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Recovery and Disclosure: Q&A with Virginia O’Keefe, Founder of Amethyst, Inc.
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Virginia O’Keeffe is a founding member of Amethyst, Inc, a program for women in recovery. Amethyst offers gender-specific, trauma-informed treatment and services. Virginia is open and honest about her own recovery from substance use. She shares that she grew up in a household that could have been “the poster child for the addictive dysfunctional family.” It also became a home that was a place of healing after her father entered recovery. Now, she shares her own recovery story to help change the public face of women in recovery and to combat the stigma associated with addiction.

Q: How did you enter into recovery?

I grew up as the child of an alcoholic. I was a troublemaker and never knew when to shut up. It was a negative way to get attention. The situation at home left no money for college tuition, so college was not an option for me.  I wound up working on Wall Street at age 17. I worked very hard and became a highly successful executive. But I defined myself by my work and began drinking to fit in. I drank. It seemed like everyone drank. I was one of those people who could drink anyone under the table. It fed my low self-esteem, and was an early warning sign of addiction.

Over time and through the loss of jobs, marriage, and raising a child, my drinking escalated. One day a friend confronted me about my life and I realized I was going to lose everything. I reluctantly entered into recovery. When I relapsed after two years, it taught me that I had to address the issues of being not only an addict but also a survivor of sexual abuse.

Q: Can you tell me about the founding of Amethyst, Inc.?

I met the founding mothers of Amethyst, Inc. in the recovery rooms in the 1970s. We became very good friends through helping each other and helping others. We realized that women who were coming out of treatment had no place to go because they couldn’t go back to their old abusive environments where they were likely to want to use. We decided to create a safe place for women to recover.  Our first location housed three women in recovery and a house mother. Since then, we have grown considerably.

Today, Amethyst, Inc. maintains 139 housing units throughout Columbus, Ohio. Most of Amethyst's housing is in residential buildings where multiple families live in private apartments and a resident manager lives on-site for support.  As women progress in their recovery, they may live in Amethyst-sponsored scattered site housing of their choice.  Most women in scattered site housing prefer to live near other Amethyst participants to continue connection with neighbors that are alcohol and drug-free and support their ongoing growth in recovery.

Amethyst residences are sober communities. Each provides a safe place for women and children to surround themselves with families focused on sobriety and healthy relationships. Our apartments are fully furnished, from the curtains to the couches. The residents’ material needs are supported so families can concentrate on recovering, instead of just surviving.

Q: Why is disclosure important to you as someone in recovery?

Disclosure is a personal decision. Personally, I feel that anyone who is in recovery from alcoholism has the responsibility to learn about her disease. When someone like me talks about her recovery, I immediately alter the public perception of an addicted woman. It is a non-negotiable issue for me. Yet, I never cease to be amazed at how little progress has been made in the area of stigma. Sometimes I meet people who ask me if I am ashamed. Stigma is alive and well and this inhibits people. Because of that perception, people in recovery have to be cautious in the workplace.

Q: Can you share some of your experiences with disclosure?

I have given speeches on recovery. I elaborate on my story and it often resonates with the audience. Once after a speech I received four phone calls from women in the audience saying, “I think I have a problem, can you meet me for coffee?” It is about offering hope. If I can do this, then so can you. It has been a wonderful experience.

As we say at Amethyst, “put your hand in mine and together we can make it.”

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