Shanna Whan from Sober In The Country

The festive season of 2014 was almost my last Christmas. I had come to a place where I did not want to live, but hadn’t yet found the courage to die.

My twenty year steady and progressive descent to this place kicked off as a sweet and dreadfully naïve country kid with a world of opportunity at her feet, blessed by a loving family, safe home, and a good education – and pretty much all fell apart from my 18th year onward.

A series of traumas impacted me irrevocably in that first year of ‘adulting’ and would lead to another decade of abuse and a pattern of hiding behind alcohol for social courage and the subsequent creation of a wild party girl persona / alter-ego who hid and buffered the real, softer me, until ‘she’ was no longer even visible. 

By the time I was in my late 30’s this progressive addiction had its hooks firmly latched onto every part of my life and my soul and eventually I was at rock bottom and I was certain that all hope was absolutely lost. Like many people with an alcohol dependency, I was eventually chaotic, destructive, and desperately sick. I’d become the antithesis of everything I wanted to be.

But: because I didn’t drink during the day (or even every day!) I lashed out at anybody who dared to question my behaviour and stated adamantly I was ‘no alcoholic’ because I worked, and only raised my glass after five PM. Like many people with alcohol dependencies, I was in denial, and refused to accept the truth.

And then, in one final last-ditch attempt, I reached out. I drove 300km to meet someone who’d overcome their alcoholism. And, it gave me a glimpse of hope for the very first time.  I met somebody ELSE who looked, sounded, walked and talked like me. For the first time, I did not feel like I was utterly alone and adrift in the world.

My name is Shanna Whan (Shanna like Anna, Whan like Swan – don’t ask..) and I am a person with lived experience of alcohol dependence who lives in rural Australia among the infernal, temperamental big-dirt blue-sky country that runs in my veins and keeps me here where I’ve finally put roots down.

I’m now five-and-a-half years into my sobriety.  It is safe to say I am not cured of alcoholism. I’d never make it out alive if I picked up a drink. Of that I am certain. But the fact is; no single part of me wants to touch alcohol any longer. And that is a freedom I simply could not, and did not believe was possible for someone like me.

In fact, if you’d asked then forty-year old me what my five year plan looked like, I would’ve responded with ‘dead and buried’ – because that’s all I could see in my future.

Instead, because of the positive life changes I have experienced, I chose to use my story and the truth to pay forward a lifeline that was given to me. That lifeline was simply hope, connection, and proof that recovery (a full, free, joyful recovery) is possible.

As luck would have it, during my ‘functional’ years I was a skilled writer, speaker, and creative.  In my early recovery – I knew in my heart that I wanted to do something important with the second part of my life. I had no children (alcohol stole that from me, too) but I had a wealth of professional experience, an Australia-wide rural and regional network, and Dutch / Afrikaans heritage running in my veins that made me especially determined when I set my mind to something.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of SMART Recovery Australia.

‘’I set my mind to trying to help others.  It’s taken 10,000 hours, five years, and endless hurdles and knockbacks – but I persisted and managed to break open open the truth of alcohol abuse, addiction, and alcohol-‘’ism’’ in outback Australia.

‘’See the thing is – we can’t be ‘’anonymous’’ out here. Anyone who has lived in the bush for five minutes knows there’s no such thing.  City-based models relying on anonymity don’t work out west as a rule. Not because recovery programmes don’t work – but because we cannot help people if we can’t even get them through the door.

Most of us remote dwellers don’t resonate with what we are ‘given’ from policy-makers from afar because most of what we are given is driven from people who have never lived or walked addiction and furthermore don’t understand the complexities and intricacies of rural life.

The obvious solution was / is using technology.  And a boots-on-the-ground person and perspective and a finger on the outback pulse to drive real conversations based on real life.

So I decided to make that my job. And I got up and showed up every day for five years and worked relentlessly to establish what I knew had to be done.

Today, that ‘’job’’ is now a national charity called Sober in the Country.  And against all the odds and naysayers and predictions of failure – it’s a success.

It is not successful because I am anything unusual or special but because I represent an entire demographic nobody looks at. Because this story is horrifyingly common. I am just the conduit to the truth.

What began as one volunteer, a laptop, and a blog, is now a vibrant and inclusive rural health movement and discussion affecting change across the length and breadth of rural Australia. ‘’SITC’’ now represents a silent minority who also happen to be the hard working rural men and women who (either directly or indirectly) feed the majority – and ‘we’ are a group that can no longer be ignored. And our charity is now established as both credible, viable, and aligned with major key players in alcohol work nationally.

COVID-19 did us a huge favour, as it turns out. It brought some really awkward truths right out into the light. Our national health leaders all quickly rallied and publicly admitted that isolation was a serious and grave danger for those battling chronic addiction. Government funding was funnelled into mental health and addiction spaces in record time to ensure that our citizens were not left completely alone during the pandemic.

Which presented the subsequent, awkward, still unanswered question of: ‘’what happens to the men and women for whom isolation is their normal? COVID is on its way to being over – but nothing changes for them.’’

And that’s the reality for the minority of us who live in rural and remote Australia. And the gaps in services and support tailored to this demographic remain huge. Because we have mortgages and jobs and ‘look okay’ – we mostly don’t qualify for support and because of all that, we subsequently don’t tend to present in the overburdened healthcare system until it’s almost too late. Until we’ve fallen through the cracks completely.

Our foundational quote by Desmond Tutu sums up our purpose perfectly: ‘’there comes a time when we must stop pulling people out of the river and go upstream and find out why they are falling in.’’

Sober in the Country is stepping up to meet that gap and we are now gaining rapid traction and momentum thanks to national media, credibility, national alliances in the alcohol awareness space, and now the support of two key philanthropic investors who recognised the critical nature of what we are doing and stepped up to support our operations.

Rural people are tough, resilient and incredible. But at the end of the day, a truth many (no matter where they call home) have not considered is this:

If Australia wishes to enjoy the luxury of national food security and fresh produce (let’s again use the panic buying during COVID as a precursor to what happens if that stops…) the simple fact is we have to do so, so much more to lift the level of help for the hard working quiet Australians who get up and show up to their small businesses, jobs, farms, and associated businesses day-and-night through droughts and floods and pandemics.

And that is why I did what I did, and why ‘’we’’ are now nationally being heard. We love the bush, and we love the people out here. Their heart is our heart. They are our family, our friends, and our future.

And we plan on continuing to lead this conversation so that our future generations are healthier, happier, and fully aware on safe drinking and how to include our mates regardless of the choice of drink in hand.

We plan on continuing our critical work: to catch good people before they fall in.

Shanna Whan is the CEO, Founder, and creator of national charity Sober in the Country. She’s now an established national advocate, speaker and presenter.

Those interested can catch an online version of this story on ABC i-view; thanks to Australian Story who produced a show called ‘’Last Drinks’’ which covers it all.

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