I met a great bloke in my recent travels to Tasmania. Sam is CEO of the Australian & New Zealand Mental Health Association (ANZMH) who hosted the 10th Australian Rural & Remote Mental Health Symposium I spoke at.
The day before I presented, I was actually playing tourist and spent the day meeting and falling in love with Sam’s three amazing kids and his beautiful wife Kristy. I had no clue the guy who would greet me at the conference opening the following day would be their Dad. It’s funny and wonderful how synchronicity can work.
Anyhow, I am so thankful this connection happened because it ended with me learning a little about this extraordinary bloke and subsequently: the sharing of this blog.
I just knew immediately that Sam was a very inspiring man with a powerful story to tell about how he now chooses to live an alcohol-free life as a father, husband, and business man.
I cannot thank Sam enough for doing something he would never have envisaged, by sharing this personal side of his life.
See, the thing is: Sam does not campaign whatsoever about being alcohol-free. He is, in fact, one of the most humble men you’ll meet. Going alcohol-free was something he just quietly did (without expectation) for him and his family only.
But, lucky for me - he sees the value in the work I am doing and basically was a total legend by being kind enough to help me help others while we drive some important discussions across our beloved rural Australia.
Let's get to it:
Sam Stewart is a bloke who has lived and loved life in country NSW.
Even though the 36 year old father-of-three now calls Lennox Head home, he has a strong connection and history to rural New South Wales.
With his family roots in Inverell, Sam found himself ditching the city lights for time on the farm in his early twenties, where he soon was immersed in the rugby culture, loving the friendliness of a small country-town environment.
When recounting that chapter of his life, he remembers saying to his old man ‘’why would you live out here?” It didn’t seem like there was much to do.
Quickly, he realised there was so much on offer in a rural life and fell in love with it. He also fell in love with a beautiful girl who happened to be the chief babysitter for some of his family’s children.
A history of playing rugby union at a representative level saw him (naturally) snapped up by the local rugby club – the Inverell Highlanders - where he made friends and continued his love of the sport at a regional level.
During his time in the bush, Sam worked hard – and after work, or sport, he enjoyed the party culture.
‘’A typical week was working long hours either on the farm or in a restaurant I co-owned and ran, and then we’d have a few big nights out.
‘’Saturday nights after rugby were typically the bigger party nights but that’s just what we did, it was all part of the culture.
‘’Bonding always revolved around drinking but that same culture applies to the city.’’
Sam said that somewhere along the way, he realised he was contradicting his own beliefs and life-philosophy through his repeated behaviour around big drinking binges.
‘’I had always steered clear of taking drugs and smoking. I knew those sorts of toxic substances and behaviours wouldn't serve my health outcomes. It also eventually occurred to me that I wasn’t doing my health any justice by repeatedly partaking in social binge drinking sessions.
‘’This conscious awareness meant I had to take the responsibility and opportunity to change my habits for the better,'' Sam said.
And so, by his mid-twenties, Sam had started to rethink everything he was doing after a lengthy binge session.
He says that he drew inspiration from his then-girlfriend, Kristy.
‘’Kristy enjoyed an occasional glass of wine with a meal or a friend, but she never sat at a bar for eight hours in a row getting drunk like we were doing.
‘’Kristy was quietly leading by example the whole time. She prioritised her health and wellbeing, and that was a powerful example – but I just wasn’t seeing it at the time or wasn’t ready to change.
‘’Heavy drinking was just so socially normalised, accepted and encouraged that it took me a while to step back and see the truth of the situation.
‘’Eventually I just came to the conclusion that I didn’t want that for me, my life or for my family. When I started to pull it apart and break it down – it just made no sense.
‘’I was wasting so much money and time, and I was repeating the same behaviour. And every time I put that much toxic stuff into my body I lost productivity, motivation and my health and energy was suffering.”
By the time Sam was 29 and married to Kristy, their first son (Billy) was born and he decided to go alcohol-free for a while in recognition of his desire to feel and function better.
One month turned into two, three, and then six months … and the longer he went without alcohol, the better Sam felt and the more he realised that he no longer needed it in his life any more.
It’s now almost seven years since he’s had a drink.
