Ryan Atkins Builds and Rebuilds His Life

Following a devastating car accident that left him paralyzed, Ryan Atkins faced a spiritual and personal reckoning with his wife Stephanie by his side.

Ryan Atkins graduated from UC in 2015, got married one year later, and moved into his first home—a suburban bungalow just north of Cincinnati—shortly after that. When he published a book in 2020, “I felt like I could take a breath,” Atkins says. “But then it was like: OK—now what?” So he set his sights on a business career, and will soon sit for the Investment Advisory Representative exam; next, he’s planning to become a certified financial planner.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

None of these things seem like unusual achievements for a young man from suburban Cincinnati. At 20, in fact, Atkins—a lifelong Bearcats fan—had a full-ride scholarship to UC’s exclusive Carl H. Lindner Honors-PLUS business program, was planning to run for president of his fraternity, and was interning as an accountant. Running on the fast track was Atkins’s modus operandi. But on November 19, 2009, the trajectory of his life changed in an instant, when he became paralyzed from the neck down after a devastating car accident.

Atkins spent much of the following decade struggling to adapt to an existence so suddenly and painfully altered. He faced excruciating trials of the body and mind. But he also fell in love, and unexpectedly found new meaning and purpose in life. Throughout it all, he worked hard and prayed harder for miraculous healing. When that didn’t happen, he hit rock bottom and nearly gave up. But in a spiritual reckoning that shook him to his core, Ryan Atkins learned what mattered most.

Now, at 32, his life seems once again to be starting over—a second chance at a clean slate, albeit from a very different point of view. Today, he studies diligently for his licensing exams and launches a new career while simultaneously navigating a world of home healthcare nurses, facing physical challenges with the aid of a high-tech wheelchair he manipulates with his breath. The one thing he’s not doing anymore? Putting things off.

“Whether graduation or getting engaged to get married or my career—I always had this hesitation: I have to wait for my perfect scenario to come to fruition, then I can move forward,” says Atkins. True enlightenment came when he realized: “I need to take action now.”

When he began using voice software to write his memoir, One Step Closer, in 2012, Atkins was certain the story would end something like this: “I’ve figured out life at 23 years old; this is how I prayed and got a miracle and life’s perfect.” Along the way, he learned that’s not how it works. For nearly a decade after the accident, in fact, Atkins struggled to understand who he was and what his place in this world should be after losing the physical ability and vitality that once defined him.

He tried heading back to school just months after the accident only to realize he didn’t have the strength or stamina he needed to thrive in the classroom. He wrestled with the stigma of not only having to move back home with his parents, but of needing their help with even the most basic tasks, like eating and getting dressed. He watched, heartbroken, as his friends traveled, got internships, graduated, and got jobs—all things he’d planned, too, before the accident. “There have been many days I want to escape,” he writes in One Step Closer. “I want to shake my fist at God.” But after years of frustration and prayer, he also began to understand something else. “What if instead of merely looking for a way out,” he writes, “we allowed trials and frustration to teach us we are not in control?”

This profound realization changed Atkins’s life in meaningful ways. “The more I began to venture out in public,” he writes, “the more I realized my wheelchair was a blatant symbol to others that affirmed ‘You’re not alone. My life hasn’t gone as planned, either.’ I began to notice people were much quicker to open up to me. My glaring affliction gave even strangers the courage to share struggles and heartaches, disappointments and fears.”

He began blogging about his experiences and speaking at retreats and other events. He started mentoring a group of boys from his alma mater, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, through weekly sports-and-bible study sessions. In 2015, he earned his undergraduate degree from UC. Along the way, he reconnected with Stephanie Perry, a former classmate from second grade whom he hadn’t seen for 13 years.

Strangely enough, she, too, had gone to UC, but had left after freshman year. She was attending massage therapy school, in fact, when she’d heard about Atkins’s accident. She quickly reconnected with him, offering him massages to help alleviate the pain and tension that accompanied uncontrollable muscle spasms he’d been having. The therapy helped, and the pair eventually became friends, hanging out on weekends with others and even taking a class together.

When Stephanie told Atkins she was interested in dating him, he was caught completely off guard, awkward and flustered; eventually, though, he asked her out. After dating for roughly two years, the pair married on the weekend of the seventh anniversary of the accident—November 19, 2016 (a way of trying to “redeem that challenging season,” says Atkins). Initially, he’d thought of Stephanie as “a silver lining to this season of life.” Later, he’d realize she was pure gold.

Even as he found love and new purpose, Atkins spent much of the past decade resolved to conquer his paralysis. He was determined that he would eventually live and move independently. When that didn’t happen—despite signs that it might—his hope plummeted and he began experiencing a gradual, negative transformation of his body and soul. Before long “I was spiraling,” he says, in “a very dark place and just dealing with frustration [and] depression, thinking: I really thought my life was going differently than this.”

In 2019, Atkins ended up in the hospital—seizing on and off, barely able to speak and largely unconscious—for nearly a month. He was suffering from mysterious physical ailments for which doctors could find no cause, and becoming more hostile and despondent by the day. He floated in and out of consciousness and often emerged paranoid, speaking in a strange tone of voice. He insisted Stephanie didn’t love him and shouted that he was a failure and his life had no purpose, yelling at one point: “I should have just died in the accident.”

Finally, Stephanie took matters into her own hands and began praying fervently by his bedside and enlisting friends to do the same. His response was both terrifying and promising.

“One moment,” he wrote, “I would express feelings of self-loathing and remorse, in the same strangled voice as earlier”; the next, he’d be quoting inspirational Bible passages. Eventually, though, over the course of that long, dark night, Atkins emerged from a conflicted state unquestionably transformed, with Stephanie by his side.

One day later, he was able to swallow solid food for the first time in weeks. Shortly after that, he was discharged to go home. In fact, he writes, “this miraculous healing allowed for a sense of freedom I had not experienced in years.” He began sleeping better, his voice returned to normal and he grew more energetic and animated. “I began to feel a sense of peace about my situation unlike anything I had experienced previously.”

To this day, no one is exactly sure what happened to him during that time in the hospital. After reading Man’s Search for Meaning, though, by late psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, Atkins realized “experiencing a drastic loss of hope can lead to a diminishing will to live. From here,” writes Atkins, “our bodies will simply follow suit.”

Now, he and Stephanie focus, no matter what, on living life fully in the here and now, and finding meaning in everyday life, challenges and all. Their one true choice (and ours), he notes, “is to decide how we will respond to the situation.”

What gave him the will to keep going during that dark time in the hospital? Stephanie’s intervention for sure, but also a vision he’d had at that same uncertain moment, of what his life would have been like without the accident—“prestigious job title, overflowing bank account, palatial house, promotions, awards, travel, golf, leisure” and all. “For a moment,” he wrote, “it seemed like heaven on earth. But suddenly I noticed something else. Other aspects of my life were missing,” he says—most importantly his rock-solid, newfound faith and Stephanie, “the person I loved more than anything in the world.” In one very profound glimpse, he saw, as his book’s subtitle notes, Everything I Almost Missed.

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