Shelly-Anne Mckay of The International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education & Unalome Agency On How To Achieve Great Success After Recovering From An Addiction

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
22 min readApr 2, 2023

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Know that you’re not alone. I remember that I always thought I was the only one who felt a certain way or experienced specific thoughts. It wasn’t until I talked with other people who were also in recovery that I began to see I was not alone. Once I knew I was not alone, it made the healing process easier.

When people are trapped in a severe addiction, it can feel like there is no way out and there is no hope for a better future. This is of course not true. Millions of people are in recovery from an addiction and they go on to lead successful, fulfilling and inspiring lives.

Authority Magazine started a new series about women who were able to achieve great success after recovering from an addiction. The premise of the series is to offer hope and inspiration to people who feel trapped in similar circumstances. As a part of this series we had the pleasure of interviewing Shelly-Anne Mckay.

Shelly-Anne Mckay is a compassionate Workplace Balance & Performance Coach with more than three decades of experience in coaching, business consulting and media communications. She has helped thousands restore balance in their professional lives for optimal performance while preserving their mental and physical health to fulfill their life purpose, experience joy and fulfillment. Shelly-Anne has supported the transformation of unhealthy workplaces to achieve balance so they can attract and retain the very best talent as well as protect and preserve the health of everyone on their team.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in a middle class family. My parents were married for over 50 years. My father worked very hard to provide for us financially, and my mother sacrificed a lot of time to stay home and take care of us. She often hosted home parties and worked office jobs to bring in extra money for the family so my sisters and I could take dance classes and skating lessons. We were very well provided for when it came to our financial needs and basic necessities. I remember one brief time when my father’s work place was on strike, and it was a little tighter than usual, but for the most part we were comfortable. Despite having creature comforts, my upbringing was very challenging and traumatic. Neither one of my parents were taught by their parent how to express feelings in a healthy way. Consequently we were not encouraged to share our feelings and conflict was avoided at all costs. I recall a few times crying and being told to be a “big girl” and that everything was going to be fine. I learned from a really early age to not show or share how I was really feeling. I learned how to put those emotions aside, push through and ignore feelings that were uncomfortable. My parents had me when they were only 19 and 20 so they clearly weren’t ready to be parents. They did a fair amount of partying and drinking, often for the entire weekend. Sometimes it felt like their socializing was more important than spending time at the park or playing hopscotch together with my sisters and me. Sadly,I don’t recall my parents playing with us at all.. As a child I was sexually abused by family members and their friends. When told my parents about these traumatic instances, it wasn’t acknowledged or stopped, which allowed the abuse to continue. Even in later years when I brought it up to family members hoping for apologies and healing, it was dismissed as “normal childhood experiences.” Of course I knew it was wrong; that’s not what happens in healthy families. I knew my parents loved me deeply; however they were incapable of dealing with this kind of trauma so they refused to accept it. Despite this rejection, I longed for a deeper connection with my father my entire life. I wanted to be that little girl who was daddy‘s pride and joy. I may have actually been that, but sadly, I just didn’t know it. My father was a strong man, the John Wayne type. The provider. While implied, he seldom communicated how he felt about us. In fact, I never heard him tell my mother that he loved her.. As an adult I have deep empathy for him now, as I know he grew up in an environment where love was not openly expressed. I don’t blame him for his inability to express love, but it doesn’t take away the fact that I craved hearing those words and feeling valued. I tried so hard to be the best at everything and made a conscious effort to be seen and noticed by him. I remember taking an interest in automotive mechanics because there was no brother in my family. I figured that if I knew something about engines, when my dad would be working in the garage, I might be able to help him pass a tool or two, which meant time together. I felt that longing for his attention, affection and approval for the majority of my time growing up at home.

I tried to fill that void in many unhealthy ways. I started by consuming sugar as a young child of five, desperately trying to numb myself from the pain by binging on sweet treats. As I grew older, I discovered alcohol and drugs and changed my addiction as these were more effective numbing agents. I recall being 13 years of age and drinking at home with my family members and their friends. There were often parties on the weekends and it wasn’t uncommon for me to have a beer with them while listening to records and debating the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs. I grew up quickly listening to very adult conversations, when I should’ve been playing video games in the other room or snakes and ladders with my sisters. I witnessed many men and women who seemed to be having fun, getting intoxicated and then eventually watching them become argumentative. These experiences hurt and took my childhood from me. As a result as an adult I do not know how to truly play. In a nutshell there was this deep unfulfilled need for love and acknowledgement from both of my parents. I have now made peace with this and forgiven them.I know that they wanted to show these things, but were incapable because of their own life experiences and inability to express emotions.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers how you were initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?

