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TRIGGER WARNING: This article involves discussion on mental health and substance abuse. It may be difficult reading this story, especially if you've had similar experiences or supported a friend or family member. If you're feeling impacted, contact Beyond Blue for immediate support, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Headspace, or your local GP for support.
In a 2020 global survey, Australians were named the heaviest drinkers in the world, not in terms of weekly consumption, but how often we consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness. While some experts pointed to the pandemic being a potential trigger at the time, perhaps the true picture is more insidious. Is it ingrained in our culture?
In Australia, alcohol is strongly connected to socialisation. We go out for drinks after work or have alcohol as part of catching up with family and friends. There are memes of mums drinking from oversized wine glasses, ‘is it “beer o’clock?”’ phrases, emojis of champagne glasses when there is something to celebrate. We also offer alcohol as gifts.
It’s omnipresent and normalised.
But then there is drinking for stress relief. As one young Australian builder discovered, alcohol went from a quick fix to a self-destructive crux, which caused more problems than answers.
When David Butler met South African-born Lizelle in Lake Macquarie, NSW, it was as much ‘laugh’ as love at first sight. Charmed by his easy-going humour, and him by her natural positivity, they were – by Lizelle’s own words – ‘solid country kids’. Both were also from close, hard-working families, so there was plenty of love to share. Life was good.
Like many young people, Lizelle says that Dave would occasionally have a drink, but it was never a problem in her eyes. ‘He would come home, have a drink or two some nights. He had the occasional weekend where he'd drink a lot, but it never was something that crept into every week,’ she explains.
By the time David was 24, his building career was on the rise. ‘When Dave was in his fourth year as an apprentice, he was running eight-unit complex [projects]. He was so capable,’ Lizelle says.
Then two life-changing things happened at the same time – they decided to start their own residential construction business, Butler Building, and Lizelle at age 21 gave birth to their son Michael. Life became a bit more real.
Around early 2020, with a new business, house mortgage, a wife and young son, HIA member Dave started to feel under increasing pressure. He turned to what he thought at the time was the ‘man way’ of dealing with stress and started drinking alcohol more regularly. ‘In our industry, having a couple of drinks seemed a common way to cope,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even question it.’
He says that after two years, the few beers after work had turned into a few beers plus a few glasses of spirits, which escalated to multiple bottles of spirits during the week. ‘This took a toll on all aspects of my life. At work I became unmotivated, cranky and short fused, which affected team morale.
‘At home, I started to disconnect from Lizelle and my son. Through alcohol I was able to shut myself off and forget all of my problems. My cycle became work, drink, work, drink.’
Lizelle says experts told her that addictions make people selfish, and she began to see that behaviour in Dave. ‘He was never cruel, but he would lie and hide his drinking,’ she explains. ‘He’d have a bad day drink-wise, apologise and be full of self-bravado the next day. He’d head off to work and say, “I’ve got this”. It was an apology cycle.’
For Lizelle, she had her own cycle; enable, ignore, worry. ‘By the end of 2020, I saw the decline in Dave’s mental health. He was up and down; you couldn’t reason with him. I’d go to my parents’ house with Michael to get a breather and worry about when it was going to end.’
Lizelle describes this period as heartbreaking. She was concerned that if she confronted him, Dave would shut her out completely. So, she sought advice from psychologists, friends and family, while a GP provided a referral to a rehabilitation clinic on the chance Dave would concede he needed help.
By March 2021, there were moments of hopeful clarity. ‘Dave called his subbies and told them, “Listen, I’m struggling. There might be a time I need to go away and get help, so I just want to prepare you, so you aren’t shocked”,’ Lizelle reveals. Around that time, he reached out to another local builder, Eden Penman, who was willing to help and take him to AA meetings.
Then, the strong sense of machismo took over again, according to Lizelle: ‘Dave went back to “I’ve got this, I can do this on my own.” Twice, or maybe even three times, doctors would prescribe him medication to take while he was weaning off alcohol. It makes you sick if you drink, but it didn’t even affect him. He just kept drinking and working as hard as ever.’
Lizelle says it was difficult to have perspective of the situation while living it. ‘I had to learn that Dave and his addiction are in two separate boxes. They're not the same person; Dave is Dave, and the addiction is an illness. Learning to separate the two of them helped me cope in a way.’
By the end of 2021, the couple were preparing to move into her parents’ house after buying a farm they planned to renovate. ‘As I’m packing, I found some empty spirit bottles around the house.’ And that’s when she had to admit how immune she had become.
