Shanna Whan is helping the bush wake up to a drinking problem that has long been ignored.

Story Virginia Tapscott  Photos Tim Whan

Shanna Whan radiates good health and doesn’t look like someone who was once an alcoholic. An energetic blonde in her mid-40s, she volunteers most of her time fearlessly addressing a problem that very few people want to talk about publicly – alcoholism. Both as a guest speaker and from the quiet of her home office in Narrabri, in north-western New South Wales, Shanna is helping hundreds of people get and stay sober through a unique online support network she created in 2018 called Sober in the Country (SITC). The Facebook page has thousands of followers. “When I first got sober I knew that in time I’d want to help other people; I knew that without a doubt,” Shanna says. “So I started by running an anonymous support meeting in Narrabri, but the whole premise of such a group is anonymity, so that people feel safe to talk. You bring what was originally a city-based model to the country, where by design we don’t have anonymity, and it just doesn’t work as well. So Sober in the Country was my way of thinking outside the square and using technology to reach rural peers to achieve the same thing.”

In less than six months, nearly 200 rural people have requested access to her private support group. They are from a diverse range of rural and agricultural backgrounds but are united by a common need for a safe place to converse and connect with others who are struggling with their relationship with alcohol. Members use their shared experience to help each other while Shanna moderates the page and introduces newcomers. On the public SITC page Shanna uses her journalism and photography skills to share powerful images and inspirational stories from others who are sober. “A lot of people come looking for a way to cut back and moderate; most of them stay and realise they want to stop drinking completely,” she says. “The people best equipped to help other people are those who have lived it.” 

Shanna’s own alcohol abuse began as a coping mechanism following traumatic events in her teenage years. Her unhealthy drinking patterns escalated over time, and after struggling with infertility for several years she reached a point of total despair in 2014. “I ended up in emergency. I think I had fallen down some stairs during a blackout, but I don’t know for sure,” she says. “When I woke up, the final straw was hearing my husband say to me that he had gone from dreading the phone call from the police or ambulance to say that I was dead, to wondering if that was the only way out. He had never seen a person in so much pain. And I’d never seen the man I love in so much pain. A week later, I got in my car and made a six-hour round trip to meet with a recovered alcoholic and it was the simple process of connecting and identifying with somebody else that changed my life. This would become the foundation upon which SITC was established.”

With sunlight spilling across her desk and lush green leaves crowding out the windows of the home she shares with her husband, Tim, and blue cattle dog Fleabag, it’s hard to imagine the darkness of a few years earlier. Shanna wants as many people as possible to know that there is another way to live that doesn’t involve alcohol. Her efforts saw her become a finalist in the New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year in 2018 and she’s also now the rural ambassador for national alcohol awareness charity Hello Sunday Morning. “The sad thing is there is nothing special about me. My story is actually very common; it’s just not talked about,” she says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #125

Outback Magazine: June/July 2019