• soberinthecountry

Some observant souls have suspected that I wasn't okay the last few months. I wasn't. Here's why...

Some of the more observant among you have noticed I haven’t been quite myself recently.

Turns out that’s quite the understatement.

I’m speaking up about the mental health nosedive I took the past few months not for sympathy or a dramatic emotional dump - but with the same hope, as always, that it might encourage someone else who isn't OK and also because as the person at the helm of a charity founded on blunt honesty - it’s the right thing for me to do now that I am alright.

Back in June - which now seems like a life ago - I was beyond excited to once again be ‘booked up’ to travel Australia after 2020 was thwarted by the pandemic’s warm-up round. After a seriously busy start to 2021 covering a lot of country and various events, I scheduled an entire month off-the-road (in July) to rest up and build a few reserves for a totally-full second half of our SITC calendar year, and to spend some time smelling the roses while settling into our new home and minimalist life in a tiny old bush church.

I had also decided after endless careful deliberation to wean off the low dose of antidepressants I’d been on for years primarily because they’re linked to a horrible thing called restless leg syndrome (RLS) which had robbed me of a decent sleep for as long as I could remember. I figured that insomnia and fatigue was worse than depression, and most certainly contributing to much of it - and so I took a calculated risk. I figured I couldn’t possibly feel worse than I did.

… Boy, was I wrong.

Things were perfect when I set out to trial the idea. Conditions were perfect. I was on top of work. I had everything ticked off - and our new family member / blue heeler Mallee Girl was grown up enough to come on the big runs and old enough to step up and replace darling retired Fleabag who is now sedentary. I was ready.

Aaaand, well, you know what they say, about best-laid plans.

Despite the gradual and careful drawn-out reduction of my antidepressant medication - the RLS symptoms remained, and I continued to live the sheer torture of ongoing sleepless nights.

In mid-July, Mallee Girl came off second to a cheeky heifer and broke her foot badly - and in that moment, a critical element of my mental health plan (furry best mate + exercise) was gone.

Then, NSW was plunged into lockdown - again - and despite ‘’ISO’’ being our way of life - this new gloomy kind of uncertainty and changing laws, rules and borders was just so, so much worse than round one.

Finally - the state of play in NSW meant we were further locked down and so, again, we saw a complete wipeout of SITC events, travelling Australia, and the chance to do what is by far the most impactful and energising work I can do, which is to speak from the heart, in communities. The lost income was another blow.

To begin with - I instantly drew on my fighting spirit and decided to turn the situation into something useful for the charity and those we fight for, and brought forward the idea of a podcast to at least amplify the powerful collective stories of SITC to give hope to others stranded in a new level of isolation. Things looked very bright indeed when a dozen of Australia’s leading pastoral companies instantly stepped up, in, and around us to sponsor our first season. So I threw myself into this project with passion and purpose, as I do.

But, by about late August - I knew I wasn’t okay. I had stopped running and started to hole myself up indoors.

Caring for Mallee and her broken foot required her to be crated and contained, 24-7, which was utterly heartbreaking and almost impossible - so I reluctantly handed her over to care of the vets to manage what I could not. I think in all honesty this was the straw that broke the camel’s back … to be stuck in limbo and endless lockdowns, utterly isolated (most of the time) for months on end, without my little best mate and workout buddy.

By this point I’d also caved in from total, debilitating sleep-deprivation and reluctantly begun a new medication for my chronic RLS which, cruelly, gave me a good night's sleep instantly - but left me virtually zombie-like the next day.

I was, at this point, snookered. Literally. I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t. Soon I was utterly wiped out and robbed of the capacity to be me. I couldn’t articulate things, pull sentences together, and I lost my zest to a blanket of apathy, hopelessness, and despair. Thank God there was never any desire to pick up a drink (I have not experienced that in seven years) - but my days were peppered with constant tears and being debilitated. I was terrified by how quickly things had turned so, so bad.

I had to then make the decision to postpone the podcast and life in general - and briefly made reference to this on our social media channels as ‘’chronic fatigue,’’ but wow - it was so, so SO much more than that.

The very long story short is that after giving up on finding support locally, I enlisted a doctor in the city via telehealth, revisited the team of naturopaths (also via telehealth) who’d supported me in early recovery, and started over. This ended up involving a huge raft of blood-tests, supplements, and plans being discussed at length - and, we just began.

