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Former drug users work on the front lines of the opioid crisis in Rhode Island

They visit overdose victims in the hospital. They hand out lifesaving drugs on the streets and educate their peers about their own relapses. In Rhode Island, former drug addicts are the most valuable fighters on the front lines of the war against opioids. William Brangham reports as part of our series, “America Addicted.”

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  • Judy Woodruff

    : But, first, we continue with our look at the opioid crisis — tonight, the difficulty of getting people into treatment.

    In December, Congress earmarked $1 billion for states to fight the addiction crisis over the next two years. Many treatment facilities still lack resources, so services often aren’t available when they’re needed.

    William Brangham recently traveled to Rhode Island to see a program that deploys former drug users to the front lines.

    It’s part of our ongoing series

    America Addicted

    .

  • Jonathan Goyer,

    Anchor Recovery: I lived down here for years on the street.

  • William Brangham:

    Lived right here?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    I did, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Thirty-year-old Jonathan Goyer has spent more than half his life addicted to drugs.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    I struggled with opiates and addiction of cocaine, of benzos, such as Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, struggled with alcohol, struggled with crystal meth, bath salts, hallucinogenics, tranquilizers.

  • William Brangham:

    That’s a hell of a menu.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    It is.

  • Roxanne Newman,

    Anchor Recovery: I planned on dying. That was my plan. So I continued to use drugs until death would hopefully arrive at my doorstep.

  • William Brangham:

    Thirty-two-year-old Roxanne Newman also spent years on the street, addicted.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    I have had people, when they want to hurt me, they will say, you know, you’re a junkie. You’re a crackhead. You’re a prostitute. You’re a hooker.

  • William Brangham:

    But, today, after long and difficult roads, Goyer and Newman are both clean. And now they’re helping others battle their own addiction.

  • Woman:

    Have you thought more about treatment?

  • William Brangham:

    They call themselves recovery coaches. They work for a group called Anchor Recovery in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It’s a government-funded program started in 2010.

    The idea here is that people who’ve struggled with addiction themselves, and specifically opioids, are uniquely qualified to serve on the front lines of the addiction crisis at this critical moment.

  • Woman:

    It’s better to check yourself before something really bad happens.

  • William Brangham:

    Connecting with those who are still struggling and to show them that another life is possible.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    How I do I convey that we used the same drugs, shared the same needles, walked the same street, got high in the same house? Like, how do I convey to this person that they can do it? If I can do it, you can do it.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    There’s six of us here, so we’re going to break off into three different groups of two.

  • William Brangham:

    We spent a few days with Goyer and his team to see how they work, and to see whether this approach, which is currently being studied by the federal government, can actually put a dent in the opioid crisis.

    We went with them as they visited overdose victims in emergency rooms, when they went to recovery meetings, like Narcotics Anonymous, even when they just met with people on the streets of Rhode Island.

  • Ryan Duxbury,

    Anchor Recovery: Here, take some Narcan just in case. You know how to use it?

  • William Brangham:

    Ryan Duxbury — that’s him in the plaid shirt — is another recovery coach. He’s a former opioid addict who used to come and use drugs in this same part of town.

    Today, he’s handing out Narcan, the emergency lifesaving drug that can instantly reverse an opioid overdose.

  • Ryan Duxbury:

    We are not health care workers. We are trying to approach people as another human being, as a peer, as on the same level. There’s no — I’m not up here, you’re not down here. We’re just on the same level.

  • William Brangham:

    Duxbury says giving out Narcan saves lives, for sure, but these interactions are also about making connections, so that if and when someone wants to get clean, they know where to turn.

  • Ryan Duxbury:

    Well, in case you change your mind, here’s our phone number, OK?

  • William Brangham:

    Do you have any sense of how many people from this street interaction that you guys have gotten into treatment?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    So, just in the last year-and-a-half, we have gotten over 400 people into — off the streets, into either detox or long-term residential treatment.

  • William Brangham:

    Four hundred patients?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Over 400 people.

  • William Brangham:

    With how many staff members?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    We started with two, and we’re up to six.

  • William Brangham:

    Goyer says this is the power of deploying people who have walked the walk, who know what active addiction is really like, and what it takes to get out.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    There are over 24 million Americans in this country that have overcome addiction. And I really think we should just turn to them and simply ask, how did you guys do it?

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan Goyer only did it after going to detox 38 times, suffering a near fatal heroin overdose, and, finally, using what’s considered the gold standard, medically assisted treatment. That’s methadone or other drugs like Suboxone or Vivitrol.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    That was me graduating from kindergarten.

  • William Brangham:

    We visited with him and his mom at his place in Providence.

  • William Brangham:

    As you start slipping into addiction, you start disappearing from the family pictures?

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Absolutely, including even family Christmas.

  • William Brangham:

    Goyer began using drugs when he was 15. His father died from a overdose in 2004. His brother followed a few years later.

  • Man:

    Jonathan. Is it Goyer?

  • William Brangham:

    At the depth of his own addiction, just five years ago, this was him standing before a judge after crashing a stolen car, high on hallucinogenic bath salts.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    When my mother saw me on the news the next day, instead of being shocked that I was arrested, or embarrassed, she was relieved, because she knew I was alive. That’s where drug addiction brought me, and that’s where it brought.

  • William Brangham:

    Goyer says it was his overdose that finally drove him to change.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    I woke up in an emergency room, and I was offered a second chance at life. And here’s what I have done with it.

  • William Brangham:

    Emergency rooms are in fact another place where Anchor Recovery sends its coaches, people like George O’Toole. O’Toole also spent many years as an addict, committed 26 felonies, and did more than 20 years in prison.

