The power of a conversation saved Shanna Whan’s life. And she’s taken that conversation one step further. Her rural health movement Sober in the Country challenges us to examine our relationships with alcohol, to remove the stereotypes, stigmas and fear around what high functioning alcoholism looks like and presents as, and how addiction can present among friends and family. Her voice and her network now helps to prevent illness and death across rural Australia.
Shanna Whan’s idyllic rural childhood is one every farm kid can relate to. Country life has always been where her heart is, and this passion remains at the forefront of everything she does today.
As she fondly talks about being raised in a loving family where her afternoons were spent exploring on horseback; rescuing critters among the paddocks, and exploring the great outdoors, there’s a genuine smile that sweeps across her face. Being sent to boarding school at the age of 11 devastated Shanna and a constant feeling of loneliness created not just a passive rebellion in her late teens - but led to a rush into a gap year as she refused confinement with further study.
This fast foray into adulthood with minimal life experience led to a series of catastrophic events and abuse, and the subsequent introduction of alcohol as a social crutch for courage in her younger years. During her university years she continued hiding behind her “wild country girl” persona but was also shocked to find sudden popularity, acceptance, and approval - and it was all connected to drinking heavily.
“Alcohol was a massive part of the university culture - and to drink disproportionately was not even blinked at. Dangerous drinking and risky behaviour was both encouraged and glorified - and I took it to all the extremes; both then and once my uni life was over,’’ Shanna says. In her 20’s Shanna worked in corporate ag roles throughout regional Australia in what she said was a very male-dominated industry at the time; where she felt that to fit in, she must “become one of the boys”. “I worked ridiculous hours, like the men. And mostly, I drank like the men, and competed for my space. I was terrified they’d think I was somehow less than them,’’ she says. She always did well in her career but concedes her personal life suffered as she drifted in and out of relationships, jobs, towns, and “life” to escape personal pain. “Wherever I ran though, there I was!’’ she laughs. ‘’I hadn’t yet realised that the deeper issue behind all my running was unaddressed trauma. So I kept up the act.” In her 30’s she sought out a “desert change” and went to the Northern Territory to become a tour guide where she also connected with old friend and (now) husband Tim. During this stint in the red centre, her unhealthy relationship with alcohol severely escalated due to being an environment where so many were drinking to excess.
As she approached her mid-30s she returned to north western NSW with Tim who was returning to his home and family. She went back to the agriculture industry and worked as a journalist and photographer.
“I now understand that I was an alcoholic by the time I was 30. I just didn’t know it. I thought that because I didn’t drink before knock-off time, and didn’t even drink every day, I couldn’t be. I worked hard. I was doing 20-hour work days. And honestly, I was somebody who believed the Hollywood myth that alcoholics were homeless people in the gutter drinking out of paper bags at 10am, certainly not hardworking people who look fit.”
A few years on, Shanna and Tim went on to have a heartbreaking battle with infertility, and it was then that Shanna began a series of expensive and extensive radical health overhauls and detoxes to try to regain her health. However the attempts for fertility treatment failed again and again and with each failure she would relapse back into dangerous drinking and a deeper despair.
“Finally I got to the point of blackout drinking every day in those bad times. It became a case of living in constant damage control. But, I was still only drinking after 5 o’clock and I was still convinced you had to drink all day to be an alcoholic.
“Doctors would look at me and tell me I ‘appeared to be fit and healthy’ and they’d half-heartedly suggest I cut back on the alcohol a bit or take anti depressants. I continued to slip through the cracks of a health care system that simply didn’t know how to deal with me in any way.
“By my late 30’s my alcoholism had finally all caught up. I found that I was eventually just wishing for my own death and I contemplated suicide frequently. I was destroying myself and everybody around me with my behaviour, lies, and destruction. Tim was watching on helplessly and not knowing what to do as I fell apart in increments every day. I was still working the whole time. It was like I was walking on the edge of death but still high functioning according to the world around me. They had no idea.
’’After falling down a flight of stairs and ending up in the emergency department Shanna finally reached out to a support hotline within Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I felt like an absolute idiot ringing a ‘hotline’ for some reason, but there were no options left. The city-based volunteer I spoke with confidently said that there should be ‘loads’ of support and meetings in my area, but was shocked to discover that nothing was available...
“In the end I drove four hours to meet a suggested member - and this turned out to be the best decision and investment of time I’ve made in my entire life. It was a lifeline. The amazing woman I met that day turned out to be young, vibrant, well dressed, and well spoken - and she was also a recovered alcoholic.
‘’The honest conversations we had changed my life. I finally realised I was not alone and that I wasn’t faulty, but desperately sick and in urgent need of support. That day I learned I was in the fight of my life against a deadly disease and that the only option left was to admit I couldn’t ever be a ‘normal drinker’ and would have to learn how to be 100 per cent sober.”
This basic information helped Shanna to finally face her demons and she made a commitment then and there to do whatever it took to win the battle between life and death. With the support of her husband and family and non-negotiable commitment she went on to recover completely.
