My husband and I were sick of the drinking culture that had dominated our lives growing up in Ireland. The late nights at the pub, the mood-altering hangovers the next morning and the resulting lack of motivation to forge ahead with our pledged exercise regime had finally taken their toll. I spent most of my days feeling anxious, as though I was cheating myself. And then we discovered Australia.
On a holiday trip to Sydney in 2003, we instantly fell in love with the lifestyle of supping crisp white wines in the glorious sunshine intermingled with having good laughs at the barbecue. Socialising with jovial characters while enjoying a sundowner (or three), and still getting up the next morning, full of the joys of summer, to go for a run along the stunning beaches was a lifestyle to treasure.
We both felt the allure of this fabulous balance of partying and performing. It made our decision easy, when the time came, to pack up and move to Perth, in Western Australia.
Our new life down under began on a bittersweet note. With no family or friends to welcome us to the most isolated city in the world, we had to be everything to our two kids, who were three and five at the time.
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My husband, starting his new job right away, got thrown in at the deep end: he had to work offshore on an oil rig. After finding a place to live in a leafy suburb, life got busy very quickly. Alfie started school and I took Matilda to dance classes and swimming lessons.
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Over time I got to know other mums at the school; they invited me to join playdates in a nearby park. And there was always wine. I liked that. Drinking wine took the edge off the feelings of isolation that often crept over me.
Suburban Aussie life revolves around the barbecue, and eventually I settled into gulping white wine with the ladies in the back yard while the blokes flipped the burgers to the rhythm of clinking beer bottles. My capacity for alcohol grew in volume as quickly as my kids grew in height. Before I knew it I was drinking a bottle of wine at least four nights a week, and it was easy to finish a second bottle with the ladies.
By now I was in my 40s, perimenopausal and depressed. I woke up one day to the stark realisation that I had gone from the unhealthy frying pan of Irish drinking culture to the burning fire of an Aussie grog-fuelled lifestyle.
My motivation for fitness was confined to trying desperately to compensate for the toxic effects of booze rather than fulfilling my dreams to complete an Ironman. My aspirations to live a mentally healthier life had faded into oblivion. Until that morning when I sat alone, crying. That morning when I looked at my haggard reflection in the mirror and saw that my eyes, which had once sparkled with vitality, were now starved of life. I asked my reflection this: Are you depressed because you’re drinking too much or are you drinking too much because you’re depressed?
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There was only one way to find out. I had to stop drinking. I knew moderation wasn’t going to work, as I had crossed a line where I was no longer enjoying one or two drinks. I was abusing alcohol.
That was three years ago. And since then I have found the answer. Based on what I’ve experienced in sobriety, I was depressed because I was drinking too much. Of course, I also learned that I was using alcohol to self-medicate for underlying anxiety that I’d grappled with from a young age. I realised that although it was so much easier to douse my feelings with numbing alcohol, I always woke up the next day feeling more anxious.
I replaced my drinking with professional counselling and faced my mental-health challenges head on. This had an incredible impact on the whole family.
But although my inner life changed for the better, my outer life took a hit. I quickly found myself friendless. Turns out that people don’t like being around sober people if they are themselves heavy drinkers; it makes them feel uncomfortable. So I’ve had to find new friends. And that’s okay. Life is a series of phases, and we learn to relinquish the things that no longer serve us as we go through to the next phase.
I love forming new friendships that are founded on shared interests such as singing in a choir, devouring books in a book club, training for and completing triathlons, cycling through the Aussie bush, studying to become a counsellor, or just walking in nature. It is better than simply gulping down wine and watching each other get hammered.
Gill Kenny, who is studying to become a counsellor, writes about sober living on her website
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