Class of 2021: Jennifer Carmichael, A.S. in Psychosocial Rehabilitation

“I Thought I Could Outsmart Addiction”
After Years of Relapse and Recovery, Psych Rehab Student Returns for Degree

She was a few months from completing her associate degree in psychosocial rehabilitation at Rutgers School of Health Professions when she was dismissed from her clinical rotation, quit school, and fell into opioid addiction.

“I opened that door and was not able to close it for three years,” said Jennifer Carmichael. “I never thought I would become dependent. I thought I could outsmart addiction.”

She couldn’t.

She overdosed dozens of times, once found herself handcuffed to a hospital bed, and lost friends to drugs deaths. It took five attempts at rehabilitation before she got clean. But nearly five year after she left, she went back to finish her degree and now graduates as a member of the Class of 2021.

She hopes to use her experience to help others as a peer support specialist.

“If someone as broken as me could change their life, regain trust that was broken, accomplish goals and improve, then anyone at all can – regardless of how long it takes,” Carmichael said.

Experimentation with drugs ended with her being hooked on heroin. She would go into rehab and then relapse. Once, three hours after she left a treatment facility, she overdosed.

“My whole life was about my next high, getting my next fix,” she said. “I had given up on school and having a future. I couldn’t in my mind even imagine living to see the age of 30.”

It was when she went to rehab for the fifth and final time and learned she was pregnant that she was finally able to turn her life around. “It changed everything when I saw the ultrasound,” she said.

A counselor pushed her to finish her degree. She reached out to her former professor, Peter M. Basto, PhD, director of the associate degree program, with whom she had periodically been in touch with after leaving the program.

Not only did he support her return to Rutgers, but he also facilitated a successful return to the clinical practicum that had let her go.

“Her story is about how devastating opioid usage can be on people and how it can destroy one’s life, but also about how getting into the right treatment and finding a purpose in life can lead to recovery,” said Basto. “She is very excited to be graduating this May as she never thought she would complete the program.”

Her clinical practicum was in a group home helping residents focus on wellness, taking them grocery shopping or for walks. After graduation, she would like to work as a recovery support specialist or peer support specialist, drawing on her lived experience to help others battling addiction. She hopes to obtain her bachelor’s degree once her son is older and in school.

“I felt in my heart that in order for me to feel like my change was valid, I needed to finish my degree that I started years before. How would I ever be able to convince my son to live up to his potential if I chose not to fulfill mine?”