    Hoping to reach other active users at this crucial moment, O’Toole now coordinates with every hospital in Rhode Island, so that when an overdose victim comes in, Anchor is alerted, and a coach is sent to the hospital.

    When that coach arrives at the bedside, the hope is that a conversation begins.

  • George O’toole,

    Anchor Recovery: We don’t expect everybody to leave this hospital and never use again.

  • William Brangham:

    It’s not like a bedside transformation.

  • George O’toole:

    Absolutely not. It takes time. It takes work, because everybody’s pathway to recovery is different.

  • William Brangham:

    Roxanne Newman is one of those coaches who goes to the hospital to meet with addicts at their bedsides.

    Seeing her now, at church on Sunday, married to a cop, mother to a little girl, it’s hard to believe she overdosed at least 20 times in her many years addicted to cocaine and heroin. She says, even with what she calls her long education in addiction, that bedside pitch is never easy.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    First of all, when I’m walking in, I pray, because I know that this moment is bigger than me. And I let them know I actually work at the hospital that I had my experience of my last overdose.

  • William Brangham:

    The hospital that you last overdosed at, you now go to?

  • Roxanne Newman:

    I go to.

  • William Brangham:

    God, what does that feel like?

  • Roxanne Newman:

    Well, I just feel — I feel blessed to be able to walk in, because, when I tell somebody I have woken up in this bed before…

  • William Brangham:

    Literally.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    Literally. I have been in this room. I have been in your position. I know exactly how you feel at this moment.

  • Kimberly Johnson,, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment:

    Director I think that moment is the most important thing. When people say, yes, I want treatment, it has to be available, because it may only be a moment.

  • William Brangham:

    Kimberly Johnson is one of the nation’s top experts on drug addiction and mental health. She directs the federal government’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and she’s currently studying the Anchor program in Rhode Island.

  • Kimberly Johnson:

    One of the places that we are struggling with is the whole counseling piece. And if we have to have everybody that’s master’s-level trained counselors, we aren’t going to have enough people to do it.

    So that is a critical role for recovery coaches, to help people navigate the system and get the services and the care that they need when they need it.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    The right treatment is really whatever treatment that person is willing to accept at that given time.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan Goyer says recovery coaches are crucial for navigating the system, but, often, what the coaches have to offer comes down to what kind of insurance the patients have and what kind of treatment they can afford.

    Treatment options range from short-term detox programs and various levels of counseling. It can be residential inpatient treatment, which can last a few days to a few months. It can be intensive outpatient programs, like this one that meets 15 hours a week, or it can be various medically assisted treatments, such as this methadone clinic.

    But openings in all these places are scarce, at the very moment, when the demand for them is spiking. Rhode Island has seen a 90 percent increase in overdose deaths in the last five years.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    My job is to convince somebody to get treatment. And then when they say yes, sometimes, the treatment is not available. Put me in a funky situation. Here I am pouring my heart and soul and trying to help them, and I call, and there is no bed.

  • William Brangham:

    One message often repeated at Anchor is that the paths to recovery vary widely.

    Roxanne Newman says she did three court-ordered stints at intensive outpatient programs. None of them really worked. She says ongoing counseling, along with the support of her church and her husband, even her long runs, is what keeps her from relapsing.

    She met her husband, Major Mike Newman, who’s the number two at the Pawtucket Police Force, just after she’d gotten clean, and she was a waitress in a diner he often went to.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    Whenever he would come in, like, none of the waitresses could have the table. It was like an unspoken rule. Like, this is my table. You can’t touch my table.

  • William Brangham:

    On their first date, she said that, like a lot of people in recovery, she had to have a very frank conversation about her past, like the fact that she was being treated for hepatitis c.

  • Roxanne Newman:

    I’m explaining to somebody who I could potentially engage in a sexual relationship with that I have, you know, an infectious disease that I got because I used to shoot heroin when I was a prostitute on the streets of providence.

    Can you pass me the salt?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    How’d he take it?

  • Roxanne Newman:

    Mike, which I love most about him, Mike’s — one of his key little statements is, people are not throwaway.

    And he did — I could cry. He didn’t see that I had been a junkie and all these things. He saw — what he told me later on — when we examined this, he told me that someone who was trying so hard to get out of the situation that they had wound up in.

  • William Brangham:

    For Jonathan Goyer, he credits a 90-day stay at this residential treatment facility that got him clean. He went on methadone after that, and now goes to regular counseling.

    But he says he’s alive today mainly because of his mom, a woman he stole from, lied to, and forced to spend countless worried nights. But she never gave up on him.

  • Maureen Goyer,

     Jonathan’s Mother: I knew from his childhood and everything that we had been through together that inside there was a good person.

  • William Brangham:

    Goyer says his life is living proof that recovery is possible for anyone.

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    Statistically, I’m supposed to be dead, I’m supposed to be in jail. But yet I’m out. I’m here. I’m able to make amends for my — the devastation caused by my active addiction. I’m a taxpayer. I got my driver’s license back.

  • William Brangham:

    You’re a legit citizen.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Goyer:

    That’s what they tell me. And it’s so crazy to me.

  • William Brangham:

    Anchor Recovery says it will expand in the coming months, bring on more recovery coaches. Its model is also being examined by several other states, who want to replicate it.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Rhode Island.

    Editorial Note: One of the interview subjects in this story, Jonathan Goyer, wishes to clarify that while he did use methadone at one point on his path to recovery, he credits peer support and 12 Step programs for sustaining his recovery today.

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