Q&A: Shanna Whan interviewed by Steph Fairfax

In November, the VFFF Grants Committee approved $50,000 in core operational funding for Sober in the Country, a national charity changing the conversation about alcohol in rural Australia.

Alongside the Snow Foundation and Yulgilbar Foundation, this seed funding for the online peer support platform Bush Tribe will go towards ensuring rural Australians overcoming addiction have a safe and anonymous place to connect. Bush Tribe launched in mid-August and had 235 members sign up within its first month.

Steph Fairfax, a member of the VFFF Grants Committee since 2015, interviewed Founder and CEO Shanna Whan about her personal journey of overcoming addiction, and the evolution of Sober in the Country.

Shanna Whan in Akubra
Steph Fairfax

Steph: How did the idea of Sober In The Country come about?

Shanna: It was a blog and a Facebook page I started years ago, to
share a few little things here and there about overcoming my own
addiction. Through this I realised the sheer enormity of the issue of
alcohol abuse in the rural sector for people like me – those who
didn't look like there was anything wrong.

The very long story short is that over 15,000 hours of growth and
persistence it grew from a tiny spark into a roaring flame.

How has your life changed since being sober and the inception of
Sober in the Country?

Life has changed immeasurably. I have regained self-respect, health, vitality, energy, and a focus and drive that I didn't know I possessed.
I have replaced being unaccountable with non-negotiable integrity,
and excuses with action. I am still nothing more than a garden-
variety recovered alcoholic, and have no delusions of grandeur. I
simply know what I am, and what I am not.

Mostly - I'm just so very grateful to have found peace and my ‘place’
by serving others through a purpose greater than myself. It helps
me in the dark times when loneliness and fatigue set in, which they
often do. Life isn't easy as a non-drinker and a childless woman in a
small community who has taken on something this big. But it's
infinitely easier than it once was.

What was the catalyst for your turnaround/life transformation?

For me, it was a classic case of a final descent to rock bottom after
many years of dancing around the edges of not knowing if I wanted
to live, but not wanting to die either. It was like clawing my way
back from the abyss, with a moment only to spare. This blog sums
up rock bottom, and why I decided to change. I also did an interview
on the No Filter podcast with Mia Freedman where I talk more about
my story. You can listen to the episode here.

What was the reaction from your family, friends and local community
after your Australian Story appearance?

Family and friends have been really supportive. The online response
to the episode was mind-blowing and overwhelmingly positive from
across the nation. One year later, I still have not been able to reply
to every single message or comment. It was just indescribably
humbling - and it 100 per cent cemented that I am on the right track
and meant to be precisely where I am, doing precisely what I am

The local community doesn't tend to comment so I honestly
couldn't say. Then again, as ‘ring-ins’ like me are often reminded...
I've only been here 15 years, so I am not a local just yet!



Are there any downsides to your newfound fame or being recognised?

It can be overwhelming knowing millions have heard your story, especially knowing the world is filled with so many critics (especially online) and the ‘’contempt prior to investigation’’ can get frustrating. But - I knew full well that putting my story out there would open me up to unpleasant attacks as well as doing good. So I decided to think of it as going into the trenches for those who needed a voice and some representation where there's so very little.

What I would say, joyfully, is that while there have been some truly unpleasant incidents, most of the response has been extraordinary, supportive, and positive.

Also, I am at pains to remind our followers that I am nobody's guru, influencer, answer, or expert. Honesty and frankness about my failings and flaws was a wise stance to take from early on. I will always maintain it, too. It's easy to lead from a position of truth.

Can you share a success story or special moment from Sober in the Country?

Oh, gosh. They genuinely happen every single day. We get messages from all corners of outback Australia from people who literally say that these conversations have saved their life. It's a privilege to know that my broken mess of a life could be the launch point for so many conversations that have become something good.

But I think that 2020 in general is the year that I will never, ever forget. After five years of walking in faith alone, risking everything and going against the grain to start this thing up, it's been our breakthrough year thanks to our Australian Story episode, our charitable status being granted, and philanthropic organisations stepping in and around us.

People finally get it. They finally understand how serious and urgent the need is for tailored support for those who'll never live in proximity to choice or services.

When the pandemic hit early this year, the national response from our health minister was to approve millions in additional funding for online support services, acknowledging that overcoming addiction in isolation was an urgent health crisis that needed response. But in the country, “iso” is our normal, and these are the very same issues we've been raising awareness around for years.

What is next for you personally, and for Sober in the Country?

There are two massive projects on the horizon for Shanna Whan as an individual. I can't say much publicly just yet, but my honest prayer is that these projects will permanently alter and positively impact the culture of alcohol abuse in the rural space.

From a SITC perspective we will now seek funding to develop a simpler and more user-friendly App version of our online peer-to-peer support platform Bush Tribe, and to find some more staff to support the two of us who work in the “back yards” facilitating the space for hundreds of members.

For me and my beautiful husband, personally, we hope to finally find our own forever home and get some peace on that front. We will continue to enjoy and focus on the simple pleasures like family, friends, health, and peace.

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