How one executive chose life over a deadly cocaine addiction
A picture of success in Calgary’s thriving downtown, he wore the suit, tie and confident smile required of a director of business development. Colleagues boasted of his professional abilities in the boardroom, calling him an “Alpha Hunter.”
But Sheldon Bailey was also addicted to cocaine — and he wasn’t alone in high-flying corporate Calgary.
Sitting in a busy coffee shop July 25, Bailey opens a notebook full of names, organizations and appointments for different ways he might be able to use his experiences with addiction to help others who may be struggling. He talks about his tumultuous past with a smile and an air of hope, writing arrows on a blank page and readjusting his ball cap.
Looking at his life in 2011, it would have been easy to overlook Bailey’s worsening addiction.
He was building his dream house in the luxurious southwest community of Aspen Woods with the girlfriend he would soon propose to as they were beginning to plan for children. As far as the eye could see, Bailey’s life was good.
However, there was a big, white powder problem he had been keeping secret, something he says many struggling professionals don’t know how to deal with, or who to talk to about their problem.
“This is something that will be new to the world, but there were times that I would be blasted on cocaine at work,” Bailey said. At the start he wasn’t using heavily at work, but he says the habit started creeping into his office as his addiction progressed. What started as a party drug turned into an obsession that nearly ruined his life.
Bright White, Big City
Matt Gillies, a former drug dealer who sold in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, says drug users can’t be easily stereotyped. Although a lot of his buyers were partiers, he said July 14, “I’ve sold to pretty well everyone. Bankers, lawyers, doctors; it’s everywhere. Drugs are everywhere.”
“It’s hush-hush, especially in those towers downtown,” Sheldon Bailey said of drug use in corporate Calgary.
Sue Newton, co-owner and director of Health Upwardly Mobile (HUM), says their clients are often from corporate Calgary. The outpatient rehabilitation program located in the Mission district, which focuses on helping clients create a healthy lifestyle, recognizes that addiction is a disease of the brain.
“What we know now from many, many decades of research, is that when somebody has a dependence or an addiction, it’s a brain disease,” she said July 21.
“So yes, people choose to use substances, but when it crosses over from abuse to dependence, the choice is gone.”
Because of how the outpatient program operates, clients need to have financial resources to pay for some of HUM’s services, which is why the organization attracts a more professional crowd. The outpatient program also works well for those who need to continue working while seeking help.
Unfortunately, addiction is often misunderstood, creating more obstacles for those who need to talk about the disease, especially in a corporate setting.
Science of a cocaine high
Dr. Raju Hajela, president and medical director of Health Upwardly Mobile (HUM), said in an email July 26 that “cocaine is a stimulant drug that is a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so it speeds up the nervous system and people feel more energized.” While it increases levels of pleasure, cocaine also chemically increases confidence.
Teen Challenge, a residential drug and alcohol addictions program found throughout Canada, reported online that cocaine, to a lesser degree than dopamine, also traps serotonin, which increases levels of confidence, and norepinephrine, which gives energy. The combination creates cocaine’s unique high, reiterating former drug dealer Matt Gillies’ feeling that doing cocaine makes you “feel like a boss.”
The website also says that after time, the brain becomes accustomed to these elevated levels of dopamine and that it actually manufactures additional receptors for the chemical, in effect, re-wiring the brain.
Another aspect that people often overlook is the combination of a stimulant with a depressant like alcohol, effectively starting a dangerous cycle of use.
Sue Newton, director and co-owner of HUM, says that typically people will drink alcohol and then use cocaine to pick them up. She says it isn’t uncommon for people to be introduced to cocaine after drinking.
“It continues this way,” Newton says, “drinking, cocaine, drinking, cocaine.”
Gillies says because drinking typically goes with doing cocaine, “it’s definitely a drug you can burn through a lot of money on.”
“There’s a misconception with the public who believes people choose to do this [drugs], but some people, when it becomes more compulsive, it’s like there’s no off-switch in their brain,” Newton said.
She adds HUM typically sees “professionals; lawyers, executives … that recognize that they have an issue.”
She says drug use in professional settings happens, though the type of drugs used may vary based on the population. Newton says marijuana is typical among youth and trades workers, and prescription drugs are most accessible to health professionals such as doctors and nurses.
