From wine and hangovers to yoga and carbs, sobriety has been a rollercoaster for former “boozy housewife” Mrs D, aka Lotta Dann. She tells Paulette Crowley why putting down the bottle was just the beginning of trying to figure out how to live life sober, and her next project: explaining why she’d like alcohol taken off supermarket shelves.
Saying goodbye to her beloved wine nearly six years ago was the dawning of a new era for Lotta Dann – an author and mum of three from Wellington – one that is free from the relentless preoccupation of whether or not to have a drink.
Her sober blog, Mrs D is Going Without, was so successful it led to her penning a bestselling book by the same name and running the government-funded Living Sober website, which attracts 80,000 hits a month from Kiwis battling the booze. All of this, plus Dann’s down-to-earth humour and ability to relate to other “high-functioning” problem drinkers, has seen her become the Kiwi face of the sobriety wellness trend.
The first few years sans vino were fuelled by the honeymoon of her new sobriety, known in recovery circles as a “pink cloud”. For many recovering alcoholics, the end of this period can signal a relapse, but not for Dann.
“After being sober for three years, sober got ordinary,” she says. “At first, I had real pride that my sobriety carried me through everything – like, hey that hurt, but I didn’t drink. Yay me. But then that became normal because, of course, I didn’t drink over that problem: I just don’t drink.”
With anxiety sniffing at her heels, life’s “hard stuff” just kept on coming, and Dann realised she had limited tools to deal with it. Her concept of sober treats, including self-care techniques such as bubble baths, scented candles and generally “being your own best friend”, weren’t enough.
“The other tool I had was my [Living Sober] community and that’s great, but only to a point.
My sober treats were getting very sugary and way over the top.”
The death of her stepfather – “it was awful, really horrible grief” – was pivotal in Dann realising she had to change tack to stay sober. “I didn’t handle it very well and that was when I knew I needed to do some more work.”
Aware that many had found comfort with practices such as mindfulness, gratitude and yoga, Dann was never attracted to them herself.
“Monks on mountain tops and all of that,” she laughs. “But I just had to go deeper, so I climbed into it – it was my new project.”
SOBER LIFE UNDER CONSTRUCTION
This is the part of the story where Dann might start gushing about how sun salutations, writing gratitude lists at sunrise and appreciating every waking moment with childlike wonder has turned her existence around. Except it’s not. This is real life, and the 45-year-old former journalist, married to TVNZ’s political editor Corin Dann, is not one to embroider the truth.
“They’re tools: mindfulness, gratitude and yoga. I use them but they’re not the dominant things in my life, yet.”
The dominant things, which can include cupcakes, are detailed in Dann’s newest book, Mrs D is Going Within, another popular seller, although she says success from it has been hard-won.
“It was hard to put out. I really exposed myself emotionally and to be honest, I didn’t handle it very well. I felt vulnerable and I reached for my main coping tool, which is still, unfortunately, food. Yesterday it was ciabatta rolls warmed in the oven, slathered in butter and jam.”
But hey, perspective? Scoffing a few carbs hardly seems to be a problem compared to the days of necking wine and dealing with hangovers that left Dann feeling like she’d been run over by a truck.
It’s not terrible, she agrees. “But it’s not healthy. I’ve gained a bit of weight, so I joined the gym two weeks ago and I’m just getting myself back together again.”
Surely the trick would be to channel her addictive tendencies in a positive way?
“There’s always those people you see who nail sugar and alcohol at the same time, and they eat paleo,” she says. “Some people get sober and run bloody marathons. Wouldn’t that be great? I just have to try not to compare myself with others. I’m a work in progress, not a problem to be solved.
“As long as I’m always trying to head in the right direction, I’m OK with that.”
Life without booze is loud and jarring and it’s only natural we want to take the edge off, Dann says.
“It’s really hard being a human. Life is a bit hard and things happen, it hurts. It’s a natural instinct to want to move away or escape from those things. Horrible emotions aren’t fun.”
But returning to drinking is no longer an option after having had her eyes opened to the fallacy that booze enhanced her life.
“I look back on it and can see it was crazy. I’m not even slightly on the brink of wanting to go back to that… I genuinely feel so delighted to get out of it.”
Despite the struggles of abstinence, Dann is still a strong cheerleader for the sobriety movement.
There’s a sense she is still slightly surprised to be an advocate for sober living, yet her pragmatism is pushing her to use the spotlight not only to inspire other problem drinkers to dry out, but to reduce New Zealand’s tolerance of alcohol.
Just one small thing – she’d like to see booze out of supermarkets, the topic of her talk at the conference Alcohol, Health and Choice in Wellington on August 2. Presenting to health professionals and others interested in reducing the harms of alcohol, Dann will outline why having booze in your face while you shop is too much of a temptation for those trying to get sober.
“I’ve always said if I could do one thing I’d take it [alcohol] out of the supermarkets,” she says. “I want to articulate for people like me why it is such a problem. We are wrestling and working so hard to turn our lives around, digging deeper than we’ve ever done before for the good of our lives, and our children and our families. And having it in our faces in that place of easy shopping is a real challenge.”
Placing booze by the bread also shows how society readily accepts alcohol as an ordinary commodity. “It’s not, for us,” she says simply.
“To people who aren’t like us, they just don’t understand. From the minute we enter those electric doors, we are having this fierce internal battle that dominates our entire experience, up and down every aisle – you can’t hear that and you can’t see it on our faces.”
Though passionate on the subject, Dann is resolute that she’s no temperance advocate or lobbyist.
“I will only ever talk to people about my experience,” she says. “There are plenty of clever experts working hard to make change.”
She is up for continuing her role at Living Sober, which incidentally has just had half of its budget cut by one of its funders, the Health Promotion Agency.
“It’s heartbreaking. I don’t know where it’s going to go and how long it’s going to last, and whether I can keep it going, but for now it’s great and I don’t know what I’d be doing without it.
“In a way I’m grateful for the alcohol problem and the recovery because it’s made me almost like a kid again. If I’d been sober all of my life I don’t know if I’d feel so alive now. This is the ultimate challenge, man, and I’m up for it.”
Lotta Dann will speak at an Alcohol Action conference for health professionals in Wellington on Wednesday August 2.
This article was originally published in Your Weekend on July 22, 2017