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Laura Willoughby: Es gibt nur eine einzige Möglichkeit um zu erfahren, ob du ein Alkoholproblem hast

Club Soda ist eine Bewegung aus Großbritannien, die für „Mindful Drinking“ steht. Im Interview mit mesober.com erklärt Laura Willoughby, die Mitbegründerin der Bewegung, die Bedeutung des Begriffes „mindful drinker“ und erzählt, wie man seinen eigenen Alkoholkonsum reduzieren kann. Das Gespräch hat Tatiana Firsova geführt. Deutsche Übersetzung folgt dem englischen Text.

In your podcast interview with Ruby Warrington you were talking about your career in politics. I find it quite impressive that a person with a political background starts a project like Club Soda UK. Therefore, my first question, how did you come up with the idea to start this project? And how was it for you to switch from a political career to a completely different field?

Well, I was definitely drinking too much, like most people in politics. My career was fuelled by lots of very cheap wine. By that time I already knew where all the help services were, like the council and what the government provided, but I didn’t feel they were right for me to help me change my drinking. I knew my drinking got out of control, because I was in a job that I didn’t enjoy and I was feeling quite low about it. So, I actually set a date just before my birthday to give up drinking and I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the issue. I even went on a one-day-course, which I wouldn’t recommend. This one-day-course made me very angry and I guess as somebody, who has got politics as a background anger is a big motivator for me. I came out of that course thinking ‘there has to be something better than this. Something that’s ethical.’. There are many people in this field, who would promise you to cure you and do all sort of things to help you, but really you need to have built the skills and the tools yourself in order to help you succeed in changing your drinking habits. And so, I left that room seven and a half years ago and I haven’t drunk since, but I decided that there was something missing in our society. Something that felt a bit more like a diet club like Weight Watchers. I wanted that it felt like that but with alcohol – that it was upbeat and all about the positives to change, an online network-community. That it used behaviour-change science and that it gave you the tools you need to do a self-guided journey.

From your point of view as a former politician, is drinking too much solely a problem of politicians or is it a common issue in our European society?

It is a very common problem in all strata of society and I have to say – in hindsight, I am very glad I didn’t get elected to parliament and only was elected to local government, because I think if I had been in the subsidies bar in parliament it would have been the death of me. 

If I understand you correctly the “mindful-drinking lifestyle” is the idea behind Club Soda UK, right?

It is. I don’t feel it’s my job to tell people what to do. Your goal may be to cut down, it may be to stop for a short while or it may be to go alcohol free, but that’s totally up to you. As you may know, there is no point of trying to do something you are not ready for. So many people are often ready for exploring cutting down, before they try going alcohol free. We want to be there for everybody, whatever stage they are at. Also all the tools and techniques you need are virtually the same for cutting down or moderating your drinking. There are just some extra things you need to do if you are moderating. They may seem like very different things, but they are very similar.

And it is really important that people know that changing your drinking isn’t a linear journey. It doesn’t happen that one day you decide to change your drinking and that it will work perfectly after that. It’s a constant exploration of your relationship with alcohol. There are people in Club Soda UK, who go from being alcohol free back to moderating, back to alcohol free and so on. And that’s ok. We are happy with that in Club Soda UK.

photo credits: Claudia Crespo // unsplash

Yesterday, I spoke to a person who is not familiar with the topic at all. She was also thinking, that there are only “alcoholics” – meaning the traditional definition of this word – and people who have a normal relationship with alcohol. But we know that there is a large range of different stages between being a “normal” drinker and identifying as an “alcoholic”.

Yes, alcoholic is an identity, it is not a medical term. You can’t point at somebody and say they are an alcoholic and you are not. It is an identity that has been created. For certain people this term is helpful, who feel they have a disease that they are trying to get rid of.

I don’t feel that I had a disease, I felt like I was an idiot.

And that’s very different. But nevertheless, you don’t have to drink very much for alcohol to impact on your life. It can affect you in so many different ways. Really, it’s about you deciding whether the amount you are drinking is right for you or is it stopping you from doing other things that are really important to you. Do you feel in control? And the truth is most people don’t feel totally in control, because how could you, really? Alcohol stops you from being in control.  And most people know that they drink more than they should. Realizing that you are drinking more than you should is just as important as people who might go to some traditional things like Alcoholics Anonymous and decide that there an alcoholic. 

