By regular contributor Brooke Martin
When you think about drugs and alcohol in mining, it's the workers who generally come to mind. This month I'm tackling the issue from another angle, to ask how drugs and alcohol affect mining wives and partners. As you'll see below, everybody has a story to tell or an opinion to share!
Sarah* has been married for 10 years and has three children aged eight, seven and five. She says she could "write the book" on the crazy things she has seen in the past 10 years with regard to drugs and alcohol among mining wives. She says living in very isolated places - to allow your husband to go to work at the mine everyday and come home every night - has its pros and cons. "I personally have had a problem with marijuana and alcohol as a coping mechanism due to lack of support from my husband where the kids are concerned, and there’s also an added stress of only having a limited number of people around you to lean on," she says.
Rosters and workload strain put a huge stress on families and this can lead to a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol as an escape. That’s understandable, but in Sarah's case was it directly related to physical isolation? "I feel that I turned to alcohol more so when my husband started doing DIDO, definitely! Isolation is a factor," she says.
Claire, whose hubby has worked in mining for 20 years and often in very isolated areas, says in her previous FIFO life she'd gather with other mining wives around 3pm or 4pm and drink until late. Her husband now does a DIDO roster of four days on, three days off. "I think mums have stressful days in general, but when your husband is gone for most of the week, us mums need a drink to relax and get us through full-on days." Although she's had a full-time nanny and maid to help with her two kids since they were born, Claire admits that alcohol was and still is her coping mechanism. But she doesn’t see it as a problem. "From what I’ve experienced, there seems to be a culture of drinking among mining wives living the expat lifestyle, especially in warm weather climates. Certainly from what I’ve seen anyway."
So why this culture? And do all expat mining wives feel the same way?
Mining wife Vanessa is more than keen to offer up her opinion: "I don’t feel that there’s any excuse for using drugs, let alone drinking excessively when you have kids at home while your husband is away at the mine providing for the family." Vanessa, who's been involved in the mining industry her entire life, says her first and only priority is her children. "Why would you want to dabble in drugs and alcohol if you’re happy in your marriage or relationship, and especially if you have kids?" She says most mining wives don’t have financial worries or need to work because mining pays so well, therefore there are options to do something more productive with their time such as study, gym, getting involved in community or charity work, making friends outside mining or even getting a hobby. When it comes to expat mining wives, she has an even stronger viewpoint: "Most of them have maids or nannies or both from what I’ve seen, so what’s the excuse for those women who aren’t doing something productive with their days, other than knock off a few bottles of wine?"
Lisa from Perth often shares a few wines with her FIFO husband on his first night back from shift. "Mining rosters are tough – my husband does FIFO two weeks on, one week off and it’s hard to connect sometimes when he’s been away for a fortnight." But she says she's too busy with school, after-school activities and generally just looking after the kids to even think about having a glass of wine for herself when he's away.
Sharon lives in a gold mining town in WA and her hubby comes home from the mine every night. "I have a close group of girlfriends – some are also miner wives but I also have friends that I met through my kids' school and gym. Every now and then we’ll have a girl’s night out, maybe dinner and a movie followed by a few drinks at a local pub, but that’s about the extent of my drinking!" She believes it’s necessary for all mums to have some time out, but doesn’t view her life as a mining wife any differently to her other friends.
This is only a small poll of people, of course, but it does seem to suggest that drugs and alcohol are less of an issue among mining wives and partners who live residentially, with the miner coming home each night to eat dinner with the family, help bathe the kids and put them to bed. But what's the situation among couples with no kids? Does that alleviate the need for a 'coping mechanism' like alcohol, too?
Stacey, who's been with her FIFO miner boyfriend for a couple of years, says she basically lived a separate life when he was away. Initially, she'd go out drinking with friends once a week and take ecstasy once in a while, but eventually this led to more nights of dancing and flirting with random guys. "I think I lost that special connection with my boyfriend because of his roster, as in not physically being home with me every night." She found herself lying to her boyfriend about how often she was going out.
It can be difficult to maintain a tight relationship with a partner who works away, even without kids to pile on the stress. For some women, it's like being attached, and single, at the same time.
Heidi is married without children. She's been with her hubby for seven years, travelling around the world for his job, and she’s seen a lot of tragic stories. "We don’t have kids and I suppose that means we don’t have the additional stresses of those who do. But even so, my hubby does DIDO and I don’t see him all week, we’re a strong couple and I have never felt that I need to turn to drugs or alcohol while he’s away at work," she says. She doesn’t want to live a separate life from her husband, but at the same time needs to keep busy while he’s away. Heidi says she’s seen many mining marriages go down the drain, and it usually starts with the wife not being able to deal with her husband’s absence ... which can lead to drugs and alcohol, then an affair and total disarray in the family unit.
The women interviewed for this story are all living in different countries; they're different ages and have different living arrangements and relationships. Clearly, this is a very personal and divisive topic. Yes, we all have husbands/boyfriends who work in mining. Yes, it’s tough ... it sucks that they're often away from home for long stretches of time. And yes, drugs and alcohol seem to be the 'go-to' for some. But at the end of the day, at the risk of sounding too cliché, can we really understand what another person is going through unless we walk a mile in their shoes?
* The women interviewed for this article are very much real, but we've changed their names to ensure anonymity.
If you think there's a chance you drink too much, check out the expert advice from our resident psychologist Angie Willcocks. And click here for MiningFM co-founder Lainie Anderson's column "I don't have a problem with alcohol, I just have a problem avoiding it."