“Certain populations, like lawyers, use cocaine more than any other profession. I think it’s because cocaine is a stimulant, so it keeps them up longer.”
Although Sheldon Bailey loves being part of the business world, he acknowledges cocaine use in Calgary is more prevalent than the community chooses to recognize.
“You’re talking about a group of people that, probably, a lot of them are like me. They have success, and thrive off that; with an ego to boot, and money to spend.”
Bailey says social interactions were a large part of his role, something that is all too familiar for many business people. He says it was a “bit of a brand” for him to be the social guy who took people out for coffee, dinner and drinks. While these interactions aren’t inherently wrong, he says that part of the corporate world, oftentimes unknowingly, provides a lifestyle supportive of addiction.
A slippery slope of powder
Bailey started drinking around the age 14 or 15, and his addiction progressed through the years, becoming more serious in 2003 and 2004, a few years after moving from the East Coast to Calgary. Bailey says there were periods between then and early 2016 that things were fine. “I was normally, at one point, a fully functioning businessman.”
Cocaine started as a party drug to use on weekends. That turned into Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Soon enough, it “became Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And obviously if I’m going to an office, there [were] times that I remember, I’d be up all night, and I’d have to continue using just to get through the day.”
In 2013, Sheldon left his position as a vice-president of business development to start a talent recruitment company. As a headhunter of his own thriving business, Bailey was able to work from his home office, which did not help his addiction.
By 2014, Bailey’s fiancé left him. Although she was aware that he had substance abuse problems, she would later admit she had no idea of the extent of it. Although the two have a healthy friendship now, the couple went through a tough time, including learning they couldn’t have children after four years of fertility clinics and donor appointments.
Already deep in his addiction, he says hearing that he wouldn’t be a father added fuel to the fire. “It was pretty much constant,” he says about the cocaine binges that followed the bad news. He says he was using “around the clock, days on end; I would go so hard.”
He tried to get clean on his own near the end of 2014. He went to meetings, church and the gym, trying to live a healthy lifestyle. He then moved from his Aspen Woods home to a downtown executive suite condo he had been previously renting out. On Nov. 21, 2014, Bailey says, “I woke up in a new bed on my 40th birthday.”
Bailey stayed sober for nearly a month. He didn’t have a 12-step program, and didn’t know where to even look for one now that he was living downtown. “I just decided to go out the door one day. I couldn’t handle it anymore.”
He says he was what people call “dry-drunk” or “dry-drugging” it.
“I was white-knuckling it. I was sober, but I wasn’t happy.” He then relapsed.
For the next year, Bailey was “living the high life.” Admittedly, parts of it were fun, but by the end of it, Bailey says it was just plain bad. Typically a very social, active person, Bailey didn’t care to see anyone. “[I was] spending all my time in my apartment, going to the liquor store, calling my drug dealer.”
Bailey’s drug dependency progressed even further to selling cocaine, just to have the drug around all the time. He says he was selling to every type of person.
“People who had money to spend; let’s put it that way,” he said.
Sue Newton, director and co-owner of HUM, says it’s impossible to know exactly what is in cocaine until a patient is tested.
“We have a patient right now, he’s a lawyer, and he has addiction using cocaine. He was being drug tested for work, and one of his drug tests came back with a chemical that’s in rat poison.” She said the client’s response was, “’It looks the same.’”
Newton says even with rat poison in the drug, “he obviously got the same high from it,” and that inability to tell the difference should be concerning.
“It’s never pure. You’re not going to find pure cocaine. But, I was able to find high quality cocaine,” says former user Sheldon Bailey.
Matt Gillies, whose drug of choice to use and sell was MDMA, says Bailey’s path is all too familiar. He describes a classic scenario: a salesman would use coke to help with his business, but things change after personal conflict arises. “You go a little hard one week, you found it wasn’t that bad so you kept going.”
However, it’s difficult to see addiction coming. “It can easily spiral out of control, even for somebody who knows what they’re doing … It can be a slippery slope.”
Gillies was only 22 when he stopped selling, but says it’s been a long journey getting back to living a healthy lifestyle. After being arrested and charged with possession of narcotics in 2013, he moved from Ontario to live with his parents, chaplains for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada in Alberta.
