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Sober in the country

This February I will be gathering a few friends and celebrating a day I thought I’d never, ever, see. I’ll be marking the passing of my fourth year as a 100% (happily) alcohol-free Aussie, living sober in the country.

As is too often the case, it took me nearly losing my life to save it. And it happened so fast and so slowly at the same time.

It seemed that one day I was an extremely typical everyday outback Aussie girl; embarking on life full of hope and a bright future. I was somebody with everything in the world going for me.

I was a social girl who loved a cold beer with friends, because that was our primary way to socialise in a rural setting. As I got older, I turned to a cold beer after a stressful day or a hard day in the paddock. It’s what we all did.

And the next moment I was a thirty-year-old career woman unable to unwind unless I had several glasses of wine at five o’clock.

By my late 30’s, a battle with infertility and my inability to address and move past some seriously traumatic events in my past created a steady increase in my love affair with alcohol to hide pain and loneliness and ultimately it all created the perfect storm.

Ever so gradually I went from being a big social drinker and into the horrible world of chronic alcoholism.

And do you know what? I never once received advice from a GP that I had serious issues with alcohol. I was told again and again by people that I was fine, and to just cut back, to ‘’have some anti-depressants’’.

I didn’t drink daily, or during the day, and I worked and was successful. Therefore, I honest-to-God thought that made me immune from risk, and that I was just a regular Aussie woman who had earned the right to have her wine ‘’thanks very much!’’

In fact, I was one of those people who shared memes on social media like ‘I’m not an alcoholic, alcoholics go to meetings – I go to parties’.

It was all fun and games until it wasn’t. And suddenly – the time had flown by in the blink of an eye and I was looking at an early death, either by accident or by my own hand. I knew that either was imminent.

Hitting rock bottom and almost losing it all was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

I am one of the lucky ones who went on to make a full recovery from this hideous, complex, and misunderstood disease. It’s a bit of a miracle, actually, because as I would find out the hard way, our health infrastructure in rural and remote settings is woefully inadequate at best.

The only time I could access genuinely useful support was when I travelled to major centres (always a full day of travel) and at immense cost.

And that, right there, is the reason my life looks like it does in 2019. That is why today I am a full-time volunteer on a relentless mission to help my rural and remote mates; people just like me, who appear to the rest of society as ‘normal’ or ‘functioning’ and are therefore dismissed as needing support or help. When in actual fact, they’re drowning.

The truth is that with every kilometre travelled away from major cities, alcohol-related harm and death increases exponentially. And until you’ve seen or lived remotely, let alone in this ongoing drought, you cannot fathom the challenges.

My plan is to change that.

When I began to share my journey online I did so with zero expectations or plans in place, and I did it because I felt that surely one other person might benefit from what I had worked so hard to find – access to relatable information and support in a rural setting.

Today, that conversation has evolved and gone national. It has become a rural discussion that I call Sober in the Country. The response to my online discussions quickly went so far and so wide that I created a space for it all and I now literally struggle daily to keep up with messages from other outback Aussies all over the nation. This is not because I am in any way unique or extraordinary – but because my story is not unique. It’s ordinary. It’s everywhere.

So massive has the response been that I’ve had the privilege of reaching out to and impacting many, many lives through my raw and honest public speaking which has included television, radio, and print press.

So many of those I connect with who now share their own stories and help each other online through a private support group I run share the common story that they, too, thought addiction to alcohol meant being a homeless person who drinks during the day from a scotch bottle. Seriously – that’s how misinformed many of us are around the truth of alcoholism and education around it. And yet, through nothing more complex than connection, open conversation, and a few brave souls stepping forward, we are creating a ‘me too’ movement that’s enabling so many people to step forward and seek some help.

My goal is to create a discussion in rural Australia where we see the truth of our worship of casual alcoholism as the health crisis it is – and stop viewing it as a national badge of honour and pride.

Shanna Whan

Shanna Whan

Shanna Whan is a remarkable ambassador leading a charge that is overdue for alcohol reform across rural Australia through her authentic brand of conversation which is connecting peers and breaking ancient stimgas wide open.
The founder of rural movement Sober in the Country is a recovered alcoholic-turned health coach and speaker, NSW/ACT AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year finalist from 2018, and now rural ambassador for national alcohol awareness charity Hello Sunday Morning. She has identified, shared, and is addressing a serious gap of invisible rural Australians she said are slipping through the cracks of our current mental health care system.

10 comments

  • It is wonderful what Shanna is doing and by sharing her story she is helping herself while helping many others and by admitting they have a problem then they are half way home.

