CUMBERLAND — At her lowest moment, all Roxxanne Newman wanted to do was live to see another day. Homeless and addicted to heroin and cocaine, she had no hopes, no dreams, and was prepared for either incarceration or death.
Her road toward sobriety began on May 4, 2012, her first day in what is now seven years clean and sober. She then enrolled in classes at Community College of Rhode Island in early 2015, unsure of what her journey was going to look like. The journey, which took her from the streets to the classroom, continued Saturday morning when she graduated from Rhode Island College with two degrees.
“These were my dreams before I started using drugs. When I got to recovery, it took a lot of time to get my life back together,” she says.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen when you enter into the recovery process,” she said. Her mantra now is a simple three words: “Recovery is possible.”
A 34-year-old Cumberland resident, Newman doesn’t just excel in the classroom – she’s been on the Dean’s List for the past four years – but she also makes an impact outside of it as an active leader in Rhode Island’s recovery community. Under the auspices of the Care New England health system, Newman is a peer recovery specialist in emergency rooms across the state. She maintains a case load of more than 50 clients and uses her personal experiences with addiction to help her clients transform their lives.
“I go into emergency rooms and my primary job is to basically give hope to people because I’m a former opioid and cocaine addict. Right now with the epidemic, it’s to let people know at one point I was homeless, addicted to drugs, with no hopes or dreams. Now, my life is drastically different,” she said. “There is a way out. I’ve walked it. This is something I’ve lived.”
Newman graduated from RIC Saturday with dual Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and chemical dependency. This fall, she’ll begin work on a Master’s degree in psychology at RIC, with a focus on research.
“I just got teary-eyed, I’m the first person in my family to graduate with a Bachelor’s,” the mother of a two-year-old daughter said. “Even more than a recovery thing, this is a step in the right direction for future generations, to provide for my family. It’s just surreal.”
“It’s not just one, I have two (degrees), it’s a 4.0 (grade point average). I used to be a heroin addict, I never expected any of this and that’s why I try to tell people who are struggling, you have this potential inside of you, you just have to find it,” Newman added.
She’s been president of RICovery, a student organization that provides peer-to-peer support for students either in recovery or who are struggling with substance use. She also sits on the executive board for RICares, an organization that develops ways to effectively advocate for those impacted by substance use.
As a scholar and researcher at RIC, Newman is particularly interested in researching the barriers to recovery, specifically barriers imposed by stigmas, social injustice, and the criminalization of the disorder, she said. The hope is that research will inform changes in policies and programs.
“I feel like it’s a hard line, people do criminal activities to obtain drugs but one of the things we’re not realizing is we’re giving people life sentences...” Newman said. “Even though (addiction’s) a disease and we have to help people, there should be some understanding.”
“There needs to be a drastic change in how we handle it,” she continued. “The court system can definitely play a part, putting that strong hand on top of you, but at some point there needs to be some sort of forgiveness. It’s one of the things that’s very difficult to see. There’s still people that say they need help, but you get put in jail for it.”
In examining the criminalization of addiction, Newman noted issues of social justice. She said the nation’s criminal justice system is disproportionately made up of communities of color and when prior offenders are released from prison, many lack adequate housing, education, job training, and the skills necessary to support recovery.
Given her expertise in the field, it’s no surprise that Newman is a sought-after public speaker. She was asked to present the keynote at Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s signing of the executive order for the Governor’s Overdose Task Force, she has been a speaker at “Rally for Recovery” events, and she also spoke on the panel for former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy’s “The Power of Peers Discussion.” Newman was also recently on a panel at Brown University addressing the need for safe consumption sites in Rhode Island.
She’s also shared her experience with drug use with youths at the Pawtucket Learning Academy, discussing the consequences of drug use and the possibility for recovery.
“I like to look at talking to the youths as planting seeds … The important thing is to plant seeds,” Newman said. “When I was in the beginning stages, I didn’t know about recovery.”
“Maybe these kids will wake up and say ‘I remember that girl that came to my class and she got help.’ I just try to plant seeds,” she added.
As a college graduate with two degrees, Newman says she’s ready to continue along what she describes as her second chance at life.
“There was the life before recovery and we live our second life. This is my second lifetime, for me this is it, I need to give it my all...” she said. “One-hundred and seventy-nine people die a day from accidental overdose, one of them should have been me. I give the best I can give because I feel so grateful.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette