For many Australians, 2020 will be remembered as a lost year; one that drove everything to an abrupt and unwelcome standstill. With the new year fast approaching, a collective sigh of relief reverberates.
But for comedy legend Fiona O’Loughlin, 2020 has been a greater gift than she could have ever hoped for. It’s the year she spoke her truth, overcame her darkest demon, and reclaimed her life.
In her recently released memoir, Truths from an Unreliable Witness, O’Loughlin opens up about her lifelong battle with alcoholism; a disease which very nearly killed her on more than one occasion.
Today marks a year of sobriety for O’Loughlin, who says this year has forced a period of necessary reflection. It has shown her how easily she descended into many decades of terrifying, booze-fuelled chaos.
“I can see now I look back, and every time I look back, and I say, ‘oh, oh… so you had a problem even then’” she says.
“when you’re sober, you can see so clearly. And I’d say I never drank normally, ever. But I didn’t know that, and an alcoholic’s experience of what it does to them is completely different to a non-alcoholic.”
O’Loughlin recounts one occasion in which she attended a friend’s home for dinner and was given her first drink in many months following the birth of her fifth daughter. The incident triggered a dangerous realisation.
“I had this drink of champagne, and I remember as it went through me, I was like, ‘oh my god, this is so good’. And I suddenly realised, ‘I can do this anytime I want. I can access this feeling’. Suddenly I realised, dangerously realised, that this doesn’t have to be enjoyed in and around company.”
From then on, she would dedicate herself to solitary binges at home. The temptation of alcohol always presenting as a “solution in disguise, like the devil himself” she tells me. “And the solution is freedom, you know? From your anxieties and your worries—but all it really did was add more.”
For years after, O’Loughlin’s life would spiral out of control. Rehab became regular, but relapses even more so. Outwardly she appeared as vivacious as ever; she was the queen of Australian comedy and few knew her torturous secret.
O’Loughlin doesn’t believe comedy caused her alcoholism but does concede it sped the process up.
“It provided cover, and it definitely fast-tracked it,” she says. “Alcohol is a progressive disease, and it progresses at such a different rate with so many people.”
By 2009, the jig was up. A drunk O’Loughlin collapsed on stage during a gig in Brisbane and shortly after publicly admitted her battle.
Over the next few years, O’Loughlin’s disease would escalate even more severely. During an episode of ABC’s Australian Story, she relived an occasion in which she woke up one night in a bed with a stranger; an incident which spelled the end of her decades-long marriage.
A couple of years on, she intended to take her own life.
Booking into a hotel under a pseudonym, she was thankfully located by her frantic daughter Mary-Anne, who intuitively knew where to find her.
By this time, the flames of O’Loughlin’s previously bright career had all but extinguished. She moved to Adelaide to complete a stint with a ‘healer’ recommended by a friend, and shortly thereafter found herself living with her parents in her old family home. It is this experience that O’Loughlin voices as one of her darkest.
“My darkest hour was that whole period of being homeless,” she says. “But I remember particularly sitting out the back yard of mum and dad’s house—my childhood home—and being penniless without a plan and I just couldn’t see how I could resurrect a life; a normal life that put me in the driver’s seat.”
“Sometimes for alcoholism or indeed any other mental illness, there comes a point where some of us—many of us—can’t go on. We’re out. It’s like a game of poker, and that’s what I felt like. I had no more cards to play. I was out of the game of life. And I just remember a moment of feeling like it. And I remember saying to myself, sitting out the back of mum and dad’s, ‘never forget what this feels like.’”
She contemplated ending her life again at this point, but a louder inner voice propelled her to use it as a catalyst. She strived not to forget the feeling so that she could “draw on it”.
“Even feeling that low becomes a purposeful card to have later,” she says.
O’Loughlin speaks about her family and especially her daughters a lot during our conversation, and it is a memory of them that serves as another critical reminder to stay sober.
She refers to it as the “saddest image” – and it’s the faces of her two daughters.
“I’d blown a weekend to pieces with my alcoholism and they hadn’t got to go formal shopping with me,” she says.
“They were at boarding school in Adelaide and I was down here for a gig. And I got rock drunk and couldn’t move the next day. And these two beautiful teenage girls of mine—15 and 17—had their hearts broken. And I’ll never forget that drive, dropping them back at boarding school in a taxi”.
The image of her younger daughter, Tess, will stay with O’Loughlin for life.
“She was staring out the window with silent tears. And you could tell that ache in her and confusion, wanting to know, ‘why is my mother like this?’ And it’s not just the picture of that, it’s the emotion,” she recalls.
“Not all miracles are pretty, but that is a miracle that I can see, feel and touch what you are capable of; of the harm of the hurt you are capable of.”
It’s also, ultimately, what saved O’Loughlin’s life.
“Because whenever the alcoholic mind of mine has even a pathetic attempt to start chatting to me now, I just pull up that picture and go, ‘fuck off’,” she says. “It’s a moment that I can still feel.”
Reflecting on what is now the first year of sobriety, O’Loughlin says she feels guilty in a sense. “Covid has taken from so many, but for me it was a gift, and I used every inch of it,” she tells me. “I used it as my long service leave.”
For the first time, at the age of 57, she’s looking forward to simple life pleasures: Travel, celebrations, quality time with family and new grandchildren, starting a YouTube channel—things which always seemed fraught or perilous before sobriety.
Mostly she feels grateful for freedom, and the easy ability to now see things through. “It just buoys me beyond belief,” she says.