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RI HEALTH

From the depths of addiction, to helping others in recovery

Roxxanne Newman uses her own experiences to show others that their lives have value and recovery is possible.

Roxxanne Newman, research assistant at The People, Place and Health Collective at Brown School of Public Health, poses for a portrait in Providence in June 2021.
Roxxanne Newman, research assistant at The People, Place and Health Collective at Brown School of Public Health, poses for a portrait in Providence in June 2021.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Roxxanne Newman was tired of people needlessly dying. She knew too many people who had. She nearly had herself.

So when she was invited to speak at the Rhode Island State House in June, at a rally for drug policy reform, she was speaking from experience.

“A life of unhealed traumas propelled me to find comforts in the poisons that I knew would eventually kill me,” she said, holding a mic in one hand and an iPad in the other, her voice steady. “And the drugs almost did. In fact, they almost did 29 times.”

Nine years earlier, Newman woke up in an ambulance after an overdose, her 29th in a decade of active addiction. Each time it had happened before, she had returned to the streets, to the only life she had grown to know — one of squalor and desperation. But something was different after the last one — what and why, she still isn’t so sure.

Today, she is one of about 22 million Americans living in recovery. And, at 36 years old, she is one of Rhode Island’s preeminent voices on substance use disorder, sharing her story at rallies, pushing for policy changes, and debunking some of the stereotypes about addiction and its victims.

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“We as a community are moving beyond the archaic beliefs of ‘once an addict, always an addict,’ " she told the crowd in June. “We as a community are saying that everyone’s life is valuable and worth saving without judgement.”

Searching for stability

She was born Roxxanne Hatch in 1984 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a city of old textile mills and triple-decker tenements 30 miles north of Boston. Her father was a tattoo artist who struggled with an addiction to cocaine, cycling in and out of prison for much of Newman’s childhood. Her mother was a homemaker then, only 19 years old when she welcomed her daughter into this world.

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Childhood brought a dozen addresses in just as many years. Her parents broke up and married other people, and Newman was shuttled back and forth between her mother, father, stepmother, grandmother and several group homes. A sense of abandonment haunted her, and poverty put things her classmates took for granted — like gymnastics lessons and Fruit Roll-Ups — out of reach.

“But I don’t want to sound like a victim, because I’m not a victim,” she says now. “I was a really, really difficult child.”

She was kicked out of an anger management program for fighting. She began skipping school, though when she actually attended and was not suspended, she was a straight A student. Layers of anger, pain and loneliness built up over time, hardening into a heavy weight that she lugged around throughout her earliest years.

From alcohol to OxyContin

At 16 she was first introduced to alcohol by an abusive boyfriend. A year later, a friend introduced her to Ecstasy. One day, in a cloud of drug-fueled haze and rage, Newman drove her car off the road and into a line of trees. Her 76-year-old grandmother, her only passenger, was severely injured. Newman was arrested and charged with her first felony. She says she was facing a three-and-a-half to seven-year prison sentence but got only two weeks to serve because her grandmother refused to testify against her.

A short time later, she took off.

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She found a job in a pizza parlor in Lebanon, N.H., working 50-hour weeks. She had hopes of going back to school. But one day, a customer who worked as an exotic dancer at a local strip club told her, “You’re very pretty. You should come hang out at the club some time.” And Newman agreed.

One hundred and sixty dollars in six minutes. “This is the answer,” Newman thought after her first time on stage at the club.

At 19, she was introduced to cocaine by a customer. The powder took away the self-loathing, anger and crippling insecurity. “I was no longer that little girl in the fifth grade with no Fruit Roll-Ups,” she says.

Occasional cocaine use soon turned weekly; weekly use soon turned daily. She moved to Maine and began to experience cocaine-induced seizures, so her boyfriend turned her onto something new: OxyContin.

In September 2006, Newman moved to Rhode Island with her dog and a few boxes of belongings. She knew no one, but a friend had mentioned drugs were cheaper in Providence and the clubs better paying.

Soon, she was taking OxyContin, not to feel high, but to avoid feeling sickeningly low.

Facing a $500-a-day drug habit, Newman switched from OxyContin pills to heroin, which was cheaper. She’d been evicted from her apartment and was living in Pawtucket in a room where a tattoo artist offered to let her stay. As the needle pierced her skin for the first time, any hopes that still lingered — of being a mom, of going to college, of fulfilling her goal of becoming a psychologist — evaporated. Desire for the drug became an act of survival.

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By the summer of 2007, Newman was out on the streets of Providence. Unable to hold down a job at any strip club, she turned to prostitution.

The complexity of addiction

The medical community long ago agreed that addiction is a complex brain disorder. Today, though stigma and misinformation persist, the broader public increasingly views people with an addiction to be battling a medical disease, not blighted by a moral failing.

But Newman comes from an era in which one message reigned supreme: If you’re a junkie, you’ve wasted your life. “I didn’t know that I could get help,” she said. “I just really thought I was a bad person.”

