1460 days’ worth of sober observations from within rural Australia's booze culture...

Image: Carlton United Breweries

Last Friday, I turned ‘four’ in my sobriety journey.

That’s 1,460 days of living completely sober in the country.. which is pretty mind-blowing to me when I consider how once upon a time I couldn’t go a week without a glass of wine or a beer and an inevitable ‘blowout’ (aka, getting pass-out drunk).

If you’re new to my page and you’d like historical context on my backstory, and how and why I do what I do, please visit:

The purpose of this blog here, though, is to share some my observations from four years of public speaking in ther rural space along with the privileged information I get, the advocacy work I do; and the sobriety awareness I have from living and breathing this talk and being an on-the-ground interface with the bush booze culture.

Before you read: a quick reminder that my target peeps are (and always have been) the invisible rural Australians slipping through the cracks of our current mental health care system: our mates who will often be high-functioning but maintain an unhealthy relationship with alcohol - or are in chronic addiction - but still work full time. Those men and women who are dismissed by society (and often health care professionals) as ‘’having a problem’’ because the rest of their life is, at least superficially, continuing normally. In other words: people like me who have an education and a mortgage and who nobody thinks could be in 'trouble' because they're living their best life on social media and holding up a facade that ''all is well''....

Also please remember my usual disclaimer which is that my purpose isn't to demonise booze; it's about helping a wider community understand what addiction can look like for some, so that mates can collectively identify when a mate isn’t okay and reach out with support rather than endlessly questioning ‘’why aren’t you having a beer mate?’’

Here’s what I have observed, in bullet points; because everyone loves those:

  • Sobriety is trending globally as a health movement – and that’s also happening here in our city spaces. Rurally, we are still seriously behind the mark, because we still love to measure a country lad by how many units of alcohol he can drink, and we still love to say ‘’you can’t trust a bloke who says no to a beer,’’ and harass anyone who heads off to a bush gathering or an after-five business deal without a beer in one hand.

  • We still do not cater in any way for non-drinkers at bush events. I myself have never attended a single function as a sober person where the choice of drinks cater inclusively for the non-drinker. (Usually, it’s down to water or orange juice, and a look of shocked confusion if you ask for a sparkling water with lemon or lime).

  • There is still an enormous gap in real, relatable, useful education around what addiction is, looks like, and presents as; when it comes to alcohol. We still largely believe that you’re only an alcoholic if you’re drinking out of a brown paper bag and/or homeless.

  • Such misinformation, assumptions, and stigmas are keeping everyday rural Aussies from asking for help, even as they’re descending into a dreadful and dark rock bottom. Because the view remains that if you look okay, you must be okay.

  • Any and all resources from the government seem to channel around and/or focus on the very dramatic ‘’end stage’’ of addiction treatments including rehab, clinics, and hospital visits: all of which are overwhelming options that miss a key step, along with taking family away from their homes and into major cities. There is literally no 'middle ground' local preventative option/s for helping people before the ‘’end’’ stages arrive.

  • This major ongoing gap in education, discussion, and prevention (rather than cure) is, therefore, still unaddressed. Despite conversations like those through this page (Sober in the Country) proving to be extremely effective – they remain unfunded, unsupported, and unacknowledged at a governmental level.

  • This chronic lack of peer-led conversations in the rural mental health space of high-functioning addiction can so easily be changed. It’s constantly proven that the average everyday Aussie won’t respond to or relate to ‘’blanket information pamphlets’’ and statistics from a faceless Government department - but when a relatable, real, rural person speaks or shares the truth of what high-functioning addiction was for them, the ripple effect is massive and powerful.

  • For those who have progressed into low-functioning or chronic alcoholism (but are still, remarkably working or contributing) the suggested treatment of using city-based models of ‘anonymous’ recovery programmes do not work. Because in tiny rural towns, anonymity simply isn’t possible. Most will not walk through the door of a meeting out of fear - and because of this - most meetings close down and those who facilitate such events and try support locals give up (myself included; which is why I started SITC in the first place.)

