Trigger warning: talk of suicidal thoughts, alcohol addiction, and self harm.
BOOK CHAPTER | Shanna Whan
Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is, how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down. For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper. (Proverb)
It was Christmas day, 2014 when I realised that I wasn't sure if I wanted to live anymore.
Our loud extended family perched in the shade sheltering from the suffocating summer heat that day, telling stories and egging each other on while baby Galahs wheezed from the gum trees and soft country music played in the background.
Everyone nursed a cool beer or wine. Except me. The joyful sounds of laughter, children, life and bottle tops steadily chinking was shredding my brain.
I sat among all these people I loved and felt nothing but a brittle, empty, and hollow. Like if somebody hugged me too hard I might just shatter into a thousand pieces.
I didn’t drink that day. I ''white-knuckled'' for ten excruciating hours. Somehow, I also made it through until our famous family Boxing Day festivities.
It was all superficially going quite well, until midday.
As the sun rose in the sky ... the gathered mob once again settled into respective groups. Barefoot kids peppered the paddock playing backyard cricket. The bar table was filled with Dads talking about the drought and calling over to the other Dads nearby flipping sausages, clutching beers and laughing heartily across the gap.
Mums, Grandmothers, expecting Mums, and all the little kids sat huddled and clumped under the shade of the trees.
It suddenly imprinted on my soul that everyone looked entirely comfortable and at home in their environment, like they belonged. And that I may as well have had scales - so out of place did I feel.
I found myself mentally detaching and shrinking away from the crowd in my own mind.
The peripheral noises grew dim and the constant nagging reminder that I was an outcast sat like a stone in my chest. This feeling I'd been shadowed by since boarding school as a kid was as familiar to me as a missing limb. I suppose, over time, I'd grown used to it ... but it never stopped being heartbreaking to realise no matter what I did or didn't do - or could not do (such as have my own kids) - it just ached endlessly.
For whatever reason, at some point, that day it was too much.
I stood suddenly and simply made my way through the masses of families and kids, got in my car and drove thirty minutes back to town on auto-pilot where I detoured via one of our small town’s plentiful bottle shops and got myself a 3-for-1 Chardonnay special and headed for the familiarity of my loneliness while nursing a wish for death and a cheap glass.
The following morning I came to in a white room, where the surroundings sounds, smells and textures confused me. I remember I lifted my hand and looked, eyebrows furrowed, at the drip in the back of my hand.
Standing above me was a kind-faced woman in a blue uniform. Seeing the sudden onset of wild panic and confusion in my eyes, she touched my arm and spoke calmly: ‘’Shanna you are in the hospital, you’re okay.’’
To my left, in slow focus, came my husband.
Then the pain, shame, and horror hit me between my eyes like a sledgehammer.
What had I done, this time?
Turns out Tim had come home to find me at the bottom of a flight of concrete stairs, my face covered in blood and a huge ugly gash between my eyes was bleeding down my cheeks like tears. He had returned early from the festivities fearing the worst once he realised I had slipped away.
Had I gone back to that empty house I hated with a wish to hurt myself? Yes and no. I was in that hellish space of not wanting to live, but not knowing how to die, either. I definitely thought removing myself was by far the best option for all concerned. That much I do know.
Later, back in familiar surrounds of home, I lay propped up in bed in pain from the injury and nursing the beginning of what would be two black eyes, facial swelling, more stitches, and a horrific hangover; and the mental torment of knowing the stress and fear I'd caused the one person left standing resolutely in my corner, for better or for worse: Tim.
I remember he sat on the edge of the bed quietly and just held my hand and said nothing for a good, long while. There were no recriminations or anger. The deep and profound sadness behind his gentle green eyes was actually so much worse than the anger, the frustration, and the question I could never, ever answer which was: why?
Eventually he said the words ‘’I used to be so frightened of getting a call from the police or ambulance. Of somebody telling me they’ve found you dead from suicide; or dead in a car wreck…’’ he trailed off and then sighed softly and whispered ‘’I’ve begun to wonder: is that the only way out for you? I just don’t know what else there is, Shan. I just don't know what else there is.’’
He shook his head in bewildered fear and confusion and just stroked my hair as a tear slid down his face. And my heart broke.
This was, I knew, my rock bottom.
There was nowhere left to go but dead.
Some small part of me decided then and there, to try one last time.
The following day I did what I had not yet done. I called for ‘help’ using a national helpline for Alcoholics Anonymous. I felt by then that there was absolutely no point in visiting yet another GP who would tell me I ‘’appeared to be in good condition’’ and didn’t ‘’look like an alcoholic’’ while absently offering me anti-depressants or another half-hearted referral and vague reference to a local community service while mentally filing me under the Too Hard basket.
The person I spoke to representing AA that day sounded positive and assured me cheerfully that help was close. Upon closer inspection he informed me (awkwardly) the closest contact on file was for a woman almost 300 kilometres away.
