Bryony Carter has the magic of a woman who has visited the Underworld, and fought her way back to life.
WARNING: This article includes reference to suicide, self-harm and alcohol abuse. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or mental illness, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.
We meet by phone on a Thursday afternoon. I ask after her heart, her hard times, and notice the Melbourne-based model and actor always pauses before she speaks, taking time to search for the words most full with wisdom. I am struck by her thoughtfulness, and so too, her joy — even when we descend into the dark of her past.
“When I was 13 my mum was really ill with mental illness and hospitalised for quite some time,” Bryony begins. “With the instability of my home life and coming into puberty, I really struggled with the uncertainty of life. I guess I was seeking control, and I didn’t know how to cope. I was too ashamed to ask for help and I felt like no one would understand me. I was put on anti-depressants at 13, and then suffered with various eating disorders and gravitated towards abusive relationships. It was just a whole host of things that snowballed, and one way to mask my pain was with alcohol. It went from bad to worse very quickly, and I couldn’t stop.”
At 16, Bryony was drinking until she blacked out — every day.
At 17, she tried to take her life. “I couldn’t see a way out,” she says. “I was exhausted. I didn’t know how to keep going, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. So I took glass to my wrists. I remember as I was dozing off and going unconscious, I said a prayer: ‘If it’s my time, I’m ready to go now.’
“And then I remember waking up in the morning in a pool of blood, and I was confused. I was on the one hand, relieved, and on the other hand, disappointed because I didn’t know how to keep going. Then I heard this voice come into me that said, ‘I’m not done with you yet.’ And I remember responding, ‘Well, if it’s not my time, you have got to give me strength because I cannot do this on my own. I don’t know how to keep going.’”
Day by day, Bryony did keep going — but so did her drinking. And despite many attempts to get sober, it wasn’t until she was 19 that she began to realise how sick she had become, physically and emotionally. “I was just ill, all the time,” she says. “If I tried not to drink I’d be in sweats, I’d have tremors, I’d have migraines and feel nauseas. I had stomach issues and my hair was falling out. I wasn’t able to function without alcohol. But if I had too much alcohol, then I couldn’t function either. I was trying to find this happy medium, but I didn’t. It was the lowest of lows. I was so lost.
“But even then, there was this part of me, this tiny little whisper, that said, just keep fighting. Even when I felt like I had nothing left in the tank, there were these little embers that kept on burning inside of me that helped me put one foot in front of the other.”
One night, at a party, Bryony made a wager with herself. If she could control her drinking during the night, then she could continue to drink in moderation. But if she lost control, she would have to give up alcohol for good — cold turkey. The next morning she woke up with a hangover and knew she had to hold herself accountable if she truly wanted her life to change.
“I marched myself into AA. I continued the journey of getting sober. Some days were so hard. My body was screaming at me. It was so hard to not drink and I didn’t trust myself, I didn’t have control over it. Some days I would just stay at AA until the next meeting started and sit through that one, and the one after. Sometimes I’d be there for up to four meetings a day because I couldn’t be anywhere else and not drink.”
In addition to AA, Bryony says proper nutrition, yoga and meditation, and exploring her own sense of spirituality were some of most transformative ways she supported herself during her recovery. She also remembers hearing a quote: Don’t rob the world of your gifts — by not showing up, someone else misses out. “It really hit home,” she explains, “because I realised it wasn’t just me I was fighting for, it was all the other people I may not ever meet or know how I’ve helped or inspired, but I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else not coming through their own struggles because I was too afraid and too ashamed to ask for help myself.”
What Bryony wishes she could share with her younger self, or any woman beginning the path to sobriety, is that sometimes it gets harder before it gets easier. “And I’d want to hug her,” she adds. “And tell her that her life is precious and worth fighting for.”
At the end of 2019, Bryony celebrated 11 years’ sober. “My life has changed so much in the past decade. Now I consciously choose to surround myself with loving and kind people. I have a small group of friends who are my soul sisters, and they’re just amazing. We have open dialog about anything and everything, and what I treasure so much about our friendships is that it’s a no-judgment zone. We can be completely open and vulnerable, and it’s okay. It’s such a nourishing environment to be in.”
Before we say goodbye, I ask Bryony which affirmation she would choose for her Powerpants. She pauses in her characteristic way, before answering, “Be the light. For me, that means stepping forward and shining a light on my own darkness so that I can illuminate a safe space for other people to do the same.
"Be the light."