  • Rural areas need to therefore breach this massive gap in understanding and stop asking our sick friends to go off and be ‘anonymous’ – particularly given many rural communities build their entire social structure on the back of beers with mates. We literally train our society ‘up’ in terms of destructive, unhealthy drinking patterns: that much is encouraged and romanticised. However when somebody admits it’s become a problem, we can’t accept it.

  • The efficacy of a programme like this (SITC) works as beautifully and as simply as RUOK? Day because it's all about changing lives through honest conversations, connections, and communication. When these honest conversations among peers happen, they’re actually changing and saving lives.

  • However: most people are still FAR too afraid to reach out. Right now, in rural Australia we have some exceptional rural spokespeople and ambassadors in our midst who are doing incredible things in terms of reclaiming health by giving up or cutting back booze; however most would refuse flatly to speak publicly about their fight because of these ongoing and existing stigmas, plus concern for what impacts would occur with work, within social circles, etc.

  • Rural communities are world-beaters at fundraising, supporting mates when they’re down, and helping somebody through disease treatments. Yet we haven’t worked out that end-stage alcoholism is a killing disease which requires support, community, and treatment. Instead of raising funds for our mates with alcoholism, we abandon them and tell them to isolate and be anonymous. This has to change. It’s insane that we’d shout a mate a beer without blinking – but won’t chip in to see them get treatment or help if they descend into addiction.

  • The ongoing use of booze in rural sports and sponsorship reinforces its place of 'high-standing' in society and negates many positive health messages.

  • We therefore clearly require an overhaul in our entire educational approach from a grassroots perspective; and I reckon that needs to begin in places like our boarding schools, our Ag colleges, and universities where we can implement awesome education from the ground up when our rural kids are starting off life. We all know that historically this is where the problem behaviour begins.

  • Additionally, we need to help support and educate the parents of those kids in rural communities so that they, too, can identify healthy behaviour versus problem ‘red flag’ levels of drinking and start modelling behaviour that’s in line with safe drinking at home.

  • The consistent feedback from those battling high-functioning addiction is that rural medical health professionals simply aren’t drilling down into cases. Of all those I have spoken with and surveyed – not a single person has felt they were given adequate information or follow up. Most have the shared frustrating experience of a GP telling them they ‘’look fine’’ and to just ‘’cut back’’.

  • While it is absolutely the responsibility of an individual to pursue his/her own health; education and information-flow is also imperative. So a dismissal in a GP scenario may, in some cases, enable people to continue unchecked on their path to full-blown alcoholism – and this is an area I believe we really need to look at. If somebody presents as having difficulties with drinking – they shouldn’t be leaving a clinic without thorough investigation and follow up resources. Which leads to the next problem: WHERE do people go if they cannot be ‘anonymous’ at a meeting, which most likely isn’t even available in the first place….? Nowhere. And, so we land, back at square one: feeling helpless, hopeless, and lost. Those who reach out have often been incredibly brave to do so, and this response can knock them back to a place of not wanting to try again.

  • We need to implement and execute an addictions-education-programme that speaks to ‘real’ everyday people – not just funnelled at the ‘end of the road’ in a way that is completely not relatable to red-flag or problem drinkers. For example; a proud old-fashioned farmer is highly unlikely to walk in off the streets into a programme labelled ‘’addictions recovery’’ – because he or she does not identify in any way. He or she thinks that's the place for homeless people or ICE addicts, etc. However IF they can identify and connect with others who look and sound and walk and talk like them ... others who’ve gone before them, the dirt is already broken up and they feel safe to walk behind another. And the magic happens. I see evidence of this every single day through SITC. This is how my own life was saved.

  • The social isolation that occurs among people who choose to stop drinking is an absolutely unacceptable pattern that’s increasingly evident. I have observed this in my own life for four years straight – and now in the lives of those who are choosing health and sobriety.