Unfortunately, he says, “I didn’t learn my lesson.”
He had his dealer from Ontario send him MDMA in the mail. The drugs were tightly packaged and sealed twice, wrapped in T-shirts and stuffed into an envelope. The progression was quick, and within two months he was selling 2,000 hits (doses) a week.
Well on his way to becoming a trafficker, Gillies says he would have started by moving kilos of MDMA from British Columbia to Alberta at first but, “that would have gone to cocaine really easy. Coke I could move easier than [MDMA]. Easily.”
Fantasy of a line
Gillies says cocaine does more than keep the user awake. He first tried coke in high school where he was suspended after being caught using on school grounds.
“If I were to say one thing about what coke does to you, it turns you into a Superman, a superhero. You’re amped up, you’ve got tons of energy,” he says. But mostly, “you feel like a boss.”
Gillies says he didn’t sell drugs for the money, although it did help pay for his fees after being accepted into the University of Guelph for biological and pharmaceutical chemistry. “I used to walk into the bar with four to six thousand dollars in my wallet,” he says.
However for Gillies, selling was more about “the adrenaline rush, the girls, the power.”
Recovered cocaine addict Sheldon Bailey says “I was so in love with the fantasy of the line; just the process of crushing it up, the motion,” he says of his fascination with the drug, mimicking the motion of snorting a line of cocaine.
Newton says cocaine, “like any other drug, distorts your reality. When you’re on cocaine, life is very different than what it really is.” The more someone uses, the more distorted life seems, making it very difficult to accept reality. “That becomes a challenge, because a lot of people then feel their life is so boring.”
The initial promises of cocaine use can quickly become a downward cycle, where Newton says, “unfortunately what we see with people is they don’t get help.” She says denial plays a large part, or the problem is minimized “until the evidence shows that obviously you don’t have this under control.”
“It’s a slippery slope, and we end up getting people that have lost everything; they’ve [been] fired, they’ve lost their marriage.”
High cost of using
Cocaine dependency comes at a high cost. Bailey says at his worst, he would spend around $1,200 for half an ounce, which would last him just a couple of days.
“I would go four or five days around the clock … and my body would pass me out. I would normally not remember going to sleep. I’d wake up, and I’d have enough quantity kicking around that I could start again.” Bailey says he did this for a full year between December 2014 and December 2015.
Gillies said for those who want that high, “money comes, and money goes … coke heads, they go through it. And, you know, $1,800 a night? When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The cost of using goes further than the money spent on staying high. Because the drug is typically used in binges, withdrawals can be confusing for the user.
Newton says withdrawals are typically opposite to the energizing effects of the drug. Since cocaine is a stimulant, withdrawals commonly include lethargy and sleeping for days. “It’s a drug that you would use maybe for two or three days and then you just basically crash and burn because you’ve been up for a while.”
The withdrawals, however, didn’t slow down Bailey. In fact, the progression of his addiction would get so dark that he ended up in jail after paranoia turned into a state of psychosis.
Calgary police were called to his condo building after Bailey approached property managers about a problem with water damage repairs he felt were taking too long. Bailey, in a state of psychosis at the time, didn’t believe the officers were real.
The situation progressed, the police officers gave Bailey ample opportunity to return to his apartment to rest, but Bailey responded by throwing a pen at one of the officers.
“Well, if you’re not going to arrest me, I might as well do a line,” Bailey said. “I used to have this little container that had cocaine in it. I dumped it out on the counter of the building, and then they arrested me. I spent the night in jail.”
Bailey had multiple paranoid experiences, not an uncommon side effect of cocaine abuse.
According to Healthy Canadians (a federal government website), muscle twitches, violent behaviour and irritability are a few of the many short and long-term effects of cocaine use, along with paranoia.
Matt Gillies wasn’t unfamiliar with psychotic episodes either. His court hearing date in Ontario was quickly approaching after he had moved to Alberta and began selling in 2013. He knew he needed to find his composure just to make it through court since he was still abusing multiple drugs, including MDMA and ketamine. Stress-induced psychosis would leave him pacing for 16 to 18 hours a day, literally pulling out his hair.
He says he cried out to God to save him. “I knew He was the only one who could.”