  • I drank when I was a teen. But becoming a mother at 19 I needed to be responsible. My husband drank, and as the years passed he drank more and more. Eventually after 23 years we seperated. I sometimes was made to feel, you are no fun because I choose not to drink. People are more accepting these days of non drinkers. I live in a small Qld country town. Well done Shanna, it’s nice you are now happier in yourself without alcohol. Lu

  • By the way another plus in abstaining from alcohol is weight reduction.

    In my case one year off alcohol resulted in losing 10 kilograms.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Just watched you on TV
    Your an amazing inspirational person. With a strong right to bring this subject to world attention
    I have long felt the issues that come with alcohol I have struggled in this area as bing the person who decided that I could not let alcohol take my to where I would be able to have a sense of that’s enough. I lived on a farm in England so having to drive had a part to play had I minded to get home was one. Reason, also I saw the my Grandfather drink and my Nan saw the brunt of this. He would come home drunk and I saw how alcohol can affect a relationship most times Nan was a great loving wife never gave in just carried on. She would pic up the plates that got tossed out the door just because he didn’t t like a comment that she had made.
    This helped me see what alcohol can do.
    So I was sure I would never lose control of my self through this easy social, relaxing and just have one two drinks or three bottle attitude. Like you said.
    Then I hit a wall when I was able to drink legally, your a light wait why don’t you want a drink, your no fun and Friends found me an easy ride ! As I would then use the reason to drive as to why I didn’t have a drink then friend just didn’t say anything anymore. When I met my first husband I realised most people drank but they didn’t know how to stop unless they were smashed. This relationship didn’t last as he became abusive so I left with my daughter.
    The picture I’m trying to paint I suppose is, we all need to accept that we can choose not to
    drink and those that choose to drink is ok we just need to stop the stigma that we do need to recognise how much we drink as a society or a world environment for our future generation

    Keep doing your passion you will get to change our culture into seeing what they need to face.

  • Shanna I just watched your program and its like looking in the mirror to me.
    I am 58 and i have had the same relationship with alcohol…and each time i binge and wake up feeling more dissapointed in myself and so it continues.
    I add marihuana also into the mix.
    I have survived a diagnanosis of terminal cancer 8 years ago n it has just escalated my problems.
    I usually do it out of sight in my own home and no one sees me but sometimes it blows over to public celebrations.
    I long to be sober n release myself from the circle im on but i dont know how to start.?

  • Gday Shanna, I’ve just read your story, and am using it to inspire me to give up drinking, it’s only been 2 days. I am from the goldcoast and there are services a available, but I am never home as I drive interstate, and if I’m not driving I usually am sleeping occasionally I get held over in certain towns, waiting to get loaded where I usually end up in local pub, over the years many blackouts, not k owing what happened the night before etc. waking up in a jail cell often as well, usually waking up and wondering WHY AM I HERE. I’m not to tech Davy but I would like to follow your group on line please, Regards Rob Scott

  • Shanna …. you are an inspiration … Today , this morning I am going to detox followed by a long road ( I hope not too long!) of sobriety. I too was a high functioning Alcoholic and Pot Smoker…. Everyday was business as usual … it was a badge of honour amongst my fellow workers if you could party all night and and perform like demon a work all day…. you may already have guessed I am in the Entertainment industry. People would ask me …” do think you think you have a drinking problem … ” , my immediate response would always be, “Yep.. I do! I’ve only got one mouth”. It was funny 35 years ago…. Not so funny now! Wish me luck , am very committed to improving my health.

  • Having grown up in the country with an alcoholic father, I determined to never be a drinker.
    However, being a non drinker in a pro-drinking farming community is extremely difficult. If you don’t belong to the CFA, the local footballclub or the local drinking club, you are really isolated. Plus, the parochial bigotry can be so bad that it is sectarian. After living here for 40 years, I have no hope of ever being a local. People don’t trust you if you don’t drink with them and really don’t like you; without a cause.

  • Shanna,
    Good on you.
    Whether it was a conscious decision or not, YOU ultimately chose life.
    That in itself means you are stronger than you possibly realise.
    I salute you.

    To be where you were, it was never your fault, as the acceptance by society of a particular lifestyle was already in place for you to be put onto that treadmill.
    Some cope, depending on surrounding influences and other factors, some don’t.
    And many think they are coping, but it was already bigger than what many knew, so as I said, IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

    I admire the work you are doing, now that you have insights into potential problems within certain factions of the rural areas of Australia.
    And if ever you and your husband are in Melbourne, it would be a privilege to take you out for a meal.
    Fondest admiration, Michael.

  • Very good to hear your story on Australian story really hit home with me have been 15years dry it really rang true with me as you are all alone in a little town if it wasn’t for my wife and children I would not have made it with my addiction to brown bottles (alcohol) and Orchy bottles (many other substances) and see life as surely should be with clearness and clarity

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