Posted: Saturday, July 26, 2014 12:53 am | Updated: 12:44 am, Sun Jul 27, 2014
By MJ Slaby 812-331-4371 | firstname.lastname@example.org
The fish tanks are everywhere.
They’re in every room — except the bathroom — of the three-bedroom house that Mark Huffman shares with his wife, Jacque.
Near the back door is one tank. Turn the corner, and back bedrooms are filled with them.
Outside in the garage, fish tanks line the walls and create rows in layers of shelves. The garage is kept at 73 degrees year round — even during power outages and snowstorms.
It takes three to four hours a day for Huffman to clean the tanks and feed the fish. Then, he spends more hours selling fish, as well as caring for and selling aquatic plants.
“I have an addictive personality, and fish is an addiction,” Huffman said.
It’s that personality that propelled him to learn about selling fish and aquatic plants. It’s helped him stay in the construction business through three Ivy Tech Community College degrees.
Yet it’s the same personality that landed him behind bars and allowed heroin and alcohol to control his life.
There were three drug-related felonies in 2001, plus one for receiving stolen property — a Chevrolet pickup truck. Then, a few years later, another felony for dealing a controlled substance.
It’s a personality that led to a heroin addiction that spiraled —that is, until the last time he went to prison.
Now 50-year-old Huffman, a lifelong Bloomington resident, is focused on channeling a personality once controlled by heroin and alcohol into a life motivated by family and career. He was once at rock bottom and is now climbing up. He’s just the type of student that Ivy Tech celebrates: an adult looking for a new future.
Drugs controlled his life
During a weekday lunch break from his construction business — Mark of Excellence Painting & More — Huffman sat at a Penn Station East Coast Subs window seat looking out at Indiana Avenue. The background on his phone is his stepdaughter’s nearly 2-year-old daughter, Piper, who he calls Porkchop. She’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “Life is good when you have a grandpa like mine.”
Huffman is no stranger to having his name in The Herald-Times. It was there each time he had a felony arrest and again for participating in a then-new inmate transition program in 2006.
He grew up near the Indiana University campus and spent much of his time around campus and Kirkwood Avenue — mostly getting high starting around 12 or 13 years old, hanging out at Peoples Park and making himself an easy public intoxication bust for police.
“This is how my day would go: I’d get up at 8 or 9 a.m., do a blast of heroin, finish a fifth of Grey Goose vodka next to me just to get out of bed. Then, I’d either drive once to Chicago or two or three times to Indy to deal,” Huffman said.
When he had nowhere to live, he and others would keep clothes in a locker at what’s now the IU School of Public Health, and shower there, too. They’d sleep at the Indiana Memorial Union.
“It had control of my life in the ’90s,” he said. “I was in and out of jail.”
He was known as Black Dragon.
The first time he was sent to jail for dealing was after his brother David died from drug use. The last time, in 2005, was after he sold heroin to a man wearing a wire. Huffman said he heard a warning from God that if he sold the drugs, he’d go to jail — but he didn’t listen. Even in jail, he’d work on the road crews and smuggle in tobacco.
But now, life is too good for that.
“I have too much to live for,” he said, looking through pictures of Piper.
Turned to God
It was the last time he was in prison that Huffman decided to change his life. And it wasn’t just about getting sober. It was changing his outlook.
“I was the same dope-dealing fool I was on the outside on the inside,” he said.
So Huffman decided to “put his life into the hands of God.” And when the change became visible to judges and prosecutors, he was released.
Now, Huffman spends his time away from the world of drugs that once controlled him. He’s been sober for nine years, and he admitted it hasn’t been easy. He stays away from all caffeine and alcohol.
“Sometimes I want a cold beer, but I know I have no off button,” Huffman said.
But it’s that lack of an off button and his self-proclaimed “addictive personality” that’s allowed him to tackle new projects.
He wanted to go back to school to win his father’s approval. Huffman now has degrees in general studies and liberal arts and is working on a human services degree at Ivy Tech.
He started doing odd jobs and selling fish, then launched two businesses — one in construction and another selling fish and aquatic plants, Mark of Excellence Aquatics, which reminded him of his love for the outdoors.
He reconnected with a junior high classmate on Facebook and married her three years ago. He bought a house in October.
Student. Business owner. Husband and homeowner.
“Time management is difficult, if you look at the whole big picture,” Huffman admitted. “But if you do one thing at a time, I’m able to knock it out.”
He uses that dedication in the classroom, said Martin Wolfger, Ivy Tech Bloomington dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor.
When Huffman started at Ivy Tech in spring 2009, it was difficult. He hadn’t been in a classroom in more than 25 years. And after he had completed a few years of adjusting, his father died last fall, sending him into a tailspin. He almost gave up on school.
“I learned that instead of doing it for him, I started doing it for me,” Huffman said. He said it was Wolfger who helped him get through, told him to stick with it and listed his options to finish classes at another time. But he ended up not needing the options.
“There is something about Mark. He just finds a way to make things work,” Wolfger said.
When Huffman graduated with his liberal arts degree this spring, he was named Ivy Tech’s outstanding student in liberal arts.
“He is almost like a bulldog,” said Wolfger, who nominated him.
Wants to help others
The modest home with a pole barn and 2.5-car garage he owns now is a far cry from the pair of shorts and shoes he left prison with.
He knows that. Without a pair of friends who owned the house before, Huffman said, he — as a five-time convicted felon with no bank account — would have never been able to buy a house.
He also knows that as the oldest of eight kids, he feels responsible for the siblings who followed his lead and turned to drugs.
“I’m getting clean for them,” he said.
Once he finishes his human services degree at Ivy Tech, Huffman said he plans to continue his studies at IU to become a drug and alcohol counselor to help people like himself. He’s already spoken to his classmates about his substance abuse.
Normally, Wolfger said he has hesitations about former addicts who want to be counselors, because they might relapse.
“But I don’t have those concerns with Mark. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy,” Wolfger said. “Other people, a lot of stress puts them back. … I don’t think that was ever a problem for Mark.”
Huffman said his dream is to have a rehabilitation program where recovering addicts could work for his construction business with the responsibility of a job, and once the program is over, a paycheck.
“Rehab isn’t teaching them life skills,” Huffman said. “You can get sober, but you need accountability and structure.”
He’s been there. He said he knows when addicts are lying and what they need to help them. He also knows sharing his story can help others on a similar path.
“I’ve been an addict,” Huffman said. “It gives you credibility with other addicts. … It’s a natural fit. God has a way, and things will work out.”
Mark Huffman is operating an aquatic plants and fish business as well as a construction company. Huffman recently graduated from Ivy Tech after serving time in prison on drug charges and plans to become a counselor for drug users. David Snodgress | Herald-Times
Mark Huffman operates an aquatic plants and fish business, and also has a construction company. Huffman recently graduated from Ivy Tech Community College after serving prison time on drug-related charges. He plans to continue his studies at Indiana University and become a counselor for substance abusers. David Snodgress | Herald-Times