There was only darkness, now there is light

Bonnie is a recovering alcoholic and former Australian Defence Force employee who used alcohol as a means to cope with feelings of isolation, depression, hopelessness and breast cancer. This is her amazing journey.

I’m Bonnie, I’m 63, and I’m a recovering alcoholic.

I was in the army for 22 years – and I wasn’t a drinker back then, apart from the occasional social drink.

I had a very productive career in the army and achieved a lot.

The only reason that I left was that I was pregnant with my first and only child. I didn’t have her until I was 42 as my career in the army had taken precedence – I didn’t have time for anything else and hadn’t actually met anyone who was Mr Right. My husband was also in the army.

Before I left the army, my husband and I bought an investment property which we now live on. At that stage it had cattle on it and we remained stationed in Melbourne.

When our daughter, Sara, was of school age, we decided to leave the army and the “big smoke” in favour of raising her in a quiet country town.

While that was all happening, my husband was inspired by his neighbour’s winery and we decided to turn the property into a vineyard.

My husband ended up working away from home a lot and I ended up solely running and managing the vineyard, which really wasn’t my cup of tea – but I did it anyway.

I wasn’t really drinking at that stage, but soon after that, my parents moved into the area and I bought them a property close by.

That became a full-time activity in itself as my father was very old school and expected me to come and visit him every day, which I found stressful.

I was on my own – living and working on the vineyard seven days a week, looking after my little girl and trying to look after, and please my parents.

My parents eventually moved into aged care, but the expectation was that I would visit every day.

My daughter was also growing up by this stage and became ill, developing an eating disorder. The stress was tremendous.

From having a highly responsible job managing a lot of people I knew in the army, I came to a property in the Victorian countryside where I knew no one.

During my time in the army, I developed post natal depression (PND) which wasn’t properly diagnosed.

In the country, the doctors were just like those in the army – it was hard to get a diagnosis.

It took a visit from my husband with me to discover that I was indeed suffering PND.

Ten years had passed from the time my daughter was born to the time I was diagnosed, I was pretty desperate by this stage and feeling pretty out of control.

I was trying to deal with my depression, my workload, and this is when I started to drink.

Sara was about 15 or 16.

So it’s virtually been the last ten years and also coincided with my mother developing Alzheimer’s disease.

My father put so much pressure on me to visit every day.

I was visiting her and doing her hair in the morning, then coming here to the vineyard, doing homework with Sara, though she was pretty independent by that stage.

To settle myself down, I’d be drinking away every evening.

Sara was suffering with anorexia, and watching that suffering and worrying about her well being was stressful to the max.

Her mood swings were horrendous. I’d be shut off from her, you know the saying that you hurt the ones who are the closest to you? That was really hard to handle.

I was trying to look after her and do what was best for her without knowing or understanding how she came to be that way.

My mother then passed away.

I was driving away from the aged care facility when they rang and told me. I had to turn around and then go back and tell my father, who was devastated and inconsolable.

The drinking continued to escalate.

It was so gradual, it seemed to creep up on me. It seemed to snowball over the last ten years where I experienced such an abundance of stressful life events.

My father eventually became ill and fortunately Sara had improved and was quite stable.

My husband was still working away interstate. He had an excellent job. I don’t hold that against him, but it was tough not having him around.

As Dad deteriorated, he told me that he loved me – which was a new experience, as he’d been a military man working in secret service type roles.

He became the father I’d always wanted. I spent many hours at his bedside, and one evening a doctor told me to go home and get some rest, that he’d still be here in the morning.

I left, and drank an entire bottle of red wine.

Shortly after, I received a phone call telling me that Dad was dying and that I should come back quickly.

I went there in my PJs, got in the car, despite the wine and by the time I arrived, was told that he’d passed. I stayed with him until the nurses told me that I had to leave.

It was hard coping with the passing of my Dad and I did my best to get back on top of things.

However, now Sara had relapsed back into anorexia and we decided to withdraw her from university and get her into a specialised eating disorders clinic.