Now, there is a medical definition, which is a ‘dependent drinker’, because your body can become dependent on alcohol. And actually, at that point it is more dangerous to detox from than heroin and other drugs, because you can die. Medically there are people who are ‘moderate drinkers’, people who are ‘dangerous drinkers’, people who are ‘increasing-risk drinkers’ and then there are ‘dependent drinkers’. Alcoholic doesn’t feature in a medical dictionary as something that you can point to and say ‘yes, you are’. For me that’s quite important, because the thought that I could be accused of being an alcoholic stops many of us exploring our relationship with alcohol, because it makes it very binary. It says you’ve either got a problem or you haven’t. And of course, that’s not how alcohol works. Alcohol affects the medication you take. If you’re on anti-depressants it will have a huge impact on how they work. It can affect how quickly you wake up in the morning. It can impact your sleep. It makes you look older. All of those things. Some of them are quite subtle and they are not things that will stop you operating day to day. But they still have an impact on your life.

Let us talk about one example you just pointed out. Is there any definition for “dangerous drinking”?

It is based on the amount you drink and how often. Also the consequences of what happens when you drink. I didn’t drink every day, for example, but I’ve got to a point where I wasn’t able to stop myself once I’ve started drinking. I put myself in many dangerous situations. For some people they may not drink every day, but when they do drink on Friday or Saturday they might find it difficult to stop and it impacts on their weekend, on their health, on their relationships and on their decision-making. There is a problem and it doesn’t mean just because you don’t drink five days a week, that those two days aren’t problematic. The only way to know if drinking is a problem for you, is if you begin to worry about your drinking and think ‘well, maybe it is having an impact on me’ and maybe I am worried a little bit about it. This is a very personal journey. It is about accepting yourself and that alcohol is impacting on you in ways that stops you living the life you would like to lead.

Could you explain in simple words for people, who are not familiar with this topic, what ‘mindful drinking’ is, please?

Here, I have to start with a little story. We have a guide to pubs and bars in the UK called Clubsodaguide.com. We have all the alcohol-free drinks on there and where you can get them in pubs and bars. We score pubs and bars for how good they are for mindful drinkers. When I first started this guide I wanted to call it “A guide for healthier drinkers”, but you can’t talk about ‘healthy’ AND ‘alcohol’ by law in the UK, so I had to find another word and we found the word mindful. So we launched the guide in 2017 as a guide for mindful drinkers. For me it is a very helpful word, because if you’ve never drunk – you are a mindful drinker. If you have never drunk a lot – you are a mindful drinker. If you cutting down your drinking –  you are a mindful drinker. I am an alcohol-free mindful drinker. It binds us together as a common community with one word that we can all use in a different way. This is very positive and at the end of the day, we all are looking to make positive healthy lifestyle changes and having a positive way to describe ourselves makes a huge difference. As a word I feel it is really empowering. 

photo credit: Matthew Henry // unsplash

That is a great definition! I was thinking a person, who doesn’t drink alcohol at all is not a mindful drinker. But you say she or he is!

Yes, I describe myself as an alcohol-free mindful drinker. I thought long and hard about my drinking and my decision is to be alcohol free. But my tribe are still the people who are moderating or who have never drunk before or even people like my cofounder, who probably has about two pints of beer a month. And they are still my tribe, because we still face some of the same issues – there aren’t good drinks in pubs and bars when we go out. We also face some of the same pressure from friends to drink and we are all living in a, what I would call, very alcohol-centric society. Alcohol is everywhere. I can’t even get the alcohol advertisements off of my Kindle. They keep sending them to me. We are all facing those same issues and we share some of the same frustrations even if our journeys are slightly different.

I think Britain and, of course Russia and Germany are all alcohol-centric societies. When you visit someone, it is quite normal to bring as a present a bottle of alcohol along. 

Yes, alcohol has been around for a long time. These cultures have developed over hundreds of years and we are not going to unpick them in a hurry. So we have to learn how to navigate through them together as a community. 

