Autumn Altamirano, CCS, CAC II, a WW and Lee Street alumna, has worked at Willingway for the last 15 years, getting her start on Unit I as a Nurse Aide/Ward Secretary.
Autumn soon became an Outpatient Counselor once she began to pursue a career in the clinical field and was ultimately promoted to Program Director of The Women’s Residence in 2008. This month Alumni & Community Relations Coordinator Emily McFarland had the privilege to sit down with Autumn to learn more about her program for women and her personal journey in recovery.
EM: What makes The Women’s Residence unique, setting it apart from other extended treatment programs for females?
AA: The Women’s Residence (also known as “The Rez”) is a long-term treatment program exclusively for women 18 years of age and older suffering from alcoholism or addiction, with an average length of stay of approximately one year. How it differs from other treatments is that it is highly structured in order to serve the needs of those who have co-occurring disorders, especially personality disorders. We are also able to do the intensive one-on-one counseling that is needed for women who have eating disorders or a history of abuse and trauma. The Rez has two dedicated counselors on site 40 hours a week, as well as support staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our clients are never unsupervised and we maintain a high patient-to-staff ratio.
EM: What type of client is appropriate for The Women’s Residence?
AA: Our clients tend to be resistant to treatment and are often defiant. We also work with a number of women who are “treatment wise,” meaning that they have been through multiple treatments centers and either completed the program and relapsed, got kicked out for inappropriate behaviors, or simply left early against medical advice. Many of my clients have been deemed inappropriate for other facilities that have more freedom and less clinical care. We also get a lot of referrals due to the intense work we are able to do and the success that we often have with addicted females who also have personality disorders. Our clients tend to have long histories of extreme feelings of being less than and out of place among their families, peers, and co-workers. They have counseling issues that cannot be worked on in a traditional halfway house setting – these are women in need of a very high level of care. I have also seen some patients come through our program with fairly complex medical histories and they have been able to get better physically, emotionally, and spiritually, although admission is ultimately up to our Medical Director, Dr. Shawn Williams. When we do accept a client with medical issues, our staff will keep up with their appointments, which we centralize in Statesboro. Residence staff transports and accompanies the client to these appointments and their doctors work directly with Dr. Shawn on the medical component of our clients’ treatment.
EM: What do you love the most about running The Rez?
AA: It is amazing to watch as our clients grow and change on a long-term basis, eventually becoming healthy, productive members of the community. I have a passion for working with women that have personality disorders and it is a blessing to see those clients come to have successful and healthy lives, especially when other professionals have told them that there was no hope. Many look at those with personality disorders as a difficult population to work with, but I find it refreshing. I simply see an individual who is using all these different means to get their needs met – means that are unhealthy and ultimately don’t work. I feel so much compassion for them. I see that deep down all they really want is human connection. These behaviors that they use – the attention seeking, the dramatics, the defiance – push other people away but they can’t see it and they don’t understand why it’s happening. I love getting in there and giving them the secret – helping them find healthy behaviors that will foster connection.
EM: What’s the hardest part?
AA: I work with my clients for up to a year and it becomes impossible to not form attachments. While the relationship is not severed when they graduate, it does change – which is normal – but it can be a difficult adjustment. Perhaps the hardest part, however, is when I form those attachments and the client ends up leaving or not doing well. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it can be heartbreaking.
EM: Would you care to share with us how going through extended treatment at Lee Street impacted your personal recovery program?
AA: Lee Street taught me that my actions had to change. It didn’t matter so much about my feelings as it did my actions. I needed a structured program where it was ingrained in me that no matter how I was feeling, I did not need to stop participating in my recovery program or life in general. You never stop doing the next right thing. Nearly 16 years later, that is still how I live. I have had a lot of stuff in my personal life surrounding my daughter’s diagnosis of Autism, both my husband and I being working professionals, health issues, family issues, so on and so forth. I’ll have all these emotions going on, emotions that once drove my actions, but the difference is that when things get difficult, I do not stay in the bed. I do not take pills or drink in order to cope. For me, it’s about talking to my support network, being open and honest, and still doing the next right thing regardless of how I feel. I learned how to do that because of Lee Street.
EM: We all know that going through extended treatment is hard for a variety of reasons and the Rez is definitely known to be one of the more intensive long-term women’s programs in the country, but what is something that patients often find themselves loving about the Rez?
AA: The bonding our clients experience with their peers and, more surprisingly, the staff is always number one. We have a ritual when a patient is being discharged, which includes a Goodbye Group and a Goodbye Lunch. For the Goodbye Group, the girls make a box for their graduating peer and they all put special items in the box that have a personal meaning attached to it or are indicative of some connection. The client is presented with the box and we go around the room giving feedback to that person. At the Goodbye Lunch – and this is my favorite part – I ask two questions: What was your worst time at The Women’s Residence and what was your best? Their worst time will often involve an incident in the beginning of their recovery where they had to change an unhealthy behavior. We all know how painful change can be. For their best time, however, it always involves – hands down – relationships and connections with their peers and our support staff.
We thank Autumn for taking time out of her very busy schedule to speak with us!