My first addiction was sugar and I was introduced to this as a young child. I remember my mom coming home with sweet treats and although we had money, things were tight. I had to make sure that I got my fair share before they ate all the cookies. This was the start of my first addiction. When I grew a little older I saw my parents drinking and was lured by the alcohol to escape the feeling of being unloved. I remember asking for permission to have a glass of wine at holiday dinners so I could be an adult (at age 11). Eventually they gave in and this made me feel grown up. I began to drink consistently and would steal alcohol from my parents’ bottles and replace it with water. I remember being underage and asking people to buy alcohol outside the liquor store. Somebody would always purchase it for me. I bought fake IDs eventually to save me the hassle. Alcohol was easy to obtain at that point. Sadly, we wouldn’t just have one or two drinks, we drank to get drunk and numb out. My relationship with my mother was a little fractured in my teens — We didn’t know how to fix it so I wanted something more and began using other drugs such as LSD, mushrooms and smoking marijuana or hash every weekend. With the first line of cocaine up my nose at 15 years old in high school I knew deep down I was in trouble, but I ignored it. I even had friends try to convince me to call AA for help at this point but refused. My drug of choice was marijuana and mushrooms combined with alcohol. I honestly can’t remember a lot of my youth between 12 to 17 years of age. It is a blur. I remember a lot of partying and drug use and risky behavior, which fed the rebel in me. Rebellion, I thought, would allow my family to notice me or my pain. Nope. In some ways I had hoped that they would notice and maybe even interject, but it was normal in my home to indulge in alcohol excessively. So I continued partying and enjoying the high life. At the age of 17 I ran off to university in the United States and ended up hanging out with an outlaw motorcycle club where it was easy to get drugs and alcohol. This was perfect for a young girl who just wanted to numb out. I was attending university and hanging out in the bars even though I was not 21. All this made me feel so grown up on the outside, until I experienced my first rape. I was never the same after that. It broke my spirit and trust to the core.

As you know, addictions are often an attempt to mask an underlying problem. In your experience, what do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place? Can you explain?

I totally agree that addictions are an attempt to mask an underlying problem. I was empty. I felt unloved, unseen and unheard. That hurt. I didn’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with that hurt in a healthy way. Drinking and getting high was an easy way of numbing out and coping with sexual trauma. It was way easier than actually addressing the problem. Honestly, had I used my voice to say that I wanted more love, I don’t know that anything would’ve changed. I could ask for it, but if the people who I needed it from did not know how to give it. I was a sad and hurt little girl who was unable to get her needs met as a child and a young woman.

Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?

I think the lowest point for me was when I was working in the television and film industry as a producer, and at the same time managing a recording artist. I was working crazy 20 hour days and attending parties in the music industry where there were endless amounts of alcohol and drugs. Then I’d get no sleep and try to go to work the next day. I was still high or need to chase the high just so that I could function. I went hard for a good six months. When the film wrapped production, I went on vacation, but completely crashed. I remember attempting to take a few months of vacation time, which began with a visit to my parents’ place. I think I lasted 24 hours and my asthma started to kick in and my body began to shut down. I asked my mom to take me to the hospital in the town they lived in, but they couldn’t take care of me there. I was too sick so I was taken to the nearest city with a bigger hospital. I recall being 30 years old and hospitalized for more than a month. The last vision I remember in that hospital was laying in the dark, and seeing this doctor, towering over my head, almost surreal. I remember him telling me “Young lady if you don’t change the way you live your life you are not going to see your next birthday.” The crazy thing is that I didn’t believe him because I figured that I was tough enough or strong enough that I could keep on going the way I was. Like what did he know? I ended up detoxing in the hospital with medical support. They helped me to get through. I recall that there was no one in my room my age and everybody was 80 years old. I asked the nurse if they could move me into a room where I could talk to someone my own age. I remember the nurse saying to me, “Honey there is nobody here your age.” Then I saw a white haired man walking down the hall, dragging his oxygen tank. It was in that moment that I thought wow I really do need to do something different here. I don’t want to die. I did focus on getting better at that point, but I didn’t want to fully let go of the drugs or drinks so I decided I would just cut back. That worked for a while until I found myself in the hospital again a few years later.