It’s been about a month now since the worst of that insomnia-induced hell and the darkest of those days - and I am, for the first time since June, 2021, feeling like ‘me’ again. The supplements, including an almighty increase of iron (among other things) are kicking in... I have resumed antidepressants thanks to finding a manageable / reduced dose of the RLS medication .... Mallee Girl is back on all four paws (recent near-death experience from the King Brown attack aside) and for a few weeks I have been running and working out again - always a sure sign my mental health is getting back on track.

More importantly, the fire in my belly is steadily re-igniting as health slowly returns and ‘’freedom’’ (as they’re calling it) appears within grasp. I remain cynical but hopeful.

Reflecting on all of this quietly the past few weeks, I now understand that my body and mind was indeed chronically fatigued and that there were seven years worth of reasons why. I see that a sustained period of working so relentlessly for others, and against a system that refuses to acknowledge the truth of alcohol harm in our nation, all ultimately contributed to the accumulated exhaustion, and me being debilitated.

For instance, and for those unaware: every single time I’ve re-shared a piece of my soul and re-lived the most traumatic aspects of my story on national television, radio, in podcasts and in-person since 2015, it’s cost me. But I have also chosen to do this consciously, and as such, I’ve always put boundaries and strategies in place to ensure that I am taking care.

I have done this, and I will continue to do this next year when I've had a good rest - because ‘’lived experience’’ and truth with no agenda for profit or gain is powerful beyond measure; and I’ve done this because somebody had to step up and bring the truth of our bush booze culture into the light.

To be clear - I am under no illusion that this is some kind of noble self-sacrifice or that I am ‘’unique’’ - because I know I am merely one of a legion of souls who share my exact story. But the fact is, these overlooked and marginalised Australians remain utterly without a voice, and I am the only recovered alcoholic from rural Australia who has chosen to step up and speak very publicly and candidly - and, I do so because I am bizarrely and uniquely positioned with the skills, the means, the time, and the passion. I have no family, and I certainly don't fit anywhere in this place. I have nothing whatsoever to lose. These are all the reasons and more I decided (back in 2015) to use my second chance at life to advocate for change.

Nonetheless, clearly the combined impact of all this front-line work and pioneering of a shift in culture has been massive. As a charity founder who spent five years minus an income - there was (is) no corporate care package or free counselling or extended paid leave to fall back on. Those are not luxuries available for me, nor for so many. So I just had to survive. Again.

It’s probably why in my dreams the work I do is often represented spiritually to me as war.

And it is war to go against an entire culture, to lead and challenge change, and to ask questions of a Government and political parties that claim to be all about health and ''all for the bush'' while being systematically funded by Big Alcohol and using grog as a political / populist carrot. It is war, to single-handedly take hit after hit after hit and tackle this, front on. It is lonely, it is heartbreaking, and it is hard. But I will never stop doing what I do while lives are being saved every day, all over this country. And that is what SITC is doing. Not because I am some mystical power - but because this health crisis needed speaking about. And we did that. We do that.

In the end I am so grateful for this time in the wilderness that’s just been, and that it has forced me utterly to my knees, to reassess, to reboot, and to rebuild. It’s forced me to acknowledge what I have done, what SITC has achieved, why I was tired to my bones, where I have come from, and to recalibrate and visualise where I am going and where SITC is going.

When I think of the Shanna Whan who stood in front of VIP’s at a Parliamentary dinner in 2017 as a Rural Woman of the Year finalist (and all the many hollow awards processes since) and how profoundly naive I was - I realise I’ve grown another deeper level of armour now.

I’ve got serious experience - and with that, comes serious capacity.

There’s been a fire in my bones since February 22nd, 2015 - the last time I drank or thought about drinking - and while it was dampened and dulled into senselessness these past five months, it is burning again. Slowly, but surely.

I am planning for 2022 and getting ready to step back into the battlefield, older, wiser, scarred to hell - but with the same tried and true weapon of simple truth at my side.

Until then, my health is my absolute priority - and I will give myself permission to take it steady until the new year. We will continue our presence on social media, as always - which is, ironically, the smallest part of the work we do. But the rest? It can wait.

And that, my friends, is the story of the dark winter that has been. That is me putting health first for a while longer - because that is a promise I made when I got sober.

Thank you to those of you who’ve reached out to me in recent months to ask after me, and to ask how I am. It will never be forgotten.

Thank you to Timbo and the blue ''healers'' for the hugs and for feeding me ... and to Flip for holding up the fort of our tiny team when I could not function.



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