It was the worst thing I did.

They put a lot of pressure on her to eat and my visits were punctuated with smashed jars, paintings and generally irrational behaviour.

She was at her lowest point, telling me that she hated me and that everything was my fault. My husband had seen none of this and I felt like because he hadn’t seen it, it was not real. I felt so alone and helpless.

I wasn’t feeling great either and visited my doctor who performed a few tests and dismissed my concerns.

I switched doctors and upon having a mammogram, discovered that I had some suspicious lumps.

My drinking escalated.

It was my only form of escape.

I was now living alone, managing a massive vineyard with only the dog for company. At this stage it was now two bottles of bubbly each night.

I had an appointment at the Royal Melbourne Breast Cancer Research campus at Parkville.

I was assured on the phone that it was only a routine check to make sure that what they had seen on the mammograms was not cancerous and that 90% of patients were gone from the building before lunch.

I was still there at 17:00hrs.

I had had two x-rays, scans, ultrasounds and finally a biopsy of my right breast.

I was exhausted at this stage and starting to get very concerned. I asked the doctor who had taken the biopsy what does all this mean???

She turned to me with no expression of any feelings and said “You have breast cancer and will have to have surgery in both breasts. Most probable chemo and radiation treatment”.

I promptly vomited and almost passed out.

I saw my surgeon that day too who was very kind and said she will be looking after me (she was and is a saint).

All up I had three conservative surgeries to save my breasts but they kept on finding more lesions and eventually I had both breasts removed and reconstruction surgery at the same time.

This all took nine months.

I swore to myself that I’d never drink again after that. I’d been given a second chance and wanted to make the most of it.

Six months later I went on a short break with a girlfriend who said, “Bonnie, do you notice that you drink a lot?”

Inevitably, I started drinking again and my daughter got really angry – “it’s the drink or me” she said.

And I said, “I know I drink, but I don’t have a problem. I can control myself.”

She said with a worried expression, “but you drink a lot.”

When she said that, I was irritated but Sara had already told me that she was worried about my drinking because of my health.

I was suffering from gastritis from drinking too much, I had facial rosacea, I put on weight.

Everything was very negative with the drinking – not only from a health point of view, but that my daughter had noticed and given me an ultimatum.

My best friend put me onto the Hader Clinic Queensland. She said she was going to go there, but said “I think you’d better go there”.

I phoned the clinic and spoke to Hayden. I still didn’t believe that I had a problem. That’s the scary thing.

I had the interview and a week later I was at the rehab.

It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Before I went, I started to cut down and by the time I got there, there was no requirement for me to do a supervised detox.

I was told that I could take a few days to settle in, but I was of the mindset, “no I want to start the rehab and classes straight away, I want to be a part of what I came here for”.

It wasn’t until they gave me all the bookwork and I was actually reading, “what is an alcoholic?” that I realised I had a problem.

There were 29 characteristics and I had only gone through nine, yet had ticked all the boxes. It was then that the penny dropped.

It wasn’t until I read things about hiding alcohol, denying that I had a problem when I really did, drinking on my own, only “drinking socially” in front of others then drinking when I got home.

That’s when I became very aware of the problem and that was really my first day of true recovery.

I got stuck into the program at the rehab.

As soon as I got there, I felt at home right away, because I love having structure – my military background is probably part of that.

I can see that moving to a country town where I didn’t know anyone, where I had no community and no one to talk to as well as no discipline to achieve anything was detrimental to me without the right skills to cope with the changes.

The staff were brilliant. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to be treated but I felt so at home.

As soon as I realised that I truly was an alcoholic, I wanted to participate in the program 100%. I was hesitant about doing any physical work, as I was still getting over my mastectomy, but I worked around that – I got up earlier and did extra walks, which made me feel much better.

The healthy way of eating really helped, especially the “no sugar” part – the nutrition program was excellent – the fact we participated in making our meals was great.

The whole program was very holistic.

Not only did I feel like I was being coached on what drinking does, but they made you feel part of the community, that you weren’t alone – that everyone had some sort of issue there.

