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Shannon Whaley overcame sexual abuse and assault, a toxic childhood, and drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013 she sold everything and moved to the Cayman Islands, and then to Italy in 2017. She is a business and visibility coach and teaches people how to turn their stories into sales. She works with folx who have gone through hell and back and have a story to tell the world.
Shannon grew up in southern California and had a troubled childhood full of sexual abuse and trauma. She doesn’t remember how old she was when it all started.
“It just was kind of always happening…I don't have a moment where I remember…unfortunately that was just the way that things were like. That was just life. I didn't know anything other than that.”
She had no safe person to tell what was going on, feeling completely unseen and unheard. Even though she began acting out and getting in trouble at a very young age, no one seemed to recognize the symptoms of abuse.
“The adults in my life either looked away or they just put their head in the sand and just ignored it.”
When she was around nine or ten years old, she started to realize something wasn’t right. The friends she confided in were also being abused by family members, so they told Shannon it was just the way things were.
“I wonder if I had talked to friends who said, ‘this is so not okay, we need to tell my mom,” what the trajectory of my life would have looked like.”
Shannon has gone through many years of EMDR and talk therapy to be able to cope with the trauma.
“The message sent to me was that this was not to be talked about…it didn't feel like a safe place to share…I wasn't going to be believed, because here's me screaming out for help and nobody was listening.”
Imagining what life must have been like for her makes me feel so sad for little Shannon. Because she lacked trusted adults in her life, she set out on a path of hyper-independence.
“I can do all of this on my own…I don't need anybody 'cause I learned really early that nobody is to be trusted.”
Leaving for college at 17, Shannon never returned home. Because her grades were bad, the college accepted her on a contingency basis.
“My first day on campus, I thanked the universe because I knew that that was my way out and I would never return. I would never live at home ever again, I would sleep in my car, sleep on couches...there's no way I would return home again.”
Shannon has disconnected from much of her family, but she’s still close to her younger brother and sister and sister-in-law. We talked about the difficult process of distancing from one’s family members. When she got sober in 2013, she began examining every area of her life.
“I started healing and cleaning things up and looking at the relationships that were hurting me and that did not feel good. I needed to set boundaries with people who don't have boundaries.”
Shannon began smoking when she was 12 years old, and that quickly escalated into alcohol, marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, meth, and cocaine.
“By the time I was 33, I decided that something needed to give…when you look around at the relationships and realize that you're the common denominator in everything that's blown up.”
She realized she needed to get her act together, but she had many fits and starts along the way. She had been living in Seattle and decided she needed to shake up her life by moving to the Cayman Islands. Unfortunately she brought her drinking problem along with her.
“I realized I was going to destroy this opportunity if I didn't quit drinking. I decided I'm not drinking tomorrow and would take a 30-day break and reassess, but deep down I really knew this needed to be it if I was ever going to reach any of my goals.”
Shannon has a degree in psychology with a minor in feminist studies, and she worked in domestic violence shelters and drug and alcohol treatment centers (when she was not actively abusing). But working in social services burned her out so she became a hairdresser and did that for seven years. She worked off and on in the restaurant industry, which is rife with drug and alcohol abuse.
Six months after moving to the Cayman Islands, she became a blackout drinker, even though she was trying to stop. After a few big scares when she passed out in public, she finally realized she wasn’t having fun any more.
Fortunately she had moved in with a friend who was sober. With his help and because of Shannon's own white-knuckled commitment and resilience, Shannon was able to find recovery by not going out much in public and avoiding the party life of the island.
She dove into fitness, including yoga, to distract herself.
“I was just trying to reconnect with anything that was not going out and drinking.”
I’m amazed by Shannon’s incredible strength and fortitude to find recovery on her own, and she’s the second woman I’ve interviewed who has done that. The first was Cindy Van Arnam, whose strategy was to move to countries where drug and alcohol abuse were illegal.
In 2017 she felt done with island life and decided to pursue her dream to move to Italy.
“I came here when I was 23 back in 2003, and I stood on Ponte Vecchio in Florence and thought, ‘I don't know how this is going to happen, but I am going to live in Italy one day.’”
At the time, she thought maybe she’d wait until she was in her 60s and retire there, but life had other plans. She started a coaching business in the Cayman Islands, making it possible for her to move her location.
“Everything started to open up because now I had a way to make money. I didn't have to speak the language. I could take my business on the road. I can work from anywhere.”
She got a year-long visa to study Italian, and she declared to herself that she’d either find her husband in Italy or figure something out by the end of the year.
Within ten weeks, she had met her husband, Stefano, on the beach.
She enjoys the chill vibe of Italy, especially because they live in a beach town. She finds the language to be challenging, as well as the Italian tendency to push and shove, but COVID has brought its own blessings, such as six-foot bubbles and previously unheard-of Italian queues.
Right now they’re not allowed to leave their city unless it’s for work or an emergency, and she’s been missing her opportunity to travel around the country. Instead she’s been going on bike rides out in the farmland.
I found it surprising Shannon describes herself as a hermit because she lives her life out loud on social media with her confidence, purple hair, and tattoos. It just shows that appearances can be deceiving!
Shannon’s business, Wild Woman Coaching, helps women share their story as a way to heal themselves and heal others. She’s committed to give 10 percent of her income to organizations she believes in that focus on the liberation of Black and brown people. The main organization she gave to in 2020 was The Loveland Foundation, an organization that offers therapy to Black girls and women.
“There's a whole conversation around the pay gap, not just in the world but in the coaching industry. It's very much a white privileged business where often times, Black and Brown and indigenous women are overlooked. So there's a big acknowledgement of the disparity that's going on."
We talked about the way PTSD can take us off guard at times. I marveled at Shannon’s wonderful spirit of independence and courage to take to the road after what she endured as a child.
“Travel has always served me well as a way to get away from my life.”
Shannon recommends several books to her clients:
· Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, by Tara Moore
· The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, by Gay Hendricks
· Existential Kink: Unmask Your Shadow and Embrace Your Power, by Carolyn Elliott
· Pussy: A Reclamation, by Mama Gena
“One of my biggest fears was that I was not going to be cool anymore and I didn't know any young cool women I could imagine being friends with who were also sober. Reading those stories early on, in my sobriety, it showed me what was possible, and it showed me that I wasn't alone. It showed me there were other young hip cool chicks with tattoos who were also deciding that they no longer wanted to be using drugs and alcohol anymore.”
I find Shannon’s story to be incredibly inspirational. Meeting her on social media, I never would have imagined she had such a difficult childhood. She’s one more example of how difficult experiences just make you stronger and more resilient.
Next week I have a real treat and something completely different. Did you know penguins can teach us about grit and resilience? I interviewed my former college English professor, Charles Bergman, who is an award-winning writer and photographer, and his equally accomplished wife Susan Mann, who worked for the Gates Foundation and Brene Brown and is a resilience expert in her own right. Chuck and Susan took on a quest to see each of the world's 18 species of penguins in the wild. Chuck documented their adventures in his beautiful and compelling book, Every Penguin in the World: A Quest to See Them All. Learn how penguins are creatures of hope and resilience. I loved my conversation with them, and I know you will too!
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