Mariel Hafnagel is the Executive Director of the Ammon Foundation. In longterm recovery since 2007, she knows the disease of addiction well. Grace and luck and a lot of compassionate support changed her life.
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I didn’t wake up when I was 17 and decide that I wanted to be a drug addict.
The trajectory of my life and how I began to manifest addiction was not a conscious decision. Was picking up alcohol and drugs a conscious decision? Absolutely – because I was in tremendous pain and I wanted to take that away.
My addiction progressed rapidly, leaving limited if not zero time for intervention, education, primary level care.
My name is Mariel Hufnagel. I’m a woman in long-term recovery which for me means that I’ve been alcohol and drug free since May 7, 2007, after an alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine addiction from the ages of 17 to 21.
There was nothing extraordinarily dysfunctional or out of order or catastrophic that happened in my childhood. From a very young age however, I always felt less than, different, and was constantly looking for a way to diminish those feelings.
I acted out. I stole. I was promiscuous. I threw temper tantrums. Anything I could do to get outside of me and to get some attention from you.
I do remember at a very young age experimenting with alcohol, alone, and I just think that is important because the reason why I used alcohol and drugs, the reason I acted out was because I was trying to self-medicate.
It’s very clear to me there was something off in my brain, and that there were mental health issues, underlying and untreated.
I didn’t start using anything regularly until I was about 17. And in literally a matter of months, if not weeks, I went from having a seemingly pretty normal life, you know, a beautiful house, a loving family, a decent GPA in school, friends, a boyfriend, etc. – to being homeless, a prostitute, living on the streets of Norwalk, Connecticut. I had a $1500 a day drug habit.
And what comes along with that lifestyle, as a 17, 18, 19 year old female, is a lot of trauma, a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of dangerous situations. All that does is it perpetuates the need and the desire to continue getting high. There was nothing I needed to do more than numb out so I could escape from all of that.
May 7, 2007, I was arrested and I was brought to jail. That was the beginning of my recovery story.
So often we talk about someone needing to have a willingness or a honest desire to enter and maintain their recovery. I was not willing or voluntarily brought to Volusia County Correctional Facility. But what that allowed is it allowed just enough time for me to get physically separated from alcohol and drugs that I could begin to have some clarity about my life. And it was through that clarity that I became willing to be an active participant in changing and addressing some things, so that I could be sober and live a life that was worth living.
Detoxing in jail, potentially in physical danger, unlike any other chronic disorder that would be medically addressed, addiction is not ,and was not, for me. And so I’m terrified and just kind of just left to fend for myself. Which is not loving and not medically appropriate for anybody.
So I ended up being in jail for about two months. And when I was released I needed to make a lot of changes and I needed to address a lot of things that I had been shoving down and unwilling to address for years at this point.
I got accepted into a halfway house and I was there for almost 9 months. It allowed me to have a safe place to live, get involved with peer-to-peer support. It allowed me time to look for employment, apply for Medicaid and food stamps, and social services. All of this was vital for that first year.
I also needed to get honest about how I was feeling, what I was thinking. And one of the most important things that I have found in my personal recovery is having people around me who hold me accountable and who I can be transparent with about what’s really going on. Recognizing that part of just the human condition is that we are broken and imperfect and that’s okay. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s okay to be who I am, in all its glory or in all its ugliness, and finding people who embrace me and love me and hold me up during those times. And had I not be able to kind of find that support, I don’t know if I would have been able to maintain my recovery.
I think it’s really important when we talk about recovery to talk about people being able to build meaningful, purposeful lives. Because without being crass – although I am crass -- if I can’t have a life worth living, why would I not want to be getting high?
Not saying that life needs to be perfect al of time. No one’s life is all of the time. However, when the bad times come, if there is purpose and meaning and love and connection in their life, it’s easier to weather those storms.
What happened when I was about five years in recovery is I realized there is a lot of discrimination against people like myself, and I became motivated to try to make a macro difference.
Oftentimes people ask me, what do I attribute my recovery to? And I say grace and luck.
Grace is defined as an unwarranted gift from God. And whatever you believe is your beliefs, but I believe that the universe is conspiring for our greatest good, all the time.
I believe that I’ve been put in the right place at the right time with the right people enough times to maintain my recovery and to become who I am today.
That’s also combined with luck. Luck for me is connected to privilege. It’s connected to the fact that I’m an upper middle class white female. Between the ages of 14 and 21, I was a repeat offender. I am now a convicted felon. I’m a sex-trafficking survivor, and I’m formerly homeless. Time after time, I was given second, third, fifth, a hundredth chances, by everybody – police, judges, by people who I just crossed paths with. I also experienced tremendous generosity because I was seemingly non-threatening. And, due to the socio-economic status of my family, I was able to access treatment, go back to school.
I was able to do all of these different things that are off-limits or much harder to attain than say my African-American female counterpart, my trans counterpart, my lower socio-economic counterpart.
My recovery should not be based on grace and luck. It should be based on the fact that I was given access to services, that barriers were removed, and that I was treated with compassion because I suffer from a brain disorder – and that’s why I should be able to have entered and maintained my recovery.
So since 2012 I have had the incredible ability to join what many people call the recovery advocacy movement. I have been able to work and live in a space where people are demanding what I like to consider the civil rights of people who suffer from a substance use disorder. And, you know, it started as a volunteer intern in 2012 and just six years later I have the distinct privilege of being the executive director of a foundation.
And that really is what recovery looks like, right. It looks like the fact that I got married. It looks like the fact that we rescued two dogs. We bought a house. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a taxpayer. I’m an employer and an employee.
My story is not extraordinary. I just have been empowered to share it. There are thousands if not millions of others, just like me, living in recovery, a part of society who have overcome their own struggles with addiction. They have just not yet been empowered to share their story.
My name is Mariel Hufnagel and this is my story.