Now, Gillies has been working on a life free from drugs, learning from his past about who he is, and what makes him tick.
Dr. Raju Hajela of HUM, and co-author of Addiction is Addiction (along with Sue Newton and Paige Abbott), said in an email July 26 that drug use becomes a vicious cycle of chasing relief, and becomes more problematic as the basics of life are neglected during the chase. He says addiction worsens over time, and people become a distorted shadow of their true selves.
He says there can be physical complications as well. Depending on the method of using cocaine, the nose and lungs are at risk of damage, while those who inject are at risk of infections.
“The worst of it is a condition called bacterial endocarditis, which is a potentially deadly infection of the heart muscle,” said Dr. Hajela. “Hence, treatment and recovery require a lot of time, patience and (re)-learning the basics of self-care and dealing with life on life’s terms.”
Normal versus healthy
One of the biggest challenges in the corporate world is to change people’s focus from considering what is normal to what is healthy.
“I can drink and use drugs when I’m happy, I can do it when I’m sad, I can do it because I’m celebrating, I can do it because I’m bored,” Sheldon Bailey says about using. “But, are they the reasons [for using]? No, because healthy people don’t do that.”
Bailey began his recovery Dec. 23, 2015, after realizing he needed support and direction. In transition from one rehabilitation program to another, Bailey relapsed, but says, “relapse just so happens to be part of my recovery.”
Earlier this year, on Feb. 6, Bailey re-started his journey towards sobriety. After withdrawing alone in a hotel room for eight days, Bailey was accepted into 1835 House, where he has maintained his sobriety. More importantly, Bailey is regaining a sense of who he is and what it really means to live a healthy life.
Even in its purest form, cocaine is drenched in chemicals
Most users search for ‘pure cocaine’ to ensure a quality high, especially because powdered drugs are often cut with chemicals and toxins once they hit the streets of Calgary. However, it’s likely most coke users have little to no idea how cocaine is produced, a process that already includes a frightening amount of chemicals.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Museum, here is how most cocaine is created from coca leaves in Colombia – the main producer of illegal cocaine ¬¬– in makeshift jungle labs.
Typically, coca leaves are soaked in gasoline inside large metal drums. Next, the gasoline containing cocaine alkaloid is drained from the drum. The cocaine alkaloid is then filtered into a barrel with diluted acid.
The gasoline is removed from the acid layer and ammonia or baking soda is added to make the cocaine base.
This solution is filtered through a cloth and then dried in the sun to create the pure form of the drug. The base is then dissolved in a solvent (such as acetone or ethyl acetate, which is used in different glues or nail polish removers), and heated in a “hot water bath.”
Butanone, a high explosive organic compound similar to acetone peroxide, is added, along with concentrated hydrochloric acid.
Excess solvents are removed by hand and then by a hydraulic press. Any remaining moisture is removed in a microwave, producing powder cocaine.
Sue Newton, from HUM, says addiction is challenging when someone is in an environment where “everyone’s doing it.” She says it’s typical to start comparing with others, but unfortunately, comparison can minimize the issue, or keep someone with addiction in denial.
Because it is so normalized in society to use alcohol and drugs to cope or celebrate, Newton says if people were more concerned about what is healthy rather than what is normal, our community would benefit.
“If I’m healthy, I’m not going to think doing heroin is a good idea.”
Instead of looking at what are normal behaviours, Newton says HUM has a different approach. “For us, we really focus on having people be healthier, and live life in balance.”
Saying whether something is normal or not can be tricky as far as Newton’s experience has shown her. Their program chooses not to focus on what is deemed right, wrong, good or bad by societal norms.
“We really focus here on what is healthy versus unhealthy. When you look at it like, ‘It’s not healthy for me to be using cocaine three times a week’” the perspective can really shift for anyone struggling with any addiction.
Newton says defining a recreational user from someone who has a real problem is difficult. “If you’re having problems defining what is recreation as opposed to what is addiction, it’s because for substances other than alcohol, low risk, abuse and addiction haven’t been defined consistently yet.”
However, she adds, “it’s not necessarily about how often they use, but it’s if they can’t do without it.” The inability to stop using is an indicator that someone may have a substance abuse problem and should seek help.
