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'It got to midday on Boxing Day.' How Shanna realised she was an alcoholic.

This post discusses alcohol addiction and suicide and may be triggering to some readers. 

For years, Shanna Whan lived a double life.

From the outside, Shanna, who lives in northwestern New South Wales with her husband Tim and their dog, Fleabag, looked like any ordinary rural businesswoman.

"I ran and exercised. I worked 12-hour days and I could stand in front of a group of people and be an amazing public speaker," Shanna told Mamamia.

"People who didn’t know me well thought I was confident, outgoing and successful. But people close to me increasingly knew that there was something very, very wrong.

"I was literally living a double life."

Shanna Whan opened up about staying sober in the country on Australian Story. Post continues after video.


For years, Shanna slipped through the cracks of Australia’s rural health care system as an undiagnosed and untreated alcoholic.

Initially, Shanna’s relationship with alcohol began "as a harmless thing".

But after being assaulted on four separate occasions in the space of one year, it soon changed dramatically.

"My story, my traumas, are completely common. There is nothing unusual about what happened to me at all," Shanna explained. "There is a very, very profound link between addiction and trauma.

"When I speak about the period of my life where there were multiple sexual assaults, my relationship with alcohol changed dramatically after that because I was very young, very naive, very isolated and it just shook my foundations to my core. It destroyed my sense of self and my sense of self-worth."

Alcohol became a place to hide from her trauma and a source of social courage.

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"Increasingly, as time went on, I used it as a way to shut down my own mind because I was just lost. It was a momentary reprieve from thoughts that I could not quieten.

"It began as a harmless thing but two decades later it ended up almost killing me."

 




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For a long time, Shanna was convinced that she had to be drinking from a brown paper bag at 6am to be considered an alcoholic.

"I questioned it all the time. I knew something wasn’t right. I knew that I was drifting from normality and the pack," Shanna said.

"But what I did not know is that alcoholism didn’t mean a homeless person in the gutter clutching a paper bag. I had no real education on what alcohol addiction looked like in the high-functioning demographic."

On Boxing Day, 2014, however, she hit rock bottom. The day started at a family gathering. Shanna was in the midst of an alcohol-free month, which she'd do periodically to prove to everyone — including herself — that she was fine.

"I still just remember that day. I could hear the galahs, I could hear the laughter and the tinkling of glasses and people cracking open their beers," she told Mamamia's No Filter podcast. "And I was trying to be a good girl, I was trying not to drink, I was trying not to embarrass my husband at yet another social function.

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"I think I got to about midday that day. And I just I couldn't find my spot in the crowd. I just didn't know what to do with myself. I felt just felt like a total friggin' loser.

"I got in my car and I drove to town, which is 40 minutes away. I went by the bottle shop, and I just I said, 'Make it three, please.'"

Hours later, Shanna’s husband, Tim, found her unconscious, bruised and bleeding at the bottom of a flight of stairs at their home.

When Shanna finally came to in the emergency department of her local hospital, she knew it was time for a change.

 




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She reached out to an AA helpline and for the first time, was connected with a recovered alcoholic who was a six-hour round trip away.

That connection, and that conversation, would be her lifeline.

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Meeting this woman was her turning point.

"What happened during that time was literally a miracle, and I cannot say it any more plainly than that. I went from being hopeless, suicidal, and in despair to being full of hope and ready to make the change," she said.

"I became completely ready to go to whatever lengths were necessary to get honest, get to work, and to make my life a sober life.

"I felt hope, and I felt for the first time in my entire life that I was not alone."

In those first few years of sobriety, Shanna and her husband made some significant changes in their lives.

"We moved home, I quit work for a full year (because I was a travelling wedding photographer), we stopped going out after 5pm, we stopped allowing people to come to our house with alcohol and we kept no alcohol in our home," she said.

"We followed it as the life-saving treatment for the disease that it was," she added.

"I think it took probably three full years before my husband could ring me and know that I was okay when I said I was okay. It took him that long to have trust in my word. He knew something had shifted, but he was still terrified of a relapse."

 




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Shanna now refers to herself as a recovered alcoholic — not cured, but no longer needing or craving alcohol.

"I personally don’t believe I could ever safely pick up a drink again, but the point is I do not want to," she explained.

"I do not want it, I do not need it and I do not care what other people do around me. I can now safely socialise with friends and they can enjoy a beer and I can enjoy a soda water."

On the road to her recovery, however, Shanna had an epiphany. In Australia – and in country Australia, in particular – nobody is talking about alcohol abuse or addiction.

"We lose 6000 in Australia every year to alcohol. It kills more people than any other drug. But we don’t talk about it – we refuse to talk about it," she said.

Although she spent the early years of her recovery running an anonymous meeting in her town, she eventually dropped the initiative. After all, you can’t really be anonymous in a small community.

That's just one of the many barriers to help-seeking in rural areas. 

"Geographical isolation [is] number one, lack of access to services and support number two, and the fact that a lot of rural people are very hardworking, very busy individuals with an increasing set of challenges against them," Shanna told No Filter.

"Whether it's floods, or fires or drought — or whatever the friggin' latest disaster is — they don't have the time to leave their businesses or homes or families or farms. And they certainly don't have the money to travel 800 kilometres to a major centre or city for an appropriate rehab or amazing psychologists who they can be anonymous with.

"The hurdles are just so massive that they're knocked over before they even get started. And in the meantime, we glorify alcoholic drinking in the bush, we measure a man by his ability to drink alcoholic quantities of booze. So it's like 'You're a legend. But if you become an alcoholic, we're gonna put you over here in a corner.'"

 




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And so Shanna decided to try to connect with people by sharing her story.

Armed with her laptop, she launched Sober in the Country: an online movement and (as of 2019) registered charity encouraging Australians, particularly in rural areas, to have a conversation about how we drink and to raise awareness around alcohol abuse.

The website and social channels act as a platform for stories, and the private Facebook group acts as place where rural Australians can connect and "talk about the hard stuff".

"I'm not saying I'm doing anything amazing," Shanna told No Filter. "I'm just sharing a story with the hope that might help someone."

If you wish to help those in need, you can donate to Sober in the Country here or find out more about their mission on their website.

You can also follow Sober in the Country on Instagram and on Facebook.


If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

You can access free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs by calling the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015 or the 24-hour Family Drug Support helpline on 1300 368 186.


Feature Image: Tony Harrington, TBH Media.

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