She spent years cycling through Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions, rehab facilities and the streets of Providence.

Over time she was convicted of, among other things, car theft, prostitution and the unlawful concealment of a knife she claimed was for self-defense. Four felonies and 15 to 20 misdemeanors in total, she estimates. “It’s tricky to keep count.”

Sometimes she was so tired and resigned to her life that she pled guilty to charges she did not commit. “I never planned to survive,” she says now. “I wasn’t going to live long enough to care about the consequences.”

Time in prison offered a respite. For Newman, it meant free meals, a chance to do laundry, a bed with clean sheets. For her parents, it meant she was relatively safe. “At least then I knew where she was,” said her mother, Angela Doucette, who now lives in Maine and works as a paralegal.

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Then came April 6, 2012, the day she went out to look for a dealer and found that she actually wanted to live. She called home, and moved back in with her father in Massachusetts, where she began her recovery process.

But as Newman likes to remind people, “Recovery is not a straight shot.” When she returned to Rhode Island a few weeks later for an important court date, she decided she would use drugs one last time.

The next day — May 3, 2012 — she woke up in the ambulance, having survived her 29th overdose. She vowed never to use again.

“I never planned to survive,” Roxxanne Newman says now, looking back at years of active addiction. “I wasn’t going to live long enough to care about the consequences.”
“I never planned to survive,” Roxxanne Newman says now, looking back at years of active addiction. “I wasn’t going to live long enough to care about the consequences.”Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Recovery is possible

She found solace at her recovery meetings, hope at friends’ homes, and determination at the gym. Her mother texts her every morning, just to say hello, make sure she’s safe, and tell her she loves her. She worked as a waitress in a Pawtucket diner, where she met Mike Newman, a veteran police officer. He encouraged her to go back to school.

They married in 2014, almost a year to the day after they met, and settled into a home in Cumberland. She enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island in 2015 and later transferred to Rhode Island College, graduating in 2017 with dual undergraduate degrees in psychology and chemical dependency, becoming the first in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. In between, she presented the keynote address at then-Governor Gina Raimondo’s signing of the executive order establishing the Governor’s Overdose Task Force in 2015, and gave birth to a daughter, Grace.

“Nothing holds her down. Nothing stops her,” says Mike Newman, 53.

But along the way, Newman says, she felt like she lost sight of herself. Through her studies she has learned that drug use is but one symptom of addiction. “You still can be at a place of self-destruction without using drugs in the recovery process,” she said. She and Mike Newman divorced after five years of marriage, and she focused her energy on becoming a vocal leader in Rhode Island’s recovery community.

As a member of the state’s Juvenile and Criminal Justice Working Group, she worked on a report, issued in January 2020, which included dozens of recommendations to address barriers to re-entry and better support young people involved in the criminal justice system. It’s an issue that’s achingly familiar for her.

Despite her achievements, sometimes she wonders whether her criminal record will haunt her forever.

“I can look up and see the stars, but I can’t reach them,” she said while testifying in support of a bill that would have downgraded drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.

In the fall of 2020, Newman was hired as a research assistant at the Marshall Lab, led by Brandon Marshall, associate professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health. “A dream come true,” she said. The team conducts research that aims to improve the health and well-being of people who are using drugs.

“She’s an energetic, compassionate and insightful presence in our lab, working tirelessly with our study participants and treating everyone — regardless of their background or circumstances — with dignity and respect,” Marshall said.

To everything she does, she brings the lessons she’s learned along the way, and she shares her insights freely. She says she shares her experiences — at rallies, on Facebook, in meetings — in order to change policies and the stigma of people in recovery, and of those who continue to use.

“This is my purpose,” she says.

Doing so has helped her save others.

“Because of her, I didn’t give up,” said Haley Nims, a close friend of Newman’s who is also in recovery.

But there are people who die from drug use before they even have a chance to recover, Newman points out. There is a dire need for more mental health care and better rehab, more understanding and education. The goal should be simple: Keeping people alive.

“My best friend is still out there on the street. We used together. We were in prison together. We were in recovery houses together,” Newman said. “She’s still out there and I’m not.”

Appreciating the miracles

When the pandemic hit, Newman was juggling her recovery, her divorce, her school, her work, and parenting two young children (a second daughter, Angelina, was born in February 2020 with a different partner). “I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider giving up,” she said.

But there is a truism in the recovery community, she explained: Don’t give up before the miracle happens.

Looking back at her life, there have been many miracles.

She is a mom, student, mentor, daughter and friend. She’s earned dual bachelor’s degrees and recently earned her master’s from Rhode Island College. Soon she will begin an online PhD program at Capella University.

“For a while, addiction was the only thing I had,” she said recently, not long after celebrating nine years clean. “Now it’s becoming a smaller and smaller part of my life. Looking back when I’m older — hopefully I’ll make it — active addiction will be a small but pivotal part of my life, because I was able to take that experience and use it in a positive light for good for myself and my community.”

Every day she reminds herself: Recovery is possible.