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Changing the narrative around drinking in the bush

31 May 2021 at 4:49 pm
Maggie Coggan
Shanna Whan is the founder of Sober in the Country, an online health project raising awareness around alcohol abuse and misuse in the rural space. She’s this week’s Changemaker.

Maggie Coggan | 31 May 2021 at 4:49 pm


Changing the narrative around drinking in the bush
31 May 2021 at 4:49 pm

Shanna Whan is the founder of Sober in the Country, an online health project raising awareness around alcohol abuse and misuse in the rural space. She’s this week’s Changemaker.  

A decade ago, Shanna Whan believed she’d be dead by 40.   

Living and working in rural Australia, her battle with alcoholism was a lonely one. With no resources or professional support nearby, for many years she suffered in silence. 

As a working professional in a long-term marriage, she was also convinced that she had to be drinking from a brown paper bag at 6am to be considered an alcoholic. 

It was in 2014 that she knew she had to make a change. Found bruised and bleeding at the bottom of a staircase following a night of drinking, she realised she had one more shot at turning her life around. 

Whan’s path to recovery was a difficult one, which is why she’s determined that no one living rurally goes through what she did alone. 

Sober in the Country is a bush not-for-profit, saving lives through their simple #OK2SAYNO campaign, straight talk and advocacy around alcohol awareness – plus a safe (online) space where hundreds of rural people can safely talk.

The charity reaches around 100,000 people nationally through social media and supports hundreds online.

Through raw and honest conversations on what it means to not drink, or drink less in the bush, Whan has gotten people back on track and in some cases, saved lives.

For her efforts, Whan was named as a Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 Award winner

In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses the challenges of leading a personal cause, the importance of non-negotiable boundaries, and why it’s the small things that spark joy. 

Why did you start Sober in the Country? 

I started it as an online conversation, because as someone who had to walk through the recovery from alcoholism in the country with literally nowhere to go, nobody to speak to, I just thought this was ridiculous. So I started it as a way to do for others what I needed and could not find anywhere in rural Australia.

As this is such a personal cause for you, how do you balance your personal and professional needs? 

So I learned very quickly that I had to separate Shanna the CEO from Shanna the human who needs rest and space and boundaries. It’s precisely why I never pursued going down the line of being a coach or a counsellor or a one-on-one support person. I knew instinctively that was just the worst possible fit for me. 

I now understand that with my energy and makeup being what it is, I can go and speak publicly to an enormous group and give out this massive amount of energy and encouragement and be a really powerful front person. But then I need to retreat. And the  only way I can sustain it is if I build in non-negotiable boundaries for myself. 

It’s going to sound really strange, but the alcoholic part of my life is open on a platter for anyone to dissect when and where they please. But ironically, I’ve never been more private, or more intentional about my friendships in this [sober] half of my life. And I don’t suffer fools like I have done previously in my life. I’m pretty tough now. 

Did you think that you would be doing Sober in the Country, say, 10 years ago?

10 years ago? I was convinced I’d be dead by 40. 10 years ago I didn’t want to live and I was in a downward spiral. I was absolutely certain there would be no way out at all. Nothing could have prepared me for how my life has turned out.

What are some of your major learnings in setting up and running a charity?

To never, ever, ever compromise on my integrity, or what feels right in my gut. I have no interest whatsoever in being swayed by popular opinion. If it doesn’t feel authentic or right to me, it doesn’t happen. 

I have been extremely measured, intentional, and ethical the whole way through which is ironic because drunk me had no ethics and no morals, I was just hopeless. I often say to people that it’s almost like all of the things I didn’t do right [before] has meant that as a CEO, I am now extremely rigid on ethics, rigid on duty of care and rigid on governance. 

Another thing I’ve learned is that you get by doing and asking, and you should never, ever take a rejection. You just go again and you go a different way. I’ve learned that I’m just so incredibly, ridiculously relentless. I’ve loved setting up this conversation around sobriety and drinking less as a not for profit because it gives me the freedom to fight with a level of courage, boldness, and fearlessness that is indescribable. 

This cause is not for me and it’s not about me, it’s for others. By taking the conversation and amplifying it to be for others, it gives me a superpower because I’m working through service rather than self.

And when you’re not at Sober in the Country, how do you like to spend your time? 

I am a bona-fide crazy dog lady. I’ve got two blue heelers, and I think of them like my healers, spelt h-e-a-l-e-r-s. 

I am at my absolute happiest in the sunshine in an open paddock with my two dogs, exercising, and just soaking up nature. I guess at this stage of my life, the simplest of things bring me the greatest joy. That for me is time with my family in wide open spaces, and if time permits, I am completely obsessed with the ocean and spending time in the ocean. I’m a very simple creature now. Just give me peace, sunshine and fresh air and I’ll be happy.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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