South Jersey woman recovering from sex addiction honored for helping others

     Melissa Killeen of Laurel Springs, NJ, will be honored next week for 'putting a public face and voice on recovery.' (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Melissa Killeen of Laurel Springs, NJ, will be honored next week for 'putting a public face and voice on recovery.' (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    At the turn of the century, Melissa Killeen found herself buried in the depths of an addiction that cost her close relationships and a job.

    A newfound freedom following a 2001 divorce left her cruising dating websites where attention from countless men became her drug of choice.

    “That gave me the opportunity to date for the first time in 21 years,” Killeen. “And I did it very, very well.”

    Killeen’s sex-and-love addiction saw her prioritize meeting paramours over her son, from whom she was “emotionally absent” as they fought over computer access. Countless hours spent on those sites while working tangentially led to the loss of a job.

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    Rock bottom arrived in 2004 before a therapist steered her toward Greater Delaware Valley Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings.

    Today, though, Killeen can say rock bottom vaulted her into a lifestyle that’s seen her land two master’s degrees and write a first-ever book about her career as a “recovery coach” in South Jersey, a nascent profession that emerged from her time at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Next week, she’ll travel from her home in Gloucester Township to  be honored in Virginia with an award from the nonprofit Faces and Voices of Recovery, which “recognizes individuals who are in long-term recovery who have given back to their communities so that future generations can experience the reality of recovery.”

    “Ms. Killeen has been selected among a large pool of nominees for her exemplary leadership at the local, state and national level by putting a public face and voice on recovery and striving to make sustained recovery possible for even more Americans,” said Patty McCarthy Metcalf, the group’s executive director.

    Her journey

    Killeen will never forget “walking into the rooms” for her first meeting when it became “time to clean up the collateral damage that addiction had done to my life.” The date was Oct. 14, 2004, and it marked the start of a recovery turnaround steeped in skills from her professional life.

    “When I lost my last job because of addiction, the company sent me to an executive training group that looks at the executive, sees their benefits and directs them to how to” proceed, she recalled. “It was an outplacement service, and they performed a Myers-Briggs assessment that found I was a really good match to be therapist or executive coach.

    “That’s what congealed the concept to go back to college. … I had done the hard work, so I knew I have to work on myself. I wasn’t using, wasn’t acting out, wasn’t doing the drug or drinking the drink. I was starting to look in the mirror and asking myself ‘OK, what do I really need to change?'”

    At Penn, she studied organizational dynamics in an effort to learn how to become an “executive coach.” She soon recognized an overlap with the personal-recovery side of her life.

    “It became a training field for what an executive coach could do in this situation,” she said. “I realized, ‘Wow, a lot of people in 12-step rooms — no matter what their addiction is — need help balancing recovery in their lives. This is not executive coaching; this is recovery coaching.'”

    Searching online for information about the recovery coaching field, however, yielded only two documents.

    “That told me I was riding on a wave,” Killeen recalled in an interview with NewsWorks this week. “I wanted to be so far out in front that I could make a difference.”

    So, she set off on her thesis after calling the source of one of those documents, William L. White, who is “monumental when it comes to research in the treatment of addictions.” (White will be honored with a lifetime achievement award at next week’s award dinner in Alexandria, Virginia.)

    After graduating with a degree in organizational dynamics in 2009, Killeen pursued a master’s in philosophy of executive coaching at Penn. That path required her to develop a business plan and open up shop, which she did by finding four clients.

    She received that degree in 2011 and published a book on recovery coaching two years later.

    The mission ahead

    In an estimated 23 million people in long-term recovery, Killeen said she sees a potentially powerful voice to lobby despite acknowledging that sex addiction is saddled with inaccurate stigmas and stereotypes.

    “I’m not a politico, but I do believe we have the power to change the way that treatment is presented and funded by government today,” Killeen said. “Unless we take off the Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous shrouds, will we be able to step up and say ‘I’m in long-term recovery and I vote?’

    “I’m interested in hearing where my elected officials stand on funding. Laws are very prejudiced against people with addiction. Yes, it is really scary to stand up and say to you, ‘I’m a sex addict.’ But to say to you, ‘I am willing to do this so others may be helped’ makes all the difference in the world.”

    On a more tangible level, Killeen said that recovery coaches can serve an important role in connecting addicts with services. They are, in a sense, recovery concierges, even if, like Killeen, they are still recovering themselves to the tune of two or three weekly meetings.

    The group honoring Killeen with the Vernon Johnson Award next week represents an estimated 25,000 people.

    “They are the movers and shakers when it comes to public policy related to this community,” she said. “They totally embrace the fact that there are 23 million people in recovery, that we have a voice and they are our voice.”

    As for personal recovery, Killeen said rebuilding bridges with her son and others continues.

    “There’s a point where you look in the mirror and realize you might have done something to hurt someone else and want to apologize,” she said. “That process is ongoing.”

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