Everyone was there for a reason and that made me feel good being there.

The staff were supportive but didn’t stand for any rubbish. I liked how the program supported me both physically and mentally.

Jack the counsellor was brilliant. I’ve seen others over the years but left with no strategies for living.

I was able to say what I wanted to say, cry as much as I needed to, (being military, and my father being old school, crying was a sign of weakness), I don’t think I cried, as I did at Hader but it was such a great release.

I discovered so many things about myself and found out what my home environment was actually doing to me, that I never realised.

When I came home, I didn’t tell people I’d been to rehab, but rather, that I had attended a wellness clinic in Queensland.

I continued the yoga and meditation classes that I started with Paula. I felt at my fittest in many years, when I left.

I had a better temperament too – before I went, I spent a lot of time feeling very angry, but after, I found my tolerance to others and my peace of mind had come back. I was a lot clearer in my thought patterns and the whole experience just helped so much.

Within two weeks of being in the clinic I began to feel a lot like my “old self” – I was exercising, and my brain felt much clearer as a result of not drinking.

Also the best thing was the counselling given to me by the psychologists (counsellor) Jack.

When I left the army, I had seen several psychologists, as I found everything at that time difficult and none of them gave me any strategies or really seemed interested, a bit sad for me.

After rehab I could see that I had been thrown into a perfect storm for addiction – I’d gone from this regimented army career where I was highly decorated and respected to a country town where I was isolated and knew few people, to owning a winery of all things.

Because my husband worked away from home so much, he had no idea – and neither did our daughter for several years.

It wasn’t until Christmas last year that she really noticed I had a drinking problem – and then after a yelling match where I got so frustrated and angry and ended throwing objects around the room at my husband because he was not happy about me going away for 30 days to the rehab; that he realised there was an issue.

This is how things used to be if he was not happy then I would be the one to suffer and things would not get settled until the next day, but by then the damage was done.

However, after he had read a few things and saw from my reaction that there was a problem, and that I needed to be my old self again, I needed to go.

He was so sorry and said he was being selfish as he would miss me very much but I should go.

After this conversation I had spoken to the Hader Clinic Queensland and that it was important that I go, he began to come around.

During the time I was away, he stopped drinking as well. I was very pleased – he had problems with his weight, he was pre diabetic and had high cholesterol and blood pressure.

When I returned home he had lost 10kg and was no longer pre diabetic.

His cholesterol is great, blood pressure normal and he still hasn’t had a drink.

He’s now very supportive of my recovery and he now understands the extent of my issues with alcohol.

I am so proud of him and he of me. He has done a complete turn around and is now my rock.

My husband is away for work again and I have made sure that I have a support network here that I can call on if things get rough.

I think of all of those kids (I say kids but I mean young adults and adults) I went through Hader with as my family, and I don’t want to let them down, or myself and I don’t want to let my daughter down.

I realise now that a lot of the anger she directed towards me was because she was worried about me.

However, at the time, I was in denial.

The friend that directed me to the Hader Clinic Queensland would say, “I want my old buddy back”, my other friend was getting concerned and could see something was wrong too.

Sara would say, “I want my old Mum back!”

And here I am, “I’m back!” She now has her old Mum back and she also has become such a strength to me; and has also taken enormous steps to get well.

Both my friends have been amazing and great supports.

On reflection, I got to the stage where I couldn’t see a future, my husband was away, my parents had died, my daughter was ill and I was on my own.

I couldn’t see any prospects, I felt really low.

I had to change things while I was at the rehab so that I could have a life when I got home.

I made a list and am actioning these ideas, one by one.

These included getting someone to look after, and lease the vineyard, going to the gym, seeing Sara more, and rekindling my interest in painting and dressmaking.

I have also started a project in turning a property I have into either a B&B or a place to do my hobbies. So far it is looking great.

Also I have been accepted to at an aged care facility as a volunteer and will be writing little life stories for the residence as a keep sake.

Life is looking great.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but before there wasn’t, only darkness.

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