As their situation deteriorated, Lizelle believed rehab was the answer. After a medical episode put him in hospital, 26-year-old Dave was told if he didn’t stop drinking the way he was, he would be dead by 30. Even after an emotional intervention by close friends and family, he was concerned about being away from work while he focused on himself.
‘He kept saying, “I’ve got a team and business to run. I’m taking care of so many people”,’ Lizelle says.
Christmas 2021 was particularly upsetting. ‘Dave was drunk the whole time, and just before Australia Day, he hit rock bottom again.’
While he was still running the business, on 26 January Lizelle found a bottle of vodka in his car. For her it was the breaking point. ‘I told Dave “I love you and I want to be married to you, but I can’t live with this anymore. You need to move out. I can’t mentally and physically be in the same space as you anymore”.’ Dave packed an overnight bag and left.
A week later, while out running errands, she finally received the call she had waited for. ‘Dave rang and said, “I need to go to rehab, and I need to go now.” He was emotionally and mentally drained.’
Lizelle knew this was the window of opportunity. With that GP referral, she made the call and the centre asked her: ‘Can you get him here Monday?’
‘At that moment I was ecstatic,’ she says. ‘This had been my goal, but he had to make the decision himself.’
One year later, Dave is still discovering new ways to switch off without alcohol. He is better at communicating with Lizelle when he is having a tough day and is now focused on sharing his story. He is committed to working hard, but not at the expense of what he values most – his family and health.
Dave also wants others to consider whether what they’re focusing their attention on the most is negatively affecting their wellbeing. ‘We need to slow down and enjoy life’s moments more because we can’t hit rewind,’ he says. ‘I’m still trying to create a good work-life balance.’
At the 2022 HIA-CSR Hunter Housing and Kitchen & Bathroom Awards, Butler Building won the WHS Work, Health & Safety – Small Business award, which included his journey with alcohol. In their submission he wrote: ‘This is very close to our hearts, and we hope to make an impact in the building industry by changing the stigma around mental health and addiction’.
But Dave also acknowledges that his recovery was helped along by his community in the industry.
‘When I went to rehab, I had qualified people – and the right people – around me to advise how to keep Butler Building going while I took four weeks away to focus on my mental health and addiction,’ he says. ‘It made me think about others within our industry who need the help, but struggle to get it, as they cannot leave their businesses for a substantial amount of time.
‘It would be great if we could create a support network of qualified professionals to advise and guide people and their businesses while they seek the support they need.’
And as for Lizelle, she hopes their experience will also help partners know they are not alone.
It would be great if we could create a support network of qualified professionals to advise and guide people'Owner-builder John Butler of Butler Building
Dr Grant Blashki, Clinical Lead at Beyond Blue, says that as a GP he sees it’s very common for people to reach for a drink to relax or to cope with daily stresses, anxiety and depression.
‘The trouble is reaching for a drink to take the edge off, to reduce anxiety or lift your mood can start a vicious cycle,’ he says. ‘Alcohol is a depressant drug so it will relax you for a short time, but then as it wears off you feel edgy, anxious and your mood drops. To dampen those overwhelming feelings, many people reach for another drink, and just like that, you end up in a situation where what you think solves the problem makes it a whole lot worse.’
Dr Blashki says that at some point in their lives, half a million Australians will experience depression and substance abuse at the same time. ‘Alcohol and drugs can have a major impact on your mental health, but poor mental health can also be a risk factor for addiction,’ he explains. ‘As Dave and Lizelle experienced, excessive drinking can negatively affect thoughts, feelings and actions, and as a result, damage relationships.
‘Because alcohol impacts our ability to process thoughts and make rational decisions, it can make us less reflective and reduce our ability to problem solve. Over time, our behaviour can deeply affect those around us.’
When it comes to helping someone you know with excessive or destructive drinking behaviours, Dr Blashki says your initial conversations might be unsettling so it’s important to do your research and be prepared first.
‘Think about where you are going to have the conversation and how you are going to broach the topic,’ he says. ‘Tell the person you are worried about them and explain what you have observed. They may not be receptive at first, but that is okay – just like Lizelle did, you can always try again.’
As a GP, he says he has seen that helping someone with alcohol problems requires a lot of patience from family and friends. ‘It’s a bit of marathon rather than a sprint, and you can expect two steps forward and one step back along the way. Many people conquer their dysfunctional relationship with alcohol and regain control of their lives and often they come out more reflective about their mental health, more open about their relationships and go on to help others grappling with similar problems.’