Was there a tipping point that made you decide that you needed to change? Can you please share the story?

Yes this second time in the hospital really scared me. I felt like something bigger saved me and that I had better make a change because there was not going to be a third chance. I kept hearing that saying three strikes and you’re out, So I slowly, but surely began to make some changes albeit very reluctantly. I was terrified as I didn’t know how I would deal with the pain I felt deep down without the drugs and alcohol. At times it felt unbearable

Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?

Addiction isn’t something that you just turn on or off. As an addict it’s something that I’ve lived with my entire life. It’s a genetic predisposition just like any other disease, so just because I removed alcohol or other drugs, doesn’t mean I’m instantly cured. So for me, it was an ongoing steady progression towards recovery. I remember walking through the door of AA many times between the ages of 12 and 35. The door hit me on the way back out a few times too. I relapsed 12 different times before it finally stuck. I learned a lot about myself in each one of those relapses. Overcoming my addictions took pausing and taking the time to look back on each of my relapses and figuring out what I did wrong or what I could’ve done better. I believe being curious with compassion truly helped me to figure it out. I also had enough courage to do a 12 step study, which was life changing and eye-opening. A huge burden was lifted at that point. I also spent a lot of time and money in therapy and counseling, since I was 17. Sometimes I was more resistant to it than others, but when I would surrender and lean into the process, I was able to heal. I think this deeper therapy work in combination with the 12 step program and some incredibly inspiring people in sobriety, encouraged me to take steps forward. I also read a lot of self-help books and listened to inspirational podcasts. I would take tips and tricks from people in terms of what they were doing in their lives to help them cope with emotions and feelings of discomfort; I began test driving different strategies over time. I started to learn which things worked for me and which things didn’t. I still am learning new ways to calm my nervous system to restore peace to my body. This is a big part of my recovery process, to learn how to feel calm and relaxed. It’s what I struggle with most. Spending time connecting to nature, strengthening my faith, building connections with others in recovery and finding creative outlets have been incredibly powerful tools for me on my sobriety journey.

How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them? Can you please share a story about that?

I don’t know that I have reconciled 100% because I still feel a lot of guilt over what I’ve done to myself, the money I’ve lost and the people I hurt along the way. Many of these people I have made amends with, but others have refused to accept my apologies. This is OK because the program says that you just have to be willing to make amends. I can’t control whether they are going to accept my amends or not. I’ve learned to let it go mentally and stop beating myself up for the damage that I did to my health and my bank account. I often think back to the money that I spent and how wealthy I would be now had I not lived this life of addiction. I probably would have several Harleys in my garage right now — not just one! Self forgiveness is one of the toughest things ever and I continue to work on this every day. A big inspiration for me is the meditation teacher Tara Brach and mindful self compassion expert Kristin Neff. Through deep, self compassion and forgiveness I have slowly come to terms with that and experience true self love. This is a practice I’m still cultivating. I don’t know if there is a finish line, but I’m certainly going to keep trying to move towards it.

When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?

At first I had to avoid everything and anything that resembled my previous life. Quite honestly I had to relocate and move because I needed to hang out with different people, go to different places and do different things. I think this is when my addiction switched over to really focusing on my business, and I began to funnel all that energy into work and creativity. Instead of spending hours drinking in the bar, I would spend hours at the computer, creating and writing and building business strategies, now that my mind was not under the influence. I have thousands of creative thoughts — if only I could act upon them all. I also bought a motorcycle and took up riding, which has been an incredible form of movement therapy for me. There’s nothing quite like getting on my Harley after a long day and ripping down the highway with the music blasting and the sun going down. It’s quite magical. I also found that music was a huge lifesaver for me. I would spend hours and hours listening to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac sometimes crying my eyes out to songs and other times feeling intense joy. Music is something that my father introduced me to, and it was one of my greatest gifts from him. He had a very eclectic music taste, and so I was exposed to ABBA to Zeppelin and everything in between. I find music therapeutic healing in so many ways.

What positive habits have you incorporated into your life, post addiction, to keep you on the right path?

For me it’s been boundaries. I’ve had to experiment with these lots over the years. I’ve had to incorporate boundaries with people, places and things. I have paid very close attention to which boundaries have supported me in my recovery and which ones do not. I’m on the lookout for tweaks and revisions that I need to make in this way all the time. It’s really hard to put boundaries in place, especially when it comes to our friends and family. Yet it’s the integral cornerstone of my recovery.