So after calling this total stranger’s mobile three times and hanging up before finally gathering the courage to follow through; Tim and I drove that 300 kilometres the following day to meet a volunteer.
I will never forget walking towards that big, ugly building, and thinking, arrogantly, ''I do not belong here!''
At the same time, I felt sick to my stomach with nerves, tension, and the weight of decades of extinguished, deferred hope.
Then, absently, I took note of a lovely girl and her handsome partner walking towards us and just as quickly dismissed them and continued looking for the ‘contact’ who said she’d be there. Were they late? I was about to turn around when that same lovely, fit, well-dressed, vibrant woman and the handsome, fit, vibrant well-dressed man got closer and politely said: 'Shanna?'
I looked across to my husband, completely wide-eyed, and he looked back at me with a raised eyebrow with equal surprise. We stepped forward to shyly shake the hands of the two people who would be instrumental in showing us what nobody ever had. The simple truth, from a lived-experience perspective.
These two people were recovered alcoholics themselves (a phrase I didn’t even remotely understand at that time) – and the gift they gave us that day was to sit patiently and share their hearts, their stories, and their time during a two hour conversation including a no-holds-barred honest account of their totally and infinitely relatable stories.
I’d never had access to such raw, honest, relatable information in my forty years of life as a rural person. They spoke freely with us about what their life was like before booze, what booze did to them, how they stopped, and what life was like now.
I felt a tiny, tiny spark of light enter my soul then and there. Something awakened that I thought had long been extinguished: hope. Actual hope.
After the chat, we were invited to sit in on a group chat where about twenty other extremely ‘regular looking’ people openly shared and discussed their own stories around alcohol. Some were so heartbreaking I dropped my head and silently wept. Some were just there to share a concern and learn what having a problem even meant. Others left me trembling with disbelief … especially stories of those who had climbed back from the abyss and regained their full health, freedom, sanity, and a happy, sober life. I simply could not believe it.
Eventually, Ally gently asked if I might like to ‘have a share’.
I looked at Tim. I inhaled. Paused for a moment. Then I lifted my chin, and stood.
Everybody was fully well aware that I was brand new. They respectfully and quietly sat while I collected my thoughts. Eventually, I spoke the shaky words: ‘’hi, my name is Shanna, and I am an alcoholic.’’
Then I burst into awkward fits of giggles because it was finally so, so obvious to me that I was indeed an alcoholic. I was totally addicted to booze. And for the first time, I also realised I wasn't a bad person - I was a terribly and desperately sick human fighting a progressive and fatal disease that also happens to be the cornerstone of entire rural Australian society.
Tim dropped his head to his chest, and just squeezed my hand as I spoke my story.
That day a miracle happened for us. After years of denial, declining health, mounting insanity (when it came to booze) and an impending, inevitable early death, I stood and shared the absolute truth from my heart.
For the first time in a long time, I knew I wasn’t alone.
These extraordinary, brave, broken souls knew exactly how it was.
And that basic shared connection changed my life.
That day, I stopped fighting and raging against and denying the horror of this all-too-common disease that had me in its death grip and held my entire life to ransom and I squared up to it. It was, I now understand, looking a demon in the eye.
That day, I took ownership of my own awful truth and declared it with my heart and soul – and I consciously left not one single trace of shadow under which I could run to and hide. And in the face of simple truth; I was able to let the light back in.
Later that night I felt a strange and unfamiliar peace settle upon me as I crawled tenderly into bed and curled up into my strong, resilient husband. He kissed my battered forehead and reminded me ‘‘for better or for worse, sweetheart. We will get there.’’
I cried. He cried. And a small kernel of hope and light ignited inside us both. We were both utterly exhausted and overwhelmed – but for the first time in living memory, I went to sleep happily and peacefully, and without alcohol... and Tim went to sleep without fear.
That day, almost six years ago now, would also be the last day I touched alcohol.
Months later when the fog had started to lift and my once-clever mind had cleared and started returning - I saw a very clear path upon which I was simply and irrevocably mandated to walk. I knew it with every fibre of my being. I’d never known clarity like it. So it was shocking to me, the power of this revelation.
I knew that when I felt the time was right, and I'd done the 'hard yards' and clicked up a few serious sober miles and earned the credibility, trust and faith of those I'd let down during my illness – that my purpose would be to speak openly, publicly, and candidly - using whatever means possible to be that light of hope for others.
I knew I had found my passion and my purpose: to fight for others just like me all across rural and remote Australia, abandoned by distance and a healthcare system while being confronted at every turn with the offer of a beer to fix everything.
I knew then that I was going to take on the casual alcoholism culture of rural Australia with nothing more than honest truth.
I was then that this would be my Goliath.
Shanna Whan no longer counts days but will celebrate six years of sobriety on February 22nd, 2021. Since the day she had the realisation of her passion, purpose, and project she's gone on to dedicate her entire life to keeping that promise. The horizontal scar that sits between her eyes is her reminder of grace, every day and she declined the offer for a surgeon to correct it.