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Beyond the bottle: Paddy, Guyon, and Lotta on life after alcohol

July 7th, 2024 Guest Posts

Wanaka panel

Recently I took part in a panel conversation with sober heroes and media legends Guyon Espiner and Paddy Gower (moderated by RNZ's Kathryn Ryan). You can listen to the audio of our discussion on YouTube here and below is a write up of our talk which first appeared on the NZ Drug Foundation's website. Paddy's Sobriety Chat is here and a Guest Post written by Guyon is here. Mrs D x

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What’s it like to live without alcohol in a culture that celebrates it at every turn? Why, despite its known harms, is alcohol so deeply entrenched in our lives?

These were some of questions explored at Wānaka’s Festival of Colour in April, where a panel of well-known New Zealanders joined RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan to discuss the nation’s most widely consumed and harmful drug: alcohol.  

RNZ broadcaster and author of The Drinking Game, Guyon Espiner, Newshub's National Correspondent and documentary maker, Paddy Gower, and writer and founder of Living Sober, Lotta Dann, shared their deeply personal stories with alcohol. They delved into their experiences with addiction, how the odds are stacked against those who choose sobriety, and the highly inadequate regulation of alcohol in this country. 

Personal journeys with alcohol 


Lotta Dann started drinking when she was 15 and continued until she was 39. Now sober for more than 12 years, she has written several books and leads an online community of over 17,000 people called Living Sober. Her turning point came after a two-year period of self-reflection on her relationship with alcohol. One Monday night she drank a bottle of wine and lied to her husband that she hadn’t.  

“The thought of hiding and lying was unbearable. It’s a cliché and common behaviour, but for me, it was the breaking point. I knew I had to take the 'terrifying leap' into a life without alcohol, which I feared would be 'miserable and boring.' Instead, it turned out to be the complete opposite."

Paddy also started drinking at 15 and once didn’t show up to work as a political journalist following a heavy night of drinking with current Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters. Paddy Gower’s break from booze came very publicly during the filming of his documentary Paddy Gower: On Booze. The doco contains a scene where Paddy is drinking with young students. He describes watching footage of himself being "utterly pissed" and feeling embarrassed. Around this time, Paddy was confronted by his long-time colleague and friend, Corin Dann, Lotta’s husband.  

Paddy thanked Corin for his intervention, saying it had opened up a whole new life for him: "It's about a friend who had the guts to tell me that I had a problem, and nobody else in my life ever had done that before, and that stopped me in my tracks." Paddy has now been sober for two and a half years. "That set me on this new journey in my life at age 45 where I just feel amazing," he says.

Guyon Espiner says that too often, society has a “Captain Haddock" image of a swaying drunk in mind when it comes to problem drinking, but he emphasises that there are many different ways to be a problem drinker. Before quitting for good, he had spent years trying mitigation strategies such as drinking low-alcohol beers. Five years ago, after a dinner party where he blacked out, he decided enough was enough.  

He says he finds it interesting that during his years of drinking, no one asked, "Why do you drink so much?" but once he stopped drinking, people frequently asked him, "Why aren’t you drinking?" 

The societal pressures to drink 


The panel reflected on the ubiquity of alcohol in New Zealand culture, being used to celebrate births, deaths, funerals, starting a job, ending a job—essentially for any occasion. 
 
Guyon talks about how drinking in New Zealand has traditionally been strongly associated with masculinity. Growing up, he had the impression that a measure of a man’s strength was how much he could drink.

Lotta says it’s no surprise that so many people drink when society often presents alcohol as harmless, despite the evidence of its harm being everywhere. "Alcohol sits in supermarkets, cheap as chips, advertised willy-nilly, and joked about."

"We need regulation changes to position alcohol differently—not to ban it, as people will always drink and should be able to. But we need an environment that better reflects the harm of this inherently harmful product. I hate to say this, but it causes cancer and it's addictive." 
 
Guyon also shared an experience from a school sports day where people tried to force him to drink beer. "In those situations, you know, the seven or eight people standing around, everyone stops and looks at you, and you're forced to say why you don't take a class one carcinogen. Imagine if we were smoking weed today; it's quite a bizarre situation."

Paddy admitted that two friends from different parts of his life had told him that when they were struggling with alcohol, he had pressured them to drink. "That brought a lot of shame on me because I was asking people for support for what I was doing, and in the past, I've done it to them."

Paddy says the vast majority of young people in Aotearoa start drinking before the age of 18, often with their parents. "If that isn’t a reflection of how we treat alcohol in this country, then what is?"

Lotta speaks about the power of the alcohol lobby in New Zealand, noting its big pockets and relentless, clever advertising. Lotta says that the pressures of being a parent and worker can be hard, and "the drug works in the moment." "We have to acknowledge that, and not everyone drinks problematically. But the messaging pushed at us is that this is your reward, your 'me time,' your treat. I told myself that, even when I was having one wine and finishing the second bottle and vomiting, trying to keep quiet so I didn't wake the kids. The next day, I still told myself, 'This is my treat. I deserve it.'"

"It is just so cynical and it is bullshit. When I was drinking, I was not in my power. I was not clear-headed. I was not fighting for myself, connecting with the people around me, and connecting with myself. I was numbed.”  

"It's hugely problematic. I just want those ads to go away. We need regulations to, if nothing else, stop the advertising, because it just pushes this myth of normal," she says. 

Regulatory changes and political inaction 


Discussion then turned to Geoffrey Palmer’s 2010 recommendations for changes to sale and supply of alcohol in New Zealand. These included raising the drinking age to 20, banning alcohol advertising in sports, and limiting alcohol advertising generally. Guyon says many countries have made these changes, but in NZ, "a combination of deep pockets in the liquor industry, heavily funded lobbying campaigns, and cowardly politicians has resulted in none of this ever getting done."

Paddy Gower referenced that there are seven bottle stores in Wānaka, a town with a population of around 9,000. Guyon added that although alcohol causes about $8 billion worth of social harm in NZ per year, there are only about 84 alcohol prevention officers, compared to more than 10,000 front-line police officers. This means there is very little resource available to combat alcohol harm. He says many politicians are terrified that if they try to make changes to alcohol laws they’ll be labelled a "wowser" or part of the "nanny-state," and be kicked out of power. 

On being a moderate drinker 


Katharyn Ryan put to the panel that the moderate drinking message is something the alcohol industry has started to push over the years. Guyon criticised this: "It puts the onus back on the consumer. So, I'm selling a cheap, addictive product, and I say, 'What's your problem? You're drinking too much of it.' That's their attitude. There's no creativity in their approach."

"Does anyone think it’s cool that an 18-year-old can go into a bottle store and buy five bottles of spirits, a lethal amount of alcohol? No one questions that. We allow teenagers to buy a lethal amount of a drug without considering the consequences. The alcohol industry gets away with blue murder. They must be laughing all the way to the bank, especially when you look at how we've targeted the tobacco industry," he says. 


The stigma of addiction 


Paddy Gower says there is a huge amount of stigma around addiction in this country. “You go into many families in New Zealand, and you often find addiction issues that have been driving them apart, but for some reason, we can't talk about addiction like it's an illness or cancer. Addiction is hidden away. I used to judge addicts