by Shanna Whan, Founder of Sober in the Country
As featured in the 2018 Country Web Annual.
If you haven’t yet heard of Sober in the Country (#SITC), it’s a rural conversation, and indeed a movement, that’s happening right now and gaining steady momentum since its inception in April by one of our NSW-ACT AgriFutures™ Rural Women’s Award finalists, Shanna Whan.
The idea was first born four years ago, and it’s a very personal commitment Shanna made, and one that she said is aimed to bring some serious and overdue discussions about the toxic rural booze culture to the table.
As a recovered alcoholic who nearly lost her life five years ago, Shanna knows all-too-well the reality of lack of support, awareness, and education for her working peers and professionals when it comes to the hugely complex arena of addictions in rural and remote Australia.
As a country woman, born and bred and raised on the land, she describes herself as a very typical rural woman: including her free-range ‘bush kid’ childhood, boarding school, university, and a career in Australian agriculture.
However her life took a nasty turn when she was a young woman entering adult life. Over a 12-month period, from the age of 18, she was raped and then sexually assaulted four times. As a self-described ‘exceptionally naïve and socially inept’ young woman she said she was utterly overwhelmed, ill-equipped to cope, and fell into the age-old cliché of self-blame, shame, fear, and self-destruction.
It was at this point alcohol entered Shanna’s life. She created what she calls an alter-ego of sorts: a confident, brash, ‘wild’ country girl who loved to party and pretended she was carefree and brave. When in actual fact, the total opposite was true.
‘What I discovered as a young woman in the early 90s was that there was minimum support of any kind for anything at all I’d experienced in an isolated setting. There was no internet or online support networks. But there was plenty of alcohol in the country-party scene—not to mention an ever-ready army of other young rural people who loved to party hard. In a social-media-free era, we were all free to behave like lunatics with no real regard for consequences.
‘What happened to me was that I became a walking, talking cliché. I was a damaged and traumatised young woman who hid behind a veneer to survive.’
Shanna went on to be successful in her career in agriculture and then onto being self-employed as a freelance photographer. She forged ahead despite her ongoing and escalating battle with many personal demons.
But she said her toxic relationship with alcohol, binge-drinking, and denial progressed steadily over the years in the background.
‘What started out as partying hard in my 20s to escape pain, eventually over a 25-year period, became high functioning alcoholism. A battle with infertility in my late 30s sent me spiralling over the edge. And ultimately, it all almost cost me my life.’
In 2018, Shanna is healthy, well, fully recovered and is finally learning to live life properly. She is married to ‘the best bloke in Australia’ as she calls her husband Tim.
She graduated in 2017 as a health coach, and she now uses her life experience and qualifications to speak openly and candidly about her alcoholism and subsequent life of sobriety as to help others break through and seek support.
‘What I realised after a lifetime of fighting, is that I am just one of many, many rural Australians who needed, but could not access decent help.
‘I now understand that rural Australia actually has a big pervasive drinking problem.
‘The alcohol abuse I speak about, write about, and study is rampant in our remote settings.
‘We have a national identity built around the fact that we measure a man by how many beers he can drink on a Friday night. It’s just what we ‘do’ in the country. And it comes with a massive raft of mental and physical health problems that we simply aren’t talking about.
Shanna said she’s basically doing for the booze culture what Jeff Kennett did years ago for mental health.
‘I started a conversation, and it has grown and grown and grown. Because as it turns out, so many people relate to alcohol abuse in their lives. And so many agree it’s time we talked about this.
‘But we have fierce stigmas to overcome and massive boundaries still to cross.
‘Folks tend to think that a problem with alcohol equals being homeless or drinking during the day. The reality is so much more insidious than that in our so-called educated and polished homes. It’s the ‘wine o’clock culture’ for Mums and the ‘beers with the boys’ culture that I am bringing to the table.
‘For example, I have been speaking recently with a young father who has chosen to give up alcohol as it was the cause of endless financial, emotional, relationship, and work problems in his life. He’s the happiest and healthiest he has ever been. He is an absolute legend.
‘And yet despite people being well aware of how close to chaos his life had gone and gossiping behind his back, his work and sporting colleagues still give him a hard time about not drinking.
‘He said that the usual reaction from rural blokes is that they call him soft or hopeless. Rarely will anybody step up and say ‘well done’ or support him in his choice.
‘This is the reality of the culture we have on our hands in many cases, and it’s really not okay.
‘In a rural setting, when somebody has the disease of cancer, we stop everything to rally around and help that person. We need to start addressing the disease of addiction with the same weight and support. Not with condemnation and judgement.
After appearing on national television, national radio, and multiple publications, as well as being invited to speak at events across the state, Shanna’s raw brand of authenticity, humour, and honesty is striking chords.
‘It’s quite a bizarre paradox I am trying to take on here in rural Australia’, she says.
‘In a rural setting, we are totally fine about our mates getting fall-down-drunk on a regular basis, and in fact encourage that behaviour. We have people in their 40s black-out drinking like university students, drink-driving, and progressively destroying their health.
‘And yet, when somebody steps up and admits they’re not okay and need help, we become awkwardly silent about it.
‘As somebody who has experienced the full range of all these difficulties, stigmas, and complexities, I am now sharing it all. And it astonishes me daily how far and wide the conversation is reaching.
‘Softly-softly we are making progress in a very important discussion about our rural relationships with booze, and how we need to be healthier and more aware. It’s happening.’ ■
Facebook: @shannakwhan Instagram: @sober_in_the_country w: soberinthecountry.wixsite.com/sitc