Nature and walks in it are a huge part of sustained recovery. I’ve discovered how alive and energized I feel when I am outdoors and connected to nature. Travel is a way that I can really explore and experience nature, so I try to travel at least a few times a year. When I’m by the water it is very soothing and relaxing, so I have moved to British Columbia and have a great view from my window of the mountains and the lake.

Connection is key for me as well. I find the busier I become as a business owner, that I can spend a lot of time in isolation and so I don’t get to deeply connect with other people on a personal level. Deep connection is super necessary for me, another cornerstone to my recovery.

I also lean into my faith and practice connecting with my higher power on a daily basis which includes a daily gratitude practice. I take time every single day to take a look around me, and thank my higher power for all that I have. I think that helps get me centered.

Fueling my body in a way that’s nutritious gives my cells energy despite being super busy — I do not have a lot of time to cook and I’m really grateful to my husband who makes sure I get good quality nutrition. We are privileged to have meal prep service to ensure that in those moments when we are both very busy that we have access to something that’s healthy for our mind, body and spirit. When I eat well it really reduces cravings for unhealthy foods.

Sleep is also a big part of my self-care routine. I find that when I am not getting good quality sleep, 6 to 8 hours a day, my energy levels drop, and cravings for drugs and alcohol rise. I also do regular intervals with a personal therapist. I’ll work with somebody for a couple months, do some deep healing work, take a break and engage with somebody different. I like to try different forms of therapy and different healing modalities. I seem to get something from each and every one of them. This is a game changer for my peace and healing.

Can you tell us a story about the success that you achieved after you began your recovery?

I’m grateful that I experienced success throughout my entire addiction. However, once I decided to get clean and sober, my success really soared, I was able to be fully present in meetings and conversations, like never before. Sobriety has enabled me to create deep and lasting relationships that have led to strategic business partnerships that support my personal and professional aspirations.. My brain works better and I am able to cultivate new and creative ideas, sometimes even too many! My energy levels have dramatically increased and I am able to go all in on the tasks and goals I commit to. I got really clear on what I wanted to create in terms of my business, and exactly how that would look. I knew deep down I wanted to create a fully virtual private practice that was international and allowed me the opportunity to travel and work from anywhere, so I can pursue my love of nature and adventure.

When I was under the influence and in the throes of my addiction I don’t think I knew what I wanted besides to continuously get high and escape. Once that was removed and the deeper healing took place, I yearned for something that was deeper and more meaningful. That is when everything changed for me. When I understood I was meant to do something different and that there was actually a purpose behind the struggles I experienced, I found coaching. These challenges that I had faced were because I was meant to inspire and serve others who are going through similar challenges, or who feel like they will never create the success or the business that they desire. Sobriety has allowed me to level up my success in every single area and aspect of my business. I am now operating a very successful and thriving private coaching practice where I serve high profile private clients. I train and mentor hundreds of coaches around the world for IAPRC, a division of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE), which is mitigating addiction in the workplace, communities and at home. I am also a co-founder of the Unalome Agency, which has a mission to transform the health and wellness culture within corporations around the world. We want to ensure that teams and leaders at every single level are really truly taking care of themselves so that addiction in their lives is prevented. There is no need to use unhealthy mechanisms to cope, and then the best talent is retained allowing companies to achieve their mission and vision. I have also continued to do media production, producing only projects that are near and dear to my heart to sustain this creative outlet. I am now producing inspiring stories based on deep connection. I plan to launch a YouTube channel to share these and combine all of these different aspects of my businesses together in the next year.

What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your current achievements? Please share both the positive and negative.

The first one that comes to mind is perfectionism. This trait actually fueled addiction in so many ways. I wanted to be perfect and was often left feeling inadequate or not enough. Substances were really good at filling that void temporarily. I am still impacted by perfectionism, and it can hold me back, but now I notice it quickly. I shifted my mindset to lean into being courageous and vulnerable and take steps forward, regardless of whether I feel like they’re perfect enough. The benefit of perfectionism is that I do strive for a very high standard, and that quality is really important to me. That shows up in not only my client experiences, but also in those that I create for every aspect of my business. I don’t focus on dollars and cents in terms of revenue. Instead, I strive to provide an outstanding, memorable customer experiences, which is sorely lacking today in many organizations.