You mentioned the long history of alcohol and how it is impacting our societies. There were temperance movements before, for example at the beginning of the 20th century in the US.

There were temperance movements everywhere in the world.

What is the difference between the temperance movements back then and what you are doing right now, except of the impact of religion of course?

The history of the temperance movement in the UK comes through two routes. One is the religious route. In Ireland you still find people take the pledge at 16, saying they won’t drink as part of their religion. There was as well a big trade union and workers movement towards not drinking, because it was considered a working-class problem and it affected manual workers in particular. Some of it was not based on religion but was based on trying to make sure that people who worked hard for living didn’t then suffer by drinking. I think the difference now is a couple of things.

One is –

I don’t feel a temperance movement is where we go in a modern society now. It is about making choices and having choices.

And making the choices that are right for you. Some of that includes for me a debate about drugs that are currently not legal, which may be less dangerous than alcohol, but alcohol is still legal. Therefore, how do we begin to make choices about our own lives? 

The other I thing is, that this now fits into a healthy lifestyle bracket, rather than a discourse around religion or poverty or class. It is about saying you can eat as much vegetables as you like, but you undo all the hard work if you then drink a bottle of wine in the evening. The difference is that we have been marketed alcohol in a very different way even for the last 30 years. For example, women would not drink as much back in the 20s, but women are some of the biggest drinkers now. In many countries, the poorer you are the more you drink, but in Britain the richer you are the more you drink. So those things that drove alcohol back then are very different now, because we spend all of our time being bombarded with advertisement telling us that drinking alcohol will make us sexy and confident. The gender roles have changed. Women are drinking as much as men. The way they socialize is different. The price of the alcohol is much cheaper. So all of those things have created a perfect storm. We drink a lot, regardless of gender and class. Now, we want to be healthier and live longer, but those two things are not compatible.

Many people who are trying to stop drinking are asking the same questions. “How can I party without drinking? Will I be regarded as boring?”.

Oh, so many things to tell you about this. So first of all, you can party if you don’t drink. Your socializing just changes. And what is important to remember – that may feel scary, but you don’t socialize the same way now as you did ten years ago and it is highly unlikely that the way you socialize will continue to be the same anyway. We evolve has human beings and where we put priorities. Don’t see change has being scary. See it as a part of a natural evolution of you as an adult, as a grown-up. The other thing is: I do recommend that you throw yourself into socializing as soon as you possibly can, after deciding to change your drinking habits, because it becomes like a super-power. If you stay sober on a Saturday evening in a bar or a wedding or any of those things, it is like gaining a super-power. You will realize that the sky doesn’t fall in. The evening just has a different shape than it had before. You will begin to gain new things from learning to socialize sober. You realize if you go out on Friday night, but you are not hangover on Saturday you have just gained another day for socializing. And finally, you will feel awkward at first without a doubt. For a while you will feel the absence of that glass in your hand, but give it six months and a lot of practice. There will come a point when you feel you are just as funny and lovely and amazing as you were before, but without the drink in your hand. And you begin to then realign your socializing. You realize that you can meet people for an hour after work and get as much from that time as you did over four hours getting drunk, but then you also got time to go watch TV at home and then your Saturday is free. You can get up in the morning and if you want still fit in a lot more socializing. My social life has improved hugely since giving up drinking. It is different. It is not worse. It is just different. That difference is good, because I can pack a lot more in. 

photo credits: Lucas Eggers // unsplash

I can see that all these reason can be really motivating to become a mindful drinker!

Yes. It is absolute a legitimate fear for anyone changing their drinking that they will lose their social life or their social life will change. But accept that change is a good thing. You decide, how you want to design your social life, the new social you. Do you want to do more walking on a Saturday instead of hiding under a duvet? Then go out and find these walking groups. Suddenly, you can make choices, whereas alcohol actually robbed you of choices because it robbed you of time. Probably, when you were still drinking it consumed you more where you will get your next drink from, then really whom you spent your time with.

If someone stops drinking and then goes out without consuming alcohol for a couple of times they might think they can moderate alcohol and then the next time they suddenly drink more.  