She knows how incredibly fortunate she is to have gone on to regain her health and happiness - and that’s why she is using her Australia wide network, journalism, and public speaking skills to reach out and send a message of hope to others. “I thought if one person can save my life, I can’t worry about my pride or anonymity, I needed to be a voice for many others like me.
”Shanna Whan celebrated four years of sobriety last February and says that since opening up the “outback alcohol culture” discussion publicly via her online platform she calls Sober in the Country, she is humbled to be part of what she says is an overdue conversation that has reached tens of thousands of her rural peers in just over a year.
“This is a platform not designed to demonise alcohol or those who enjoy a drink in moderation - rather, it’s simply about generating honest yarns about health and wellness overall and what we can do to recognise problem drinking and how we can better support mates who has fallen into an unhealthy relationship with alcohol,” Shanna explains.
“Having to go through the hell that I did to get my own life back on track in a rural environment with almost no support inspired me to look at and address the rampant issues that remain unaddressed for peers and professionals in regional and remote areas. ‘’The men and women who feed and clothe the nation are the least likely to ask for the support and the least likely to get it.
“The problem is: alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. A lot of educated or successful people mistakenly think that if you’re intelligent, good looking, well-educated, fit or drive a flash car that you can’t possibly be impacted - and yet ironically a great percentage of high functioning people are most at risk because there is the perception that it can’t happen to them.
‘’Then there’s the incredibly awkward manner we address mates who are brave enough to step up and acknowledge there is a problem... “We do the most bizarre things in Australia when someone says they can’t or won’t drink… we get awkward and we don’t know what to say; so we either slap them on the back and tell them to ‘stop being ridiculous and to have another beer’, or we tell them to simply stop, or - worst of all: we isolate them. “I know of many scenarios where people who are on the brink of losing it all quit drinking and then become ostracised for trying to make changes in their drinking habits. ‘’You can’t underestimate how far reaching this problem is, and how devastating that kind of response from society can be. We are literally behaving like a community least when we need to be at our best. ‘’If we have a mate in trouble, we need to support them. But we don’t know how. And because of the horrendous stigmas and misinformation in this space, we won’t discuss it either. “We dismiss it, we joke about it, we have memes about it - and it’s at the heart and soul of our entire rural culture and events. “Also, we simply really don’t cater for the non-drinker in the rural scene - and there are limited or no alternative options to booze (other than water) at events and functions. Shanna has been overwhelmed with gratitude, positive responses, private emails and positive feedback from people all over rural Australia who are watching her work. She has now been volunteering for years with almost no income; and has spent the past two years campaigning to both state and federal government for support. “I’ve had farmers message me and say that my conversations and information have saved their lives because it’s coming from a rural person who simply gets it.” Shanna is extremely quick to point out that she is nothing unique - rather, she is representative of a problem across the entire nation. ‘’The only thing I do that might be considered unique is that I have taken this discussion out of the darkness and into the light. ‘’I am also explaining to people that city-based models like anonymous recovery support groups are not effective in an environment where anonymity is not actually possible. I am challenging that. I am asking us to think differently, and speak differently. ‘’It’s 2019 and we claim to be so advanced and inclusive - yet here we are marginalising valued community members. It’s not right, and it goes against our rural code of rallying around our mates who need a hand.
Shanna has a closed online group with over 200 rural professionals supporting each other and sharing the challenges and joys of sobriety in a rural setting. “At the end of the day, we need to talk about this stuff. And people too often cannot. So I make that easier for them. I am simply leading the charge. I don’t claim to be a guru with the answers - I am merely driving awareness and discussion. ‘’Alcoholism is a progressive disease of the mind and the body and it kills our mates. In terms of treatment, I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all model. But if we give our mates information and education, they can find what works for them.” Since being named as a finalist in the NSW/ACT AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award last year, Shanna has been speaking publicly across TV, radio, and print all over Australia to drive these life-saving conversations. “Every year 6,000 people die from alcoholism, 160,000 people are hospitalised, and we spend $36 billion per year on treating people,” Shanna says. ‘’A recent study from the University of Melbourne has shown that alcohol is by far the most problematic drug across Australia and has an even more serious impact than hard drugs such as meth or heroin. People do not know this. Why?’’ she asks. “For me - I am finally living a life of freedom and joy and I feel utterly mandated to be the change I think is necessary. I have the time, energy, and heart for it. And so, I do what I can with what I have. ‘’Currently rural Australia is facing a terrible and endless barrage of challenges from online wars to climate challenges - and many of our loved ones are on a terrible edge. ‘’Every time I get a chance to speak to a politician I ask why we are not doing SO much more to support the backbone of our nation? If we cannot give back to the men and women who get up and show up and keep their farms and businesses going in the face of this endless adversity then we are truly missing the mark as a nation.” Shanna uses her life experience, humour, and an Australia-wide rural network to reach people. And, she says, it’s working. ‘’Imagine the lives we could save if we got funding?’’ she says. Future plans for Shanna include more media appearances and a shift to secure funding through corporate partnerships, and alternative methods. She is determined to help as many rural families as she can. ‘’If our leaders cannot see the urgency of this problem - then we must do it ourselves.’’ visit www.soberinthecountry.com.au for more.