Week in Review

Profile: Lotta Dann, by Judy Bailey

Judy Bailey profiles Lotta Dann, whose new book explores how and why New Zealand women are drinking too much.

It’s almost a ritual, that quiet drink at the end of the day.  A glass or two to get through zoo hour with the kids, a tipple while you watch the news, a wee dram to warm you, a tot to calm the nerves or settle us after a tough day at the office or before a big performance.  But how quickly and how insidiously that one or two drinks becomes two or three or four or more.

Lotta Dann is eight and a half years sober and not once has she fallen off the wagon.  She’s a bright, articulate, determined woman -  and now she’s about to take on the all powerful liquor industry.

Her new book The Wine O’Clock Myth explores how women are suffering with alcohol - and how, though they’re desperate to change, the environment is stacked against them. The liquor industry, she says, shamelessly targets and manipulates women.

Lotta became a household name when she confessed on national television in 2014 that she had a drinking problem. Her story on TVNZ’s Sunday programme struck a chord with thousands of women around the country. There she was, an apparently successful woman, a journalist and mother of three boys, married to TVNZ’s then-political editor Corin Dann, admitting she was an alcoholic.

She says she hears that a lot - you can appear as if you have it all together, but underneath you know you’re miserable. “I have a litany of stories of being drunk and falling over and making a fool of myself, but still holding it together and having a life.”

Lotta grew up in Christchurch, the second of four sisters. Her dad, leading QC Chris McVeigh, was famed for his role in the iconic kiwi satirical show, A Week of It. The show made stars of David McPhail and Jon Gadsby.  McPhail remains a close friend and is Lotta’s godfather.

The McVeigh’s home was a big, busy house. “My parents were thinkers, it was a stimulating environment, there were lots of discussions and music blaring from all four of our rooms at once. There was always food being prepared.”

Her outstanding childhood memory? “The aliveness of the house,” she tells me with a hint of sadness.

“I started drinking at 15. My parents divorced when I was 21 but of course it had been building long before then. My parents were lovely and loving and trying to parent a rebellious teenager.

“I would climb out my bedroom window, push the car down the road and I’d be off with my mates to the Port Hills.

“In those days you could knock on the door of the pub in your school uniform and they would serve you.

“I was a terrible student. I hated authority. I just wanted to have fun. I was kicked out of my school prizegiving for being drunk.

“I loved alcohol because it helped me be ‘fun Lotta’. I didn’t want to be sad and uncomfortable.”

Lotta Dann: “We think alcohol connects us... in reality it disconnects us." Photo by Catherine Cattanach.

Despite all that, Lotta was still doing okay with her studies and she managed to get into journalism school. The drinking continued apace once she entered the journalism trade.

“My whole life I believed alcohol was necessary to have fun. Why? Because I was trying to avoid sadness.

“The breakdown of my parents’ marriage was huge. I never grieved that until five years after I was sober. It was the loss of that happy home. I was talking to a friend about divorce and then out of nowhere came this gut- wrenching sobbing from deep within me …. later I felt as if something huge had shifted.”

Her advice for parents? “If you can, model having fun without alcohol. What you do is more powerful than what you say.”

*

At the time of Lotta’s heaviest drinking, her husband Corin was fronting TVNZ’s Breakfast show. “He’d go to bed at 8 every night so he didn’t see me drinking on the sofa. It progressed so slowly, it was our normal. He was almost blind to it.” 

Lotta was still working, studying for her MA in film and television. By then the couple had three boys. “I never drank while I was pregnant, but I found the third pregnancy really hard and I couldn’t wait to get back on the wines.”

She would quit entirely two years after her third son, Jakob, was born.

Corin had left the house to take the boys to scouts. Lotta downed a bottle of wine while he was out then hid the bottle in the rubbish. It was, she says, classic alcoholic behaviour.

Inwardly ashamed, it turned out to be a pivotal moment for Lotta. Corin would later tell her, “I thought you’d had more than you said. I checked the recycling.” 

There are women all over the country doing the same thing. It’s time, Lotta says, that we have honest conversations about alcohol.

“Talk honestly with your girlfriends at 9am, not at 5pm when the Chardonnay is flowing and the Dopamine peaking.”

As she points out in the book, Dopamine is the feel good chemical in the brain. Alcohol targets the Dopamine receptors causing them to flood the brain with the chemical. Continuous drinking causes the dopamine receptors to thin out meaning you need to drink more to get the same effect and when you’re not drinking, because the brain’s natural dopamine levels are reduced, you feel bleak, which causes you to drink again to find the feel good factor. It’s a vicious cycle.

Lotta quit without counselling, or help from AA. “Looking back, setting out to do this by myself was foolish. I had this attitude ‘I’m going to fix myself.’ I thought it was too scary to go to AA which was foolish because they’re lovely.”

She literally wrote herself sober. Her blog, Mrs D is Going Without, began as a sort of personal diary but to her surprise people began commenting on it and telling her about their own struggles with alcohol. Things snowballed from there. The blog became a book of the same name, and then a second book followed, Mrs D is Going Within, about her inner struggles and becoming emotionally stronger.

While she’s never fallen off the wagon, she still has cravings. “I’ve got this voice in my head telling me to take a drink.” When that happens, she finds a distraction. She will clean the house, take a walk, or just hunker down in bed with a good book. “Now when I feel sad, I’m gentle with myself, I don’t run from sadness.  I don’t seek to lift myself out of sadness. I have to sit with it. I think about self care, snuggly clothes, being kind to myself.”

Lotta Dann argues that alcohol should be kept out of supermarkets.

Her new book The Wine O’Clock Myth explores how and why women are drinking and how we’re being ‘played’ by the booze barons.

She is blunt in her explanation. “We think alcohol connects us...in reality it disconnects us. It is not a magical elixir that will make things better. It causes cancer. And it is more dangerous for women.”

Lotta’s expecting a backlash over the book, “I’ll be labelled a wowser. People will say, ‘Just because she can’t control herself it doesn’t mean the rest of us should suffer.’

What does she want to change? “I don’t want to make drinkers angry. Let’s leave the price alone for now but let’s do something about marketing and availability. [The liquor industry] shouldn’t be allowed to fill social media feeds with ads.”

And, she says, alcohol doesn’t belong in supermarkets. “There are mixed messages. It’s right there next to the hummus and pesto. What does that say?”

Does she get fed up with constantly being asked about her addiction?

“No, never. I guarantee sometime from now someone will message me saying, ‘I saw your article, it changed my life.’ I guarantee it. It happens all the time.”

Lotta worked as a TV journalist, producer and director until she got sober aged 39. She now manages the highly successful online community Living Sober from her home in the hills of Wellington, which she shares with her husband, sons and a black Labrador.

“I’m not special, I’m lucky,” she says. “I have the ability to articulate my thoughts. All I did was share my truth.

“The rebel in me from then  [schooldays] is now having a field day rebelling against alcohol. I have the sense that I can do what I want. That’s what I felt when I quit drinking. I was empowered. I could be my own woman.”

The Wine O'Clock Myth by Lotta Dann (Allen & Unwin, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* Profile interview created with the support of the Copyright Licensing Fund NZ *

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