Yes, you mean ambivalence. It happens to everybody, if you are doing any behavioural change, even if you are on a diet. So what you think is: ‘I’ve got this sorted now, I am OK. I am going to try and moderate’. And that’s part of the journey. The first thing to understand is that ambivalence at some point in your journey will come, and to recognize it. Your brain is trying to trick you in to drinking again, if you are not drinking and to give you full sense of confidence, because you forgotten how bad it used to be. Try to resist ambivalence and recognize it. It took three years before I really felt confident that my first response to an emotional situation wasn’t to want alcohol and it took that long for that hard-wiring to go. It is a dangerous point, but that will come whether you are sitting at home in front of the TV or whether you are out socializing.

The worse thing, I think, if you are changing your drinking is the feeling that you can’t go out anymore and hide yourself at home.

That loneliness and your sense of deprivation will feel even bigger, because you will feel you are not enjoying life. When actually freedom from alcohol does allow you to enjoy your life, because it gives you more time and energy, makes your head clearer, your brain works better. You need to recognize ambivalence for what it is, it is a very natural part of the process.

Now, I get the impression that this path to mindful drinking, is not only about living an alcohol free life. It is actually about regaining or even experiencing things for the first time in every part of your life.

Yes, for example, we always do our events in pubs and bars, because it is about practicing new behaviour in a familiar setting. Just going up to the bar and asking for an alcohol free beer for the first time will be unusual, but it will be OK. The other thing is that we often know that we should give up drinking. We probably set a New Year resolution that says: ‘This year I am going to drink less or this year I am going to give up drinking’. But we never understand why we want this. You have to look at the motivation. What is your intention? We have people in Club Soda, who are giving up drinking so they can be better grandparents or that they can set up a business, or that they will regain their weekends, or that they will stop arguing with their partner. It is really important to focus on the reasons why you want to change your drinking, because again – we come back to that discussion we had early on – are you an alcoholic or not? The truth is if you feel that there is something in your life that you want to improve and that changing how much you drink will improve that – than you need to work on changing your drinking. This is your bigger motivation and not the headline ‘I need to give up drinking’ or ‘I need to drink less’. What is it that you want for your life? What is the life that you want to lead? And how can changing your drinking help you do that?

You mentioned family. How is it to give up drinking or to reduce your drinking when your partner is still drinking?

It can be quite difficult. You have to start having some honest conversations, particularly if your relationship is bound by the fact that you drink together often. You need your partner as a cheerleader and to bring them on board. Let them understand why you are making this change. It is not something that is designed to threaten your relationship. It is a change that you are making for your health. When you are in a relationship, you are still an individual and you still have the ability and the right to want to make changes that are good for your health. You need to speak to your partner and tell them, how they can help you. We want to help the people we love as much as possible. Rather then telling your partner ‘That’s it. I am not drinking anymore’, have a conversation about why you are making the change and what you think you will get from it and then ask very specifically how they can help you. For example: ‘Would you help me by finding restaurants, where we can go together, where you can have what you want to drink and there will be something for me? Can you help me by finding a new favourite drink, so we can share this moment of drinking together? Can you help me by not putting pressure on me?’. Being clear about what action we need from our partner is really important. Without a doubt lots of people find their relationship doesn’t survive the change that they are making, but that problem was always there, that’s not been caused by not drinking. It’s about taking control of your life again. If people really care about you and love you, they will support you in the decisions that you make. And that’s the same with dating: if people think that you not drinking on a first date is weird, then that’s a really good indicator that they are not for you.

Personally, I experienced when I stopped drinking, people around me made a big fuss about it. They always asked me: ‘Why don’t you drink? Are you pregnant? Are you sick? Are you taking antibiotics?’.

Yes, and if you had giving up smoking, everyone would be going ‘Well, done!!’. You can do the same with your friends as with your partner. If they put you under pressure, be really clear with them: ‘I am not drinking and I have made this decision for me. Please, don’t put me under pressure this evening to drink. And if you have got a health goal you want some help with, how can I help you with in return?’. Really, turn it around. The more specific you can be with people about the help you are expecting from them, the less they can question you and put you under pressure.

Thank you a lot, Laura, for this nice interview!

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