The big dry: Talitha Cummins shares her journey to sobriety
Every few days former newsreader Talitha Cummins will get a message from someone telling her she is the reason they stopped drinking.
She gets a buzz out of every one - more vindication that her decision to go public with her alcoholism was the right thing to do.
"There was a huge reaction,” she says of her life-baring appearance on the ABC's Australian Story almost two years ago.
"It's wonderful that people feel like they can confide in me, to be in a position to help people now.”
It was a big decision to tell her story on a national stage, one she still had lingering doubts about even after she told it. Arguably it didn't exactly propel her career. Talitha is no longer working in television, her position being "renegotiated” while she was on maternity leave.
Talitha accepted she would never work in the industry again when she decided to take legal action against her old employer the Seven Network last year.
As it turns out, a lot of things change when you give up alcohol.
"I know I wouldn't have the life I have now if I was still drinking,” Talitha says.
Talitha, 38, is mother to two-year-old son Oliver with a baby due Christmas Day. She runs her own media training and consultancy business, is a passionate speaker and advocate on mental health issues and an ambassador creating awareness about alcohol dependence.
The former Gold Coast girl looks glowing and accomplished, not that she didn't when she was drinking. And that was one of the issues in accepting her relationship with alcohol was a problem.
"I was the modern face of alcoholism,” she says. "A high-functioning, outwardly successful woman.
"But I was in denial too. I thought alcoholics were the old men slumped in parks with bottles in paper bags. I didn't relate to it.”
As a child, Talitha had always struggled with shyness.
She had her first drink as a 14-year-old in a park before a school social and enjoyed the confidence it gave her.
It became her crutch as her television career progressed. She was the polished, confident media professional by day using alcohol to help her unwind at night.
By her early 30s, Talitha's media career was blossoming. She was working as a reporter for Seven News in Sydney, regularly presenting its morning and afternoon bulletins, but the rest of her life was out of control.
"At my worst, I was drinking four bottles of wine a night,” Talitha says.
"I don't have any problems talking about it at all now. I'm not embarrassed by it. It's all out there. I've told therapists, I've spoken at AA. I've said it all out loud.”
She tells of her "shame spiral”, the list of embarrassing things she did in her darkest days.
"The incidents just kept mounting up. When I was drinking, I couldn't stop. I would drink until the pass-out stage. I woke up on the pavement near my house one morning.”
Friends had tried unsuccessfully to talk to her about her drinking but the moment of realisation came from her boss in the Channel 7 newsroom.
"He tapped me on the shoulder and said 'You're not OK, are you?',” Talitha says. "They'd known it for a long time.
"But it didn't compute for me - not drinking. It wasn't in the realm of possibilities. I went to AA that night.”
Through Alcoholics Anonymous, Talitha learned to accept she had a problem. Along the way, she realised she had been using alcohol as self-medication for mental illness, in her case depression. It opened up a whole gamut of issues she was forced to confront.
"For the first couple of years, I didn't know who I was,” she says.
"When I wasn't self-medicating, I was left with feelings in raw form. It was hard.”
AA spurred Talitha through her multipronged treatment that included psychologists, exercise and meditation to help with her depression.
"Obviously, my social life was tipped on its head,” she says.
But there were immediate benefits too.
"I lost about five kilos straight up, even though I'd never really had a weight problem,” Talitha says. "There was just more clarity with everything: my thoughts, my outlook, my skin.”
Perhaps a turning point in her recovery was an entry she posted in 2013 on the Hello Sunday Morning blog, a support website for people looking to change their relationship with alcohol. It inadvertently posted to her public Facebook profile as well, sparking an explosion of public support and gratitude.
She hadn't planned it that way but, in retrospect, it was a milestone.
"So many people said 'Thank you'. It really resonated and I thought 'I can't take this down now',” she says.
About 800 people signed up to the Hello Sunday Morning community almost instantly. Talitha is now an ambassador for the Sydney-based not-for-profit group, the biggest online alcohol support community in the world.
"It's a place where you can talk about not drinking,” she says. "It gives you a community of people who're facing the issues you're facing.
"You can blog alongside other people just like you. You feel like you're not alone.”
Indeed, Talitha was not alone in her journey. Three months into her sobriety, she met her now husband Ben Lucas, a fitness industry professional, who has been her rock. Ben also gave up drinking to support Talitha on her new path. She has been sober for almost six years.
Whether she planned it that way or not, Talitha now speaks extensively on mental health and alcohol issues. She lends her support to charities and offers encouragement to those who contact her to talk about their own relationships with alcohol.
"Dry July, Ocsober, any of those things that make you think about the role that alcohol plays in your life is a good thing, even if you don't want to quit drinking,” she says.
"Having a few drinks might feel like the way to relax but it's false relaxation. If you have a tendency or trouble with alcohol, the amount can start to creep up and you lose perspective.”
Talitha has come a long way but she knows she still has a long way to go. Sobriety is something she will have to work on for the rest of her life.
"Life is manageable now,” she says. "Before I was all over the place, I was unhappy.
"Now I am myself. I feel free to be myself. Life is just so much easier.”
Dry July, what now?
Former radio personality Maz Compton gave up the booze for one month and felt so transformed, she hasn't had a drink for three and a half years.
"My drinking wasn't unmanageable and I wasn't at rock bottom but I was uncomfortable with what I was drinking and didn't know how to stop,” she says.
Maz's role as half of the Dan & Maz Show, broadcast nationally on Southern Cross Austereo's Hit Network, required her to be "on” all the time and regularly socialising out of hours as part of her job.
"I suppose, like a lot of people, there's the pressure to live high performance lives,” Maz says. "You feel you have to succeed, to have a career and a family. I started to drink to cope with it.”
Maz says the crutch of a new year's resolution or a charity initiative such as Feb Fast, Dry July or Ocsober can give "uncomfortable” drinkers an identifiable reason to abstain, providing them with a socially-acceptable refuge.
"I thought I could start with a month, a month is doable,” Maz says. "So I stopped on January 1, 2015. I'd done Dry July in the past and this time, I saw such a significant change just in my personal care and self-love and my whole view of the world.”
The month without alcohol extended, but not without the pressures that would inevitably bring.
"Stopping drinking wasn't difficult,” Maz says. "It was telling people.
"I've been yelled at by grown men. I've been told I was boring, no fun, lame.”
Maz has now self-published a book about her relationship with alcohol. The Social Rebellion also comes with her 31-day blueprint to help people break free from what she calls the alcohol-guilt cycle.
"It's the book I wish I had when I was faced with that challenge,” Maz says.
Like many people who give up alcohol, Maz found the rest of her life changed as well.
She now owns two branches of the F45 gym chain and is an author, blogger and speaker on wellness.
"My hope is that people will look at my story and feel like they can do it too,” Maz says.