‘’I didn’t have a problem with alcohol but I did have a choice. Having one or two beers didn’t interest me as I never really enjoyed the taste and thought I may as well just have water instead.
‘’In fact, looking back on it I really only drank alcohol to get drunk and thought I needed it to have a good time. We sometimes think that we need alcohol to achieve a certain state and then we feel its ok to behave in a certain way.
‘’I started to get curious and ask myself: Why can’t you be happy, fun, relaxed, have a dance, enjoy your friends company without having to be drunk?”
‘’Well - you can. And the upside is you don’t get hangovers and you have no trouble remembering the occasions.”
While it was never an intentional long-term initiative, when reflecting on the past seven years with no alcohol - Sam believes it only gets easier.
He says his newfound energy and health only gives him more momentum to continue on his inspirational journey.
He regularly focuses on what he wants his own life to look like, asks himself how he can achieve that and then executes on the things that will give him the outcome he is after.
‘’Anybody who’s ever mastered anything has done it through hard work. There are no easy, quick-fix solutions - just a conscious decision followed by hard work and intelligent execution.
‘’I realised that if I wanted to be the best Dad and husband I could be, that I had to make health and longevity a priority.
‘’Alcohol, for me, served no part of that choice. So I changed it.”
‘’I realised that if I really thought about the second-order consequences that resulted from binge drinking, it didn’t make sense and no longer served the person I wanted to become.”
As Sam would discover, the choice to go against the grain and say no to grog wasn’t always a popular one.
‘’After I gave up alcohol – I found my social circle changed. Over time, I noticed that the circles I associated with began to shift.
‘’While it was uncomfortable at first, I soon realised I didn’t have as much in common as I’d once thought with certain people - nor any compelling reason to spend time with them. There were no ill-feelings or judgement or resentments, we were just on different paths. It was a natural progression and a mutual and respectful parting of ways.
Sam and Kristy’s circle of friends are now mostly health-focused, active, and family-oriented - but he’s still got plenty of mates who enjoy a beer.
These days, the Stewarts are an early-to-bed and early-to-rise rise crew.
‘’When reflecting on the alcohol culture of Australia, I am happy with the decision I have made. If you really look at our society, we associate drinking alcohol with all sorts of occasions. We are very good at coming up with reasons to get together and have a drinking session.
‘’It could be: the day of the week, the time of the day, watching sport, playing sport, birthdays, engagements, weddings, divorces, holidays, when a newborn comes into the world or when a loved one leaves us. It could be when our kids misbehave, when we get a job or lose our job. The list goes on and on.
‘’People can still enjoy those moments with the people that matter most but it is possible to do it without alcohol or in moderation. There is also a wide variety of non-alcoholic drinks available and readily accessible these days.
‘’I think everyone is entitled to their own choices but I would recommend people give it a go and experience it for themselves.
‘’To be honest, it’s hard to communicate how great life can be without alcohol at all but I really can only speak for myself and my own experiences.”
Some of the strategies Sam said he used included:
Stop and prioritise how you really want your life to be so your journey through life becomes intentional and deliberate
Think about how you want to be remembered and what legacy you want to leave
Ask yourself ‘what is the best version of myself?’ and get clarity around this
Be proactive instead of reactive
Set micro-goals in increments so they’re attainable and realistic
Celebrate each milestone along the way
Tell someone about your desired outcome so they can help hold you accountable or journal your progress so you don’t lose track of what and why you are doing it
Get curious and question the norm or at least your own routine and habits.
Have a strong ‘why’ (reason for doing it)
Think about the second-order consequences
''I think the ‘Sober in the Country’ movement is really inspiring as it addresses an important topic that isn’t often spoken about in country areas.
''The relationship we have with alcohol can easily be overlooked or ignored and the lack of awareness and support around binge drinking in rural communities only makes the challenge harder to overcome.
''While there are some great organisations being active in helping raise awareness and educating communities about the effects of social alcoholism in country areas, they are often under reported, under funded and lack the resources required to reach those that need or want to be helped.
''I understand the lifestyle of living and working in a rural community - and while I never intended to share my story publically, if it can help or inspire one person to question their relationship with drinking alcohol and make a change for the better, then it has been worth it.