Author Lotta Dann is ‘feeling nervous—there are going to be tears’. It’s the type of emotion she is still learning to sit with, after seven years of sobriety …
Lotta is discussing her new project, a book about Kiwi women and their relationship with alcohol. ‘But I also feel brave,’ she adds. ‘Because I’m sick of our disconnect between how alcohol is presented to us, and the reality that I’m hearing every day. A lot of women are really struggling, and it’s often hidden. You can present as if you’re really, absolutely, holding your life together—but you can be holding your life together and be miserable. I’m hearing that a lot.’
Lotta knows this as well as anyone. A successful journalist, her two previous books chronicled her own journey from high-functioning alcoholic to sobriety. But this latest book is her first venture into exploring alcohol as the Kiwi drug of choice. ‘It’s a cultural denial that it’s actually a drug. It’s addictive, and it causes harm in the community.
‘The denial is so deep that even a whole bunch of lovely people who are really interested in wellness, will do something like run a women’s empowerment retreat—and in the goodie bag will be a bottle of wine. Or they’ll put on a run, and it will end at the winery.’
In researching her book, Lotta put a call out on Facebook for women who are still struggling: ‘I wanted stories of women who are still struggling with their drinking, and I received over 50 private messages from women saying, “I’ll talk to you, I want to share”.’
Lotta is typical of many of these women. She says alcohol was just a part of her life growing up, and she had her first drink at 15: ‘The moment I touched it, I loved it. I loved the sensation in my body.
‘Plus, tricky things were starting to happen with my parents’ marriage and I could escape it all. I was a teenager—and alcohol meant I could be the fun-loving girl that I wanted to be, and not what I now know that I am, which is actually quite sensitive.’
Over the next couple of decades, this became her persona: a journalist, mum of three, in a loving relationship with husband Corin Dann (host of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report) and always the life of the party—even if she got a bit too drunk at the neighbourhood barbeque.
‘That was what characterised my drinking, I really was just trying to be “upbeat Lotta” all the time. I was a fun-time party girl,’ she says. ‘I had no idea how little I knew myself, you know. Denial really is bliss—I was blissfully in denial about who I really was.’
But, Lotta’s drinking was getting worse and worse. It got to the point where she was having a couple of bottles of wine a night—often hiding the extent of her drinking. She began engaging in dangerous behaviours, like driving to pick up more wine when she had already been drinking.
‘It was a constant conflict because there was the part of me that kept saying, “This is normal, everyone does it”. Then, there was the other voice in my head saying, “Is this really fine? You don’t feel good. You said you were only going to have the glass and you had the bottle—again”.’
During her last three years of drinking, Lotta tried strategy after strategy to moderate, ‘anything but stop altogether. Meanwhile, my drinking was speeding up, quickly.’
She vividly remembers the night she had her last drink. Corin had taken the boys to Scouts. After he left, Lotta ‘raced out to the bottle shop because I was having this really intense craving, just like a wall of words. As soon as you make the decision to drink you have this sweet relief.
‘I bought two bottles and drank one of them in the hour before he got home, then made the decision to hide the empty bottle, something I had never done before.’
Knowing she had engaged in ‘a new dysfunctional behaviour’ when she was desperately trying to moderate, became Lotta’s personal rock bottom. Crying on the toilet at three in the morning, Lotta had a revelation: ‘I realised the problem wasn’t me, the problem was alcohol. That gave me just enough detachment to find the strength to say, “OK, I’m going to remove it from my life”.’
But even Lotta couldn’t have guessed what would happen next.
On her first day of sobriety, Lotta wrote herself a letter. She loved the idea and decided to continue the practice every day. Setting up a blog template to make writing the letters easier, Lotta called it ‘Mrs D. Is Going Without’. It never occurred to her that others might be interested in reading it.
But she began making her first tentative steps towards connecting with others living in sobriety. ‘I found this other blog, and I was so nervous, but I left a comment saying, “I’m on day three”.’
To her surprise, the blogger responded. The online community became a haven for Lotta. ‘I would comment on them, and they would comment on me. It was like a spiderweb, it grew and grew and grew, until I had thousands of readers.
‘That’s when I started realising there were literally thousands of people like me: online, anonymous, high-functioning, looking really fine, but miserable and alcoholic.’
After three years of sobriety, Lotta felt she wanted to help others with similar stories to her. She published her first book, Mrs D. Is Going Without, chronicling her own journey. It was the first time she had put her real name to the popular blog—but she felt that she had discovered a new calling.
Lotta admits that in the early years there was a level of ‘white knuckling’ before she began to learn new strategies for dealing with life. This became the subject of her next book, Mrs D. Is Going Within.
Today, her daily practices include gratitude—every night she and her sons share the ‘three things’ they are grateful for that day.
Living sober is something Lotta says she is still learning. ‘I used to hate being sad,’ she says. ‘I still do.’
After five years of being sober, she was talking to a girlfriend about her parents’ divorce—over 25 years earlier, ‘I just started sobbing. It completely took over my whole body, it came from my gut and was really powerful. I sobbed with her, and then the next day—and ever since—I felt more resolved about it.’
When I suggest this was a deeply spiritual experience, Lotta recalls a memory from one of the women she interviewed for her new book: ‘She was a bad drinker who’d grown up with a bad-drinking mother. Really for her, that moment on the bathroom floor, it was God that came to her. She started going to church and she now absolutely sees it as a spiritual experience.’
One of the profound outcomes of being sober, reflects Lotta, is being able to really experience the highs and lows of life. ‘When I look back at the things that I’ve been through since I’ve been sober that were hard, I was able to express how I was feeling and now I feel more resolved about those things. That is why it’s so great to live this way—but it’s hard at the time.’
Just this year, the family have been through a season of intense grief, having suddenly lost Corin’s mum to cancer. ‘I now can acknowledge it’s normal to be sad when you lose someone you love. And I now know, after being sober for seven years, that the intensity will pass. I find comfort in knowing it’s universal, you’re not alone—other people have gone through the same thing.’
For those who are just coming to the end of Dry July, Lotta encourages them to keep going—it’s only after experiencing the breadth of life with all its joys and challenges, that the true benefits of sobriety shine through.
She has also learned that it’s not alcohol that makes you the ‘life of the party’—it’s being comfortable in your own skin. ‘The last wedding I went to, I was the one dancing all night. There were people crying, locked in the loo … and I thought, who’s actually having fun here?’
Lotta also knows that for many ‘grey area’ drinkers, alcohol is just too ingrained in our culture. ‘One woman I interviewed was utterly miserable, waking up not knowing what happened at the end of the night because she blacked out. But one of the big reasons they’re not stopping is the feeling of rejection—because their friends won’t invite them out when they’re not drinking. It’s sad and lonely. And not everyone is strong enough to do that, so they keep drinking.’
Yet, ultimately, Lotta is full of hope. She believes Kiwi society is slowly shifting away from our binge-drinking culture. Her work includes managing and writing a government-funded website called ‘Living Sober’—an online community for thousands of people wanting to learn to do just that.
‘I’ve essentially been writing about the same thing for the past seven years, and it’s a rich subject matter,’ she says. ‘It’s wonderful, it’s really working. It’s amazing how something so negative in my life has turned around and has now become my purpose.’
by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 27 July 2019 p 14-16. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.