Benn, 43, and Rick, 69, were just teenagers when they discovered alcohol, an addiction that would haunt them decades into the future.
Benn Veenker, 43, first found alcohol 30 years ago; aged 13, he would drink to suppress that little voice in his head – that voice that was both his greatest supporter and worst critic.
Alcohol brought Benn out of his shell. He felt with every drink, he was more sociable and likable. But a seemingly innocuous couple of drinks to survive a dreaded social affair became a harmful dependence on the nation’s most widely used drug.
“I loved alcohol as a young teenager,” Benn said.
“It was the one thing I looked forward to on the weekend.
“It took away my anxiety and gave me a voice.”
Approximately 77% of Australians aged 14 and over consume alcohol. Drinking has become an inherent part of our culture in Australia. Name a social event; alcohol is likely on the guest list.
Growing up, Benn’s family moved around Regional Victoria quite frequently. The continuous pattern of relocating and starting over again at new schools contributed to Benn’s social anxiety and struggles with self-confidence.
However, as Benn entered his late teenage years, the frequency of his drinking increased, and cannabis became part of his story.
“The days I wasn’t drinking, I was smoking a lot of weed,” Benn said. “But the one constant was alcohol; it was more socially acceptable.”
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported alcohol was the only drug where approval of regular use by an adult was higher at 45% than disapproval at 21%.
Rick Ball, 69, also started drinking to muzzle his anxiety. Rick was an artist and part-time teacher in Broken Hill. Most days, he would find himself alone in a studio, struggling to let his creativity shine through the canvas.
“I started using alcohol partly because of a lack of confidence as an artist,” Rick said.
“Alcohol was reliable; it could change my anxiety levels quickly.
“It was an ally.”
Through his 20s, Rick’s drinking did not worry him. He could go days without a drink; the thought of alcohol would not even cross his mind. However, bit by bit, Rick’s addiction crept up on him. By 40, he depended on alcohol to get him through the day.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed one in four Australians over 18 have exceeded the Adult Alcohol Guidelines, which puts them at risk of disease and injury.
In 2022, there were 1,742 alcohol-induced deaths recorded; of these, 1,245 were males and 497 were females.
Benn’s dependence evolved earlier in life than Rick’s did. At age 23, alcohol was a daily feature in Benn’s life, and the consequences of drinking every day started to catch up to him.
Benn lost his license after he received a drink driving charge in 2003. Although this was the first indicator of his dependence, it was not enough for Benn to stop drinking.
“Losing my license was the first sign that alcohol was starting to get on top,” Benn said.
“I couldn’t picture not drinking; it’s the Australian way of life.
“I decided I just needed to be smarter with my drinking.”
In 2021, Australia was named the drunkest country in the world after the Global Drug Survey found Australians spent more time intoxicated than any other nation during 2020. Australian respondents reported getting drunk approximately twice a month.
“I didn’t know anyone who didn’t drink, so not drinking wasn’t an option for me,” Benn said.
Benn knew his drinking was not ‘normal.’ He was conscious of his problem, but as hard as Benn tried, he could not stop drinking.
“I’d say, I’m not going to drink today, and I truly believed that,” Benn said.
“But something would shift throughout the day, and I’d find myself drinking again.
“Then I would wake up in the morning and wonder how I let that happen.”
Rick became aware of his drinking in his early 60s. He knew he had a problem, but he was worried that opening up to his partner would cause her more harm than good.
“I could see that if I spoke to my partner about this, she would panic because of what was associated with drinking issues,” Rick said. “I knew I could not stop drinking without help, but I felt there wasn’t a safe place to open up about it because of the effect it would have on others.”
Rick believed that speaking out about his dependency would cause him greater alienation than he was already experiencing. But he also knew he could not overcome this on his own. He would “talk to the trees,” asking them for guidance.
“It had nothing to do with my willpower; my will would not affect the outcome other than to delay my drinking by half an hour,” Rick said. “It was like hunger or thirst.”
Rick began hiding his drinking, lying to his partner about whether he had a drink at the art studio or visited the bottle shop on his way home.
“My drinking was not in my control,” he said.
“I was lying to myself and others about this as a problem. I didn’t like who I was becoming – the lying part in particular.”
Benn, too, concealed his drinking and drug use, hiding the evidence from his friends and family.
Despite his closest friends offering help and support, Benn would not admit to them he had a problem.
“As far as I was concerned, I was just a heavy drinker; if you don’t like it, you can leave,” Benn said.
“People in my life would ask, are you okay with your drinking? But I would brush them off.
“If people pushed too much, I would just remove myself.”
Benn’s guilt and shame about his alcohol use made him feel he could not ask for help, even from those who loved him most.
Research by BMC Health Services found alcohol use disorders are among the most highly stigmatized medical conditions in the Western world. Individuals struggling with alcohol dependence are viewed as responsible for their disorder and elicit more social rejection and negative emotions.
Benn’s reliance on alcohol and drugs meant he could not maintain relationships. His loneliness and isolation fed into a negative mindset that led Benn to have suicidal thoughts.
“I didn’t know how to live life or cope without drugs or alcohol,” Benn said.
“I felt useless, and I hated that I wanted to die.
“I was working jobs I didn’t enjoy purely for the paycheque, but I couldn’t even make a paycheque last.”
After years of battling a vicious cycle of depression, loneliness and substance abuse, Benn, at age 33, called his parents and asked them for help.
“It wasn’t a light bulb moment or a flash of light from the sky,” Benn said.
“All I knew was that I didn’t want to walk back into my house and do what I did.”
Benn’s parents travelled to see him, taking him to a doctor to get a referral to a counsellor.
“My parents were the only people I knew that would help me,” Benn said. “I think they knew I had a problem with alcohol, but they didn’t know the extent I was drinking.”
Rick, on the other hand, did have a moment of enlightenment.
“I was driving home from the studio, and I had been drinking – like I did every day,” Rick said. “I was involved in a three-car accident, which I strangely enough didn’t even cause.”
Rick was subject to mandatory breath testing and lost his license on the spot.
“I saw this young police officer walking up to me in the evening sunshine, and I thought, this is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for,” Rick said. “I was relieved.”
From that day on, Rick stopped drinking – cold turkey. He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly, and now, he even looks forward to them.
“The meetings open up conversations that are impossible to have elsewhere,” Rick said. “There is a level of honesty and openness required under the AA recovery program that is unlike anything else.”
Benn, however, entered a 28-day rehabilitation program. He, too, has not drunk alcohol since starting recovery.
“It was a scary experience before going to rehab, but it was one of the best things I ever did,” Benn said. “It allowed me to escape from life and look at the underlying issues.”
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that in 2021-22, 42% of rehab treatment episodes focused on alcohol abuse – an increase from 37% in 2020–21.
Today, Benn and Rick are ten and five years sober, respectively.
“I haven’t touched a drop since… and happily, very happily,” Rick said.
“You can have a happy, fulfilling, successful life without drinking,” Benn said.
If this story has raised any issues for you please call:
Alcohol and Other Drugs Information Service 1800 250 015
Family Drug Support 1300 368 186
Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636