Lisa Greenberg, wife of ex NRL CEO, says alcohol addiction almost ‘cost everything’

Lisa Greenberg’s addiction to alcohol was so powerful that she ultimately shamed herself into hiding it from the people she loved most – the family she says she would have “pushed in front of a car” for another drink. But a chance meeting gave her the hope and courage to pull herself away from its grip, and now she’s sharing her story with Body+Soul so others in the same struggle may be inspired to begin their own recovery.

A megawatt smile, guns of steel, adoring family and a waterfront home boasting a closet filled with designer clothes. At 51, Lisa Greenberg is in the prime of her life. And she knows it.

Every day, as soon as she wakes up, the fitness consultant and wife of former NRL CEO (and from February 15, the chief executive of the Australian Cricketers’ Association) Todd Greenberg takes a minute to give thanks for what she has – because she knows how close she came to losing it all.

Two-and-a-half years ago, she finally admitted and surrendered to the fact she had an addiction to alcohol. Had she not eventually chosen to ask for the help she needed, Greenberg says, she believes she would not be alive to tell Body+Soul her story.

“I was broken. Defeated. Suicidal. I just thought I didn’t deserve to be on this planet,” Greenberg says, as she begins to share her story for the first time. “My family had moved out. They had given me an ultimatum: if I continued to drink, they would leave. I was sleeping on the floor. I didn’t think I deserved a bed. Everything I strived so hard to achieve was no longer in my life, and I couldn’t fix me.”

She had reached rock bottom. But getting there did not happen overnight. Education, hindsight and the work of lecturer and podcaster Brené Brown have taught Greenberg that while her genetics loaded the gun, the environment pulled the trigger on her addiction. As someone with low self-esteem, drinking became a way for her to maintain a fun, party-girl image.

But then the drinking became less social and when, in 2016, she sold her boutique fitness business of two decades to spend more time with Todd – who had just been appointed NRL CEO – her addiction picked up speed. Soon she found herself hiding the evidence of her habit – two bottles of wine a day, often poured into coffee cups.

“Whether it was Todd’s star rising and mine falling, in my own mind, I just needed more and more alcohol to function,” Greenberg explains. “I was in full-blown addiction. What was heartbreaking for me is that if there had been a bottle of wine in the middle of the road and I had to push my family in front of a car to get it, I would have.”

But she was scared to admit she had a problem, operating under the belief that “alcoholics” were those people you found passed out on a park bench. They weren’t supposed to look like the person in the mirror. Still, she gave sobriety a go. Every day for 18 months, she would wake up with the intention to avoid drinking wine. By afternoon, though, she would be drunk and passed out.

“I thought, how embarrassing for my family that I have an alcohol problem,” says Greenberg, who has a degree in sports science. “I was supposed to be the epitome of health and fitness, but I had this whole secret life. And then [I would] go out to functions and be Mrs Todd Greenberg… I would just drink more and more because then I believed that alcohol was the magic potion that was going to fix me.”

Finally, on the last day of June 2018, Greenberg made a decision driven by desperation. Even as she made her way to a recovery meeting, “I made a plan to end my life on the way home,” she reveals. “Because I’d done rehab before and it hadn’t worked.”

But at that meeting she struck up a conversation with a glamorous woman who helped her understand that it is not a lack of willpower that leads to addiction. Instead, it is a serious health condition that is recognised by the World Health Organization as a disease – one that doesn’t discriminate.

“She offered me hope,” Greenberg says. By that afternoon, her parents were driving her to an inpatient rehabilitation facility where she managed to pull herself through. Ever since, she says, she has been “sensationally sober. When I was drinking, I thought sobriety was boring. Society paints that picture. But I’ve realised it’s actually been the best part of my life.”

Which is not to say it’s been easy. “In a perfect world I would say I don’t want a drink, but of course I will always want it,” she admits. “There is no cure. But I choose not to drink. I take things one day at a time.”

Todd tells Body+Soul that as someone who considers himself a fixer, watching his wife struggle with her dependence marked the first time in his professional and personal life that he felt powerless.

“My role [with the NRL] at the time was so all-consuming that I probably didn’t see the early warning signs,” he says. “And how do you really pinpoint your wife losing her self-confidence?” Seeing her come out the other side has inspired him. “It’s never easy for someone to admit some of their own difficulties openly and it’s even more challenging to genuinely do something meaningful to address it,” he says. “My love and respect for her has grown exponentially through this journey. Lisa is my hero.”

As for Greenberg, she is telling her story because she wants to challenge the perceptions that can be associated with alcohol addiction. “My goal is to shine a light on people in recovery and show that addiction isn’t a choice. Recovery is. It’s time to smash the stigma that stops sufferers from seeking help because of their own private shame. Yes, sober dancing may be a bit awkward, but I still have fun.”

If you would like to change your relationship with alcohol, visit hellosundaymorning.org. If you or anyone you know has been having suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

What you need to know about alcohol dependence

Alcohol is the most widely used drug in Australia, causing more than 4000 deaths and 70,000 hospital admissions a year, reveals the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Last December, the NHMRC revised its decade-old drinking guideline for healthy adults, reducing it from a maximum of 14 standard drinks per week to 10.

The head of Addiction Medicine at The University of Sydney, Professor Kate Conigrave, says the term “alcoholic” is not used in the medical profession. Instead, they prefer “alcohol dependent”. “It’s important we talk about these terms objectively, to reduce the stigma,” she tells Body+Soul, adding, “It affects anyone from any walk of life.”

Conigrave says early warning signs of alcohol dependence include if you can drink the same as those around you but “hold it” better, needing alcohol to sleep at night, having a drink even when you don’t want one, and difficulty stopping at one.

One of the biggest myths about dependence, says Conigrave, is that the solution always involves inpatient programs. “I liken it to skin cancer. If you get it early and treat it, it goes away,” she says. “But leave that cancer to grow and it becomes a bigger problem.”