From heroin addiction to college graduation: Jennifer’s story

Jennifer Garnar admits that she was an indifferent student in high school, but music drew her. An avid singer, she participated in the school chorus, which in part forged her identity.

But during her long addiction to heroin, she no longer sang. Music was replaced by the need to feed her destructive habit – broken only by a felony burglary conviction and months in the Broome County Jail.

“I have a crazy story,” said Garnar, who was known as Jennifer Finelli before her wedding last semester. “I’m finally graduating college in my late 30s. I’m in recovery. I was a drug addict for a long time.”

After six years of sobriety, this former addict’s life is virtually unrecognizable from the abyss in which she had dwelled for so long. She’s married now with a young son, manages two frozen yogurt stores and attends class full-time.

On May 25, she’ll achieve an incredible milestone: Her first college degree, an Associate’s in Music. If you described her current life to her old self, sitting on the hard beds in the county lockup, she wouldn’t have believed it, or imagined the sheer possibility.

“I’ve got to trust that everything has happened so far for a reason,” she said.

Rock bottom and the way back

While she loved to sing and thrived in chorus, Garnar barely graduated high school because of her other pastime – partying. After graduation, she shrugged off the possibility of college and instead worked in local bars and restaurants. Along the way, she found herself addicted to heroin.

Under pressure by her family to turn her life around, she enrolled at SUNY Broome in 2009 and majored in Early Childhood Education. In the throes of her addiction, she ended up failing out.

“In 2009, I had good grades but I was dope-sick and stopped coming to class,” she said.

Life continued to spiral downward. In 2011, she and her future husband were arrested on burglary charges after breaking into friends and family members’ homes to feed their heroin habit. At the age of 29 and now a convicted felon, Jennifer landed in the Broome County Jail, where she spent 4 ½ months.

Jail was an exercise in misery – but also an opportunity that allowed Jennifer and Seth to turn their lives around. Both were eligible for the Binghamton Adult Drug Treatment Court, which mandated treatment; Jennifer was involved with the court for three years.

“During those three years, they taught me how to be responsible. They helped me get back into school,” she said.

Jennifer had a couple mishaps along the way. She and Seth – she was once his drug dealer – were supposed to stay apart, for example. Unlike many couples who share addictions, the two have the same “clean date” – the date they stopped using heroin – and worked to get their lives back on track.

As a felon, Jennifer faced more steps than the average college applicant; she had to write a letter to the college Administration detailing her future goals in order to be admitted at all. Pregnant at the time she started classes, she took a year and a half break once her son was born to care for him and work at a local job.

Ultimately, it’s taken six and a half semesters to earn her degree, but she has no regrets about taking her time. Today, she and her husband have a place of their own with two cars, jobs, a young son and a daughter on the way – and, allowing for all of that, six years of sobriety.

Balancing work, family and her education has been tough, and Garnar considered withdrawing at the start of her last semester. But encouraged by all those around her, she persevered, cut back on her hours at work and made the final push to finish her degree.

Unlike her first stint in college, she was determined to succeed – to show up and do the work.

“I don’t have to be a failure anymore,” she said.

Looking ahead

Many people in recovery seek to enter fields where they can help those in similar circumstances. While a Chemical Dependency Counseling degree might seem a natural fit, Garnar couldn’t bear to witness others going through the hell she had escaped.

SUNY Broome’s Music degree program has multiple career tracks. Garnar chose to focus on Music Therapy, combining her desire to help others with the passion she had put aside for so long.

The program combines courses in psychology with the study of music. As with all music students, Garnar had to choose an instrument; she chose her voice, underwent vocal training and sang with the college choir. She has also taken multiple general education courses, frequently online – and found that her hard work paid off, sometimes unexpectedly.

“It’s cool now to think about all the stuff I’ve learned,” she said.

Take her online microeconomics course, a subject area that doesn’t come to her naturally. She shuttled her husband and child out of the room on many occasions so that she could focus on her work. She ended up with an A, even though there were many nights when she hurled salty language at her computer screen.

Her writing and speaking skills also have much improved, thanks to the rigors of her college courses.

“I learned a lot about myself, like my study habits – things that I never cared about before,” she said.

Looking ahead, she plans to take about a year off her studies once her daughter is born. And then, she plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy, and ultimately a career.

She’s considering working in the addiction field, pointing out that music can help ease and calm anxiety. Some people dealing with addiction can associate certain music with their habit – associations that therapy can seek to break.

Garnar willingly tells her story of addiction in the hope that it will help others who may face similar struggles, whether in their own lives, their loved ones or their professions. She has participated in panel discussions in the community, and has spoken to SUNY Broome’s Criminal Justice students about the realities of addiction.

“It’s affecting so many more people,” Garnar said of heroin addiction. “I share my story in the hope that it helps, but there is stigma around addiction. People can say hurtful things.”

For Garnar, graduation presents mixed emotions – the thrill of celebrated accomplishments, but also the prospect of the unknown. SUNY Broome “is a nice little cozy community” that she hesitates to leave, although goals in the wider world now beckon.

“I think about graduation and it’s very surreal,” she said.

In sharing her story, what does Garnar want the reader to know? Like all life lessons, it’s simple but austere, like the chord demarcating the transition of one musical movement to the next.

“You can do whatever you put your mind to, but it’s not always easy,” she said, adding a slight refrain: “it’s not always easy.”