“If somebody can’t stop — and it’s a brain disease — they need help and treatment. It’s not something they can do on their own.”
To help people understand, Newton compares the disease of addiction with diabetes. “You can’t control whether your pancreas produces insulin or not, but once you know you have diabetes, there is a lot you can do to manage it.” She says it’s the same thing when somebody has an addiction.
Educating corporate Calgary
Amy Harris, who works for The Calgary John Howard Society, created and implemented Take Back Control in 2014, a drug education program aimed to reach youth over a 12-week period. Although the program targeted youth in high-risk schools and group homes, Harris says it’s important for everyone to recognize “one time in your life, you will know someone that is affected by drugs.”
“It’s here, and, it’s not going anywhere,” she says of drug use.
Although the multimedia program had been active for three years, the program lost its funding despite having 373 youth participate in the final year.
“There’s not many prevention programs,” Harris says about drug education in Calgary. The program, which built a reputation of trust with students over the three-month long classes, identified several popular and trending drugs amongst youth through a study of the students.
“What we found throughout out three years is that one of the most popular drugs is cocaine.” Other trending drugs are prescription pills, Lean (cough syrup with codeine), DXM (ingredient found in cough syrup) and magic mushrooms.
A spokesperson with the Calgary Police Services says they have multiple curriculum-based programs and resources available for the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic High Schools, in conjunction with Alberta Health Services. However, there is nothing specifically targeting the corporate world.
Alberta Health Services provides resources online for workplace substance abuse, as well as educational tools for employers who are working towards a drug-free environment, open to supporting staff who may have an addiction.
Newton admits education “does happen, but it is hit and miss.” Although HUM provides workplace education if a company is interested, she says mental health and addiction are still taboo subjects.
“People don’t like talking about this,” she says.
Bailey says his co-workers must have wondered what was going on while he was still a business development director in a corporate office. “My behaviour at times was so erratic and so off-centered, that people would have to wonder what the hell was going on.”
He also believes there is an opportunity to educate professionals about different treatment and support facilities.
He says he is aware of a couple of other corporate people in his current program who received treatment because they were able to tell the company they worked for.
Although he doesn’t blame anybody for the lack of awareness in the corporate world, he believes “the community could benefit from being more educated about help available, especially in the business world.
“In the corporate world, how does a person come forward within an organization and say, ‘I need help’?”
Newton agrees, and says “it’s not just kids anymore, it’s people, it’s the suits doing it too. And where is their education?”
One of the biggest misconceptions about addiction is that it is based on a choice. Bailey says, “the attitude for most people is, ‘Why can’t you [just stop]?’” For many people, they don’t fall into a spiral of addiction by having a glass of wine with dinner.
Because addiction is rarely regarded as a disease, Bailey says more awareness will help to minimize the shame that is deeply connected to the struggle to quit.
“There’s no shame or guilt that comes with getting [a disease like] cancer, but there is shame or guilt that comes with being a drug addict because people think we have control over it.”
Newton says Calgarians would benefit if they let go of the fallacy that drug use is itself the problem. “Absolutely, it’s a problem,” but more importantly the focus should be on “what is driving that behaviour.
“We’re so focused on the drug use being the problem, and saying, ‘Okay, if you just stopped, everything would be fine.’ There’s a reason people are doing it all the time.”
Bailey says knowing that someone cares is one of the most important ways people can support family, friends, or co-workers who may be struggling with addiction.
“Just check in,” he says, hearing from somebody means the world, especially when they simply say, “’I’m here. I care.’”
His mother did all she could to help Bailey, but friends did not ask questions, and that was something he had to learn to let go of so he wasn’t resentful.
“I’ve got something I have a lot of knowledge of, I’ve done 25 years of research in the area, and I’m passionate about it,” Bailey says about turning his experience with addiction into something positive that could help others.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping other people. Now I’m just figuring out how I can take my experiences and help other people.” Bailey says he is always available to support people, including messaging him on Facebook.
Not long ago, Bailey was neck deep in addiction. And now the 41-year-old is walking through his life’s redemption. He looks at his paper, draws another arrow and pauses for a moment.
“I chose life over death, and that’s not a cliché.”
Thumbnail by Deanna Tucker