  • Rural Australia traditionally hosts amazing social events including country races, B'n'S balls, rugby days, etc.; but at the heart of all our social events and gatherings is alcohol. For somebody who cannot drink alcohol at risk of death – this is an incredibly isolating situation. Given there is tangible proof that the opposite of addiction is connection – we need to instigate healthy social options and choices across our rural social spaces.

  • We need to be getting peer driven support programmes urgent resources and funding. Because these are the kind of initiatives (peer focused and peer led) which are changing lives. They're real people in real rural scenarios making real changes. And yet most fly under the radar and continue to be run by volunteers and a shoestring budget despite their proven effectiveness.

  • Recovery talk is accepted as second nature in places like the USA – partly thanks to candid celebrities. We don’t accept it as readily in Australia, and even less so in rural Australia. This needs to change. We need to get to a place where if somebody says ‘’I don’t drink’’ our response is ‘’no worries, can I get you a soda?’’ and not harass our mates into a forced conversation to justify their choice to say no.

In summary; we have come far in the last few years but there's no doubt we have a LONG way to go in rural Australia to address some serious gaps in resources, facilities, information, education, and support. Not even close to enough is being ‘done’ for our hard working Aussie men and women who feed and clothe the nation.

Despite billions being announced through government funding – I have not yet spoken to one single person who has said they’ve seen the flow-on effect or benefit... so where is it going?

But the need is there and the hope is there.

Every single time I speak on radio, online, or at an event – the response is astonishing. People reach out, and connections are made.

As a result of this, I get an army of private support and private messages – however people freely tell me they are ‘too scared’ to share my information publicly, in case people think they have a problem…. so, they remain silent. And somebody like me can only reach and impact so many rural people without resources or funding or others to share the message.

We need to get this discussion out from behind closed doors and into the public – without fear of persecution and judgement.

Finally; we need to talk about the drought, and the current political climate of rural Australia.

The ongoing drought crisis, water shortages, and their mental health flow-on impact is a humanitarian crisis in the making.

Once again; all the funding that we hear about is simply not being seen. Men and women feeding livestock from sunrise to sunset cannot access support. They cannot leave their properties to head to 'therapy' and they most certainly cannot afford the luxuries of large centre treatments.

It's easier by far to grab another beer.

It is common knowledge that those who need the most help are the least likely to ask for it.

We must make support accessible via technology for these refugees of drought who have worked their entire lives and are abandoned in their time of need.

Additionally: the current ‘’war’’ on farmers is creating an unprecedented mental health minefield and crisis - which is coming at an immense cost to many on the ground. This isn't just in the form of drought – but also via the ongoing extreme animal activism we are seeing, and the current hostilities off the back of the Menindee fish death saga.

Never before have I seen rural Australian families at such risk of attack from climate and also now from within. Never before have I been so concerned about so many peers for so many reasons.

I’ve worked for 14 months straight now applying for grants and asking for our NSW parliament to ‘see’ the importance of this knowledge I am gathering and to support me as they promised to do off the back of last years' Rural Woman of the Year award – but so far, no joy. It stuns me. Each year, we lose 6,000 people to booze, at a cost of $36 billion to you and me as taxpayers.

Why they won’t assist this kind of logical and effective work in a specific area for those who feed and clothe the entire nation is something I struggle to process.

So please, I am asking you to share this blog and this information to help a mate – because I guarantee you, it will be helpful if not live-saving to somebody in your circle of friends or family.

Shanna x

**As I enter my fifth year as a full time volunteer with almost zero income or support, I started a small fundraising campaign recently. If you’re able to help, you can donate here: https://www.facebook.com/donate/2202893036429364/

Shanna Whan is a speaker and presenter, a full time volunteer, and a rural ambassador and finalist in the 2018 NSW/ACT AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Awards.

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