Negotiation is a characteristic that I had to use during my addiction. I was negotiating for time, the best drugs, better deals, time off, etc. Thus, the art and skill of negotiation is something that has definitely been a positive influence in my business dealings. The positive side of that is that now I am looking to create a win-win scenario on both sides. Before being sober that wasn’t the case. It was all about me getting what I wanted and needed at the time. Now I derive more joy from seeing the other person benefit more than myself. I negotiate to positively impact others.

The other trait that translates is the skill of self regulation. That’s what I was after with every drink or drug tat I used to self regulate and self soothe feelings or discomfort — I now use self regulation in an entirely different way. When I’m starting to feel unregulated and out of balance I turn towards tools like music, meditation, nature, or connection to ensure that I do not return back to unhealthy states that then trigger me and or fuel my desire for substances. The positive here is that I’ve been able to keep myself in a calm state vs. jacked up and as a creative entrepreneur, my mind is always spinning so this is a huge win. I ensure I have downtime to regulate and actually calm my nervous system now.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five pieces of advice that you would give to a person who is struggling with some sort of addiction but is ashamed to speak about it or get help?

Number one is to know that you’re not alone. I remember that I always thought I was the only one who felt a certain way or experienced specific thoughts. It wasn’t until I talked with other people who were also in recovery that I began to see I was not alone. Once I knew I was not alone, it made the healing process easier.

Do not see yourself as broken. In order to get to this place and space you had to use a lot of different skills and strengths in order to survive and make it here. Those strengths and skills can be utilized in a positive way to make your dreams become a reality; if I can make my dreams become a reality you can too. I didn’t have millions of dollars inherited from family or any sort of financial upper hand. I worked hard for what I have and I believe that I was able to create success, simply by believing in myself and taking one step towards my dreams every single day.

Do not look at your relapses as failures, instead try to look at each relapse or temptation to slip as an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Take the time to really reflect, and understand what was going on before for you. Be a private investigator in your own life. Use the strength of curiosity to explore and examine everything that led up to picking up. Decide what you could do differently going forward to ensure that you don’t end up in the same place. It was through my relapses (12 of them) that I really truly learned how I could get sober and what I needed to have in place. I saw what worked, what didn’t and what was missing and needed to support my recovery.

Be brave even when you don’t feel like it. It takes a lot of courage to do life, clean and sober. It was so easy to navigate this world under the influence. It takes so much more to do it without substances. I believe each time you navigate life sober and some tricky situation, or you do something that scares you, the next time it will be easier. I found that each challenge gave me strength for the next one. I remember when I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I didn’t have drugs and alcohol. Now I cannot imagine it the other way.

Spirituality is a key part of my daily practices. Find something to have faith in whether that’s a higher power, the universe, a rock, whatever. Believe there is something bigger than yourself out there that truly wants the best for you and is on your side. The more I leaned into this belief and had faith that everything would work out if I just continued to take the next right step, it actually did. I have strengthened my faith over the years and it looks very different now than in the beginning. Even when I didn’t believe it, I forced myself to do so anyway, and began to see signs that there was something bigger than myself out there, which truly helped and supported me on the path to recovery.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

It would be my dream to have lunch with Stevie Nicks as I have been so profoundly impacted by her music since I was a young girl. Her songs got me through many difficult times. I don’t know what it is about her and her voice, but it’s almost like a musical lullaby for the heart at times. I know that she too struggled with addiction and gets it at a deeper level. Perhaps that’s why I feel such a deep personal connection to her and her music. I would love to sit down and have a conversation about healing and the journey that we have taken to go from A to B and hold space for one another.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I noticed that recovering from substances was easier because I could totally abstain, whereas recovery in the area of food addiction is and continues to be much more difficult as we are human and have to eat. I saw a gap in this area for recovery, and although I have a lot of love and respect for abstinence-based programs, I felt that it didn’t work for me when it came to food. So I built a women’s support community for those who struggle with food addiction called The Healing Hive, which is supported by professionals I trained and certified. They are physicians rehabilitation, workers, dietitians, coaches, therapists and others who support clients with food addiction. Several of them serve and support the women in the Healing Hive community. I also have a YouTube channel that I’m about to launch for high-performance entrepreneurs and business owners who have had to figure out how to restore balance in their life as they run highly successful businesses. It was my high drive and desire to succeed that led to burnout and substance use; so I want to have an impact and help others spot it and redesign their lives before they end up down the path I did. If I can help people find that balance between taking care of themselves and their business I will consider that a huge success.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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