was going to school in my final semester at NOVA, and I just started the semester, you know, doing great in school. And a week into the semester, I get a phone call that my brother had killed himself,” Niederhausen said. “Which dashed just about everything that had happened up until that point in my life. I could tell you the exact spot on the sidewalk, in front of what guard rail, in front of what bolt I was in front of when my father called to tell me that.”

Andrew Niederhausen was Ray’s youngest brother, and a volunteer firefighter back in Peachtree City, Ga. when he took his own life at the age of 27.

When life presented this challenge in Ray’s life, with the battles he fought to get to that point and the support of his family, he was better prepared to handle the adversity.

“It just crippled me, man. For weeks. I’d sporadically go to class and I just couldn’t do anything, and it was a hard contemplation for me. And I had contemplated giving up and going to the dean’s office and telling him I couldn’t go to school because it was too much for me,” Niederhausen said. “Something clicked, something in my mind said, ‘You know, with the amount of adversity you’ve been through in your life, I think you’re equipped to deal with this — and it’s not going to be easy — but it’s time you put in the work, it’s time you stopped kind of just skating along and put the work in and do it and get it done, and you’ll be able to hold your head high in six months.’ And I did it.”

Niederhausen kept his internal promise and earned a 3.9 GPA that spring, and transferred to Mason in fall 2013, which had been his goal since starting his life as a full-time student. Niederhausen is currently a junior majoring in history.

A big part of Niederhausen’s life now is playing on Mason’s club football team as a defensive tackle. Where before, football was a therapeutic release, now he sees it as just a fun aspect in a more complete life.

“I’ve [always] needed to feed my brain constantly, with something, and now the healthy substitution is football, school and family. It’s that there always needs to be some sort of organized chaos in my life, but now football is just fun,” Niederhausen said. “I’ve got the heart of a 21-year old and body of a 37-year old.”

(Courtesy of the Niederhausen family)

(Courtesy of the Niederhausen family)

Niederhausen is an imposing figure on the field and on-campus, and he still struggles to express his emotions as a family man because of how much he had to shield himself in years prior, but his wife sees the care he has for his family.

“Ray is a tough nut to crack. He told me once, early on in our relationship, that he was so complicated that I could spend a lifetime with him and never really understand him. Always up for a challenge, I didn’t believe him for a second and figured I’d have him all figured out in a short amount of time. Five years later I’m still baffled,” Jennifer Niederhausen said. “He’s not easy to figure out and, honestly, not the best communicator. So it’s sometimes hard for both myself and the kids to understand his feelings and his affection. But when he does let it shine through, it is clear that he is full of love for our family. He can’t go to bed at night unless he has checked on all three boys to make sure they are ok in their sleep. He acts with a gruff exterior but then relishes a morning cuddle session with all three boys in the bed.”

His brother, Michael, who was an impetus for Ray’s road to recovery, is proud of the maturation of his brother.

“I am extremely proud of the man he has become. He is a good father, a good husband, and has an amazing heart. He still has his issues — don’t we all, but he knows how to deal with them and knows when to ask for help,” Michael Niederhausen said. “Watching him grow up and become the person he is today is something any oldest brother hopes he can watch. And for me, watching him and his life, I couldn’t be prouder.”

The battle against addiction is one that is never over, and Ray Niederhausen considers himself an example of what someone can still accomplish while fighting that battle every day.

“Never feel like it’s over. Nothing is over until it’s over, until you take that last breathe,” Niederhausen said. “For many years, I lived my life to die at 26. When I woke up at 26, I had no idea how to live my life, so I just did what I did to maintain and survive. What would I say to someone who’s [fighting addiction]? Never give up. I wake up one day at a time, I don’t wake up thinking about a week from now, I can’t.”