Always recovering: Fargo woman tells her story of addiction

FARGO -- Jennifer Kraft was born to be a drug addict. It ran in the family. Her story is filled with tragedy -- a life interrupted and set off course time and again -- but it isn't hers alone.
Recovering addict Jennifer Kraft began doing drugs at age 9. She has been clean for more than 3 years now. David Samson / The Forum

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the Fargo-Moorhead area, overdoses and drug deaths have become too common. As the death toll rises, stigma and misconception fuel the fire. In this three-part series, we explore the faces of addiction behind the headlines. A recovering addict, a mother of addicts and two authorities who work with addicts tell their stories.

Sunday: An addict describes her road to recovery

Monday: A family's seven years of "epic terror"

Tuesday: Through the eyes of a counselor and a cop

FARGO - Jennifer Kraft was born to be a drug addict. It ran in the family.

Her story is filled with tragedy - a life interrupted and set off course time and again - but it isn't hers alone. The Fargo woman is one of about 10,000 North Dakotans who battle illicit drug addiction yearly, according to a 2014 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In a single day count, 1,785 individuals were enrolled in substance use treatment in 2013.

Kraft, 42, wants to tell her story to create a ripple effect. She not only can affect the people closest to her, but may have the potential to touch others.

"If I plant one seed in an addict that even brings them back later and they don't die, then I feel I've given back to society a little bit of what I've taken," she says.

Born into the culture

Kraft was first introduced to the culture of drugs in the Florida Keys where she was born. "By the time I was 5, there had been a lot of trauma - some things that came back later," Kraft says.

About that time, her mom sent her on a plane to live with her grandmother in New Jersey - a woman she barely knew. The smoke rings Kraft could blow and her knowledge of joint rolling were tell-tale signs of what she had experienced.

From there, Kraft went to live with her father and stepmother in Colorado. At 9 or 10 years old, she began cutting herself and using marijuana; the combination of the two helped calm her fears.

At 13, she ran away from home. When caught, she was put in a state hospital - a terrible experience that sent her on the run again with another girl. That night her drug use escalated.

The girl took her to a party in downtown Denver where two guys picked them up and brought them to a park. Sensing danger, Kraft pulled a knife to defend herself, but the men seized it and used it against her. "I was raped at knifepoint," Kraft says. "I had wanted to die from the trauma I'd been through. Whatever drug we did (afterwards), it numbed me."

When hearing of the incident, Kraft's aunt in Dover, Del., took her in. But within a year, Kraft moved back to Florida to live with her mother where she found other kids with drugs.

"Crack cocaine was huge and pure because it came right off the boat," she says. "A friend of mine took me to his crack dealer's house and after I took a hit of that, I knew I'd found oblivion."

The crack house became home. "I'm 15 at this point," Kraft says. "I weaseled my way into this drug dealer's bed, or did he weasel me into his bed? I was with him for about two years. We sold crack, did crack."

After getting caught, Kraft and her dealer boyfriend took off to Miami where she was prostituted for crack. During that time, she was also committing crimes like burglary, she says. But, as a minor, every time she was picked up by the police, she was let go. Police would call both of her parents and neither claimed her.

Then another traumatic experience changed her course.

Attempting a normal life

Kraft was with one of her "johns" and another woman as he cooked drugs in his home. Because of the crime rate in the area, he had a system that locked down the house with metal on windows, trapping her and another woman inside. "I don't remember quite, but I think he killed that girl," Kraft says. "He was playing Russian roulette with her."

Once the man fell asleep, Kraft was able to pry the garage door open and run.

Kraft and her boyfriend set off for Colorado to make an attempt at a "normal life." At 17, she got pregnant, and the couple was excited. But when she lost the baby at 17 weeks, she was devastated. Kraft wanted a future, so she left her boyfriend and joined Job Corps.

At 18, she met a Greyhound bus driver from Devils Lake, N.D., and a year later married him.

"I think that was kind of my second attempt," Kraft says. "He obviously wanted to save me and I needed to be saved."

At 21, Kraft and her husband had their first child and two more followed. At the same time, she was going back to school and got caught up in partying. At 26 or 27, she was introduced to methamphetamine. While still married, she began dating her drug dealer, got pregnant twice and had two abortions.

"It was horrible for my kids, it was horrible for me. It was a two-year nightmare for my family," Kraft says. "Five days after I had the second abortion - which I didn't tell anyone about - I tried to take my own life."

For the next 10 years, Kraft was in and out of recovery. All the while, her husband stuck by her side "but not without many, many threats of leaving me and saying, 'I can't live like this anymore,' " Kraft says.

Always recovering

Kraft now celebrates three and a half years sober, but her experiences have caused damage both physically and mentally. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a handful of other mental health disorders. She also fears relapsing at any moment.

"I'm not a former addict," Kraft says. "I'm a recovering addict, and I wouldn't say 'recovered' ever."

Her family keeps her strong, despite all they've been through.

"An addict can't say sorry anymore," Kraft says. "Sorrys are wasted after you do this over and over again. I can't promise my family I won't do this again. I wish I could, but I can't. And that sucks."

The focus is on finding balance. Taking care of her physical, mental and emotional health has never been a priority; no one ever taught her how.

"I honestly don't have a drug problem, I have a living problem," she says. "I don't know how to live correctly."

Her goal now is to help others, because no one is immune. "Everybody knows someone - their child, their niece or nephew, their uncle, their friend's child," she says. "Because it doesn't just affect people who have my background."

That was the case for Dana Chase. She never thought drug addiction would affect her average American family.

She was wrong.

Read about Chase in Part 2 of this series.