More people are seeking help for alcohol dependence in south-west Victoria this year amid numerous organisations flagging that risky and heavy drinking has been on the rise.
Alcohol has always made up the majority of presentations at Warrnambool's Western Region Drug and Alcohol Centre, along now with cannabis and methamphetamine, but this year drinking became a problem for half of all people seeking help.
Mark Powell, the centre's operations manager, said anecdotal evidence suggested anxiety and depression - particularly stress about employment - had fuelled existing alcohol issues during the coronavirus pandemic.
Wastewater testing for the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare supports the theory, showing a rise in regional alcohol consumption nationally during the 12 months until August 2020.
"People have used alcohol to try and cope," Mr Powell said, adding that he worried the pandemic's length could entrench habits of problematic drinking.
Drinkers often consume alcohol at risky levels for years before reaching out to services, Mr Powell says, and the centre wants people to seek help earlier.
"We have a culture that normalises drinking but it's not until we start to experience some initial harm from that drinking that people seek help," he said.
"There is no one rock bottom."
Warrnambool resident Jonathan Thomas drank a bottle of scotch every day during the worst of a four-year addiction that nearly killed him in 2014.
He agreed there was more than one crisis in his journey to a last drink.
The habit began while living in Ballarat and Hamilton in social environments where excessive drinking was routine and became an escape for him.
"I would get home and walk to the bar and pour myself a scotch, not measured, and use it to start relaxing," Mr Thomas said.
"My body was getting accustomed to it. All it did was dull the issues I was facing."
The issues involved his son - who has autism and presents as not having a disability - suffering ongoing bullying at school amid his condition not being well understood.
"His behaviour was almost blamed on bad parenting. There was a lack of awareness," Mr Thomas said.
A workplace incident added to the stress, which first led Mr Thomas to drink a bottle of scotch each day to escape.
But with the help of a psychologist and medication, he managed to halve that drinking yet the bullying continued to worsen for his son in Hamilton.
A high calorie intake from drinking also increased Mr Thomas' weight to 142 kilos.
Then, he received news he had thyroid cancer and the gland would need removal.
"My body wasn't in a good state when cancer came along," Mr Thomas said.
"Drinking definitely wouldn't have helped but it wasn't the primary cause. It's just unfortunate."
As Mr Thomas kept drinking he sought help from a Hamilton doctor and received medication for a 12-day plan to wean him off alcohol while also continuing cancer treatment.
But the plan only lasted two days before withdrawals led to him mixing the medicine with alcohol. The cocktail of chemicals began to shut down his body.
"A week later I couldn't walk or talk, and I was hospitalised," Mr Thomas said.
"I was admitted on a Monday morning, by Tuesday evening I said goodbye to my wife and two children."
Despite doctors saying Mr Thomas wouldn't leave hospital, he received two weeks of treatment for the addiction and underwent therapy that returned his physical strength and speech.
Without the support of his family and medical team, Mr Thomas said he might not have survived the ordeal.
But he also said being in hospital was where he found the support to first take responsibility for drinking.
"It just came over me. I am the one who is going to change this, no one else, no medicine, no doctor, no nurse," Mr Thomas said.
"I realised they've given us as much help as they can give; this is over to me.
I realised they've given us as much help as they can give; this is over to me.Jonathan Thomas
"I could make that decision only based on having a very supportive network around me."
Despite turning the corner in beating the addiction his drinking returned twice in the following months before he finally gained control.
"People say, 'I know how you feel', but unless you've gone through it you can't know. It's hell, literally, to go through all of it and still come out on top," he said.
"If loved ones just stay there and just respect and love you and say, 'you know what, we'll help you and just offer a smile' - that's what got me through."
Nowadays, Mr Thomas stocks alcoholic drinks at home to serve to friends but has not drank himself in nearly seven years.
He avoided non-alcoholic substitutes for years because they triggered cravings.
With a change of diet and regular exercise Mr Thomas has now lost 60 kilos.
A different circle of friends has also helped him "feel accepted" and "not a misfit" for not drinking, he said.
"It's so empowering to be able to stand tall and be proud to tell people I don't drink. The more people I tell, the more accountable I am," Mr Thomas said.
Data from Victoria University's Mitchell Institute has shown Moyne Shire had one of the highest rates of risky drinking in the state in 2016.
The figures were backed up by council data recorded the year prior.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 27 per cent of people in the Warrnambool district were drinking at a risky level that same year, above the then national average of 25 per cent.
In line with a statewide trend, Ambulance attendances for alcohol and other drugs in Warrnambool has been steadily on the rise between 2014 and 2019, the most recent data public shows.
The biggest increase was in 2019 when there were 490 call-outs in the city.
WRAD's Mr Powell said alcohol had been responsible for 41 per cent of presentations at the centre in January but that had reached 50 per cent in June and was continuing at the same level this month.
He said there was no one reason why people came to use alcohol to cope or became addicted.
"The first port of call is to make that presentation to determine what their needs are," he said.
"Our job is to help people understand the triggers and the causes to find a pathway out of it."
The centre offers counselling, medical management and can be a door to more intense care from other providers.
New funding has also allowed a case worker to attend Terang, Camperdown, Cobden and Mortlake.
"Recovery is very achievable. This isn't a life sentence," Mr Powell said.
Strolling along grassy banks near the Hopkins River this week Mr Thomas, who told his story hoping others would seek help, smiled at the scene on a clear winter day.
"I've had people say, 'he's on drugs to make him feel happy'," Mr Thomas said.
"I take nothing to make me feel happy. I just have a new take on life."
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