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"It feels like we are out of sight and out of mind." The problem with alcoholism in the bush.

Feature Image: Tony Harrington, TBH Media.

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 north western 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,” she added.

“I was literally living a double life.”

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

On last week’s episode of Australian Story, Shanna, who is now the CEO of newly registered national alcohol awareness charity Sober in the Country, shared a story that resonated with tens of thousands of Australians.

You see, 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, her relationship with alcohol 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,” she continued.

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“I used alcohol as a place to hide. I used alcohol as a source of courage, socially, in a small town.

“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.

“I remember I was white knuckling, which is what they call it when you want a drink but you don’t,” Shanna said, sharing her experience on Australian Story last week.

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“And I got up and I just walked straight through the crowd, I walked straight past everyone, I was like a zombie, and I got in my car. And went to the bottle shop, and I went ‘Make it three bottles, thanks’.”

Hours later, Shanna’s husband, Tim, found her battered and bruised at the bottom of a flight of stairs at home. There was a nasty facial injury and she had passed out.

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.

Meeting this woman (now a close friend of Shanna’s) 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.

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” 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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As we head into 2020, Shanna is what’s referred to as a recovered alcoholic.

“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.”

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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,” Shanna said.

In the early years of her recovery, Shanna, who is based in a rural area, struggled to find resources for people struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction.

Although she spent the early years of her recovery running an anonymous meeting in her town, she eventually dropped the initiative after learning that people were not willing to come to an anonymous meeting in a public space. After all, you can’t really be anonymous in a small town.

“It feels like we are out of sight and out of mind when it comes to resources and support. We don’t have places to turn when sh*t hits the fan,” she recalled.

“I’m not demonising alcohol or those that can safely enjoy a drink. What I’m doing is speaking out and saying: ‘Where do people in remote and rural areas go when they cannot safely drink or choose not to drink?’ And the answer is, often they have nowhere to go.

“This now creates a secondary level of isolation which has a secondary impact on mental health, which is exacerbated even infinitely more because we’re currently in this horrific, ongoing drought.

“This is a more urgent discussion than ever before because drought, mental health and lack of services and support are all very, very much exacerbated for those who are in a fight with alcohol abuse or addiction or alcoholism. It’s a very serious problem for which there are very few outlets for people like me.

“In five years, I have never ever – and believe me, I have spoken to thousands of people – not once have I heard of a person in the country, who has struggled with alcohol, who has quickly found help that worked. Not once. Not one single success story. It’s just not acceptable – but no one has called it to attention.”

 

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After realising that an anonymous meeting simply wouldn’t work in a rural area and that resources were extremely limited in country Australia, Shanna turned her attention to sharing her story.

Armed with her laptop, Shanna launched Sober in the Country – a movement encouraging Australians, particularly in rural areas, to have a conversation about how we drink and to raise awareness around alcohol abuse.

Put simply, the key theme behind Sober in the Country is: “It’s OK to say no to a beer.”

“Sober in the Country is specifically targeting and talking to those that have businesses and farms and who are very busy full-time working people, who don’t have the ability to leave their business or their farm for a month to go to rehab,” Shanna said.

“Sober in the Country is doing for alcohol awareness what R U OK? day did for mental health. It’s bringing it into the light and speaking the truth.”

After spending five years alone in her fight, Shanna’s vision – Sober in the Country – became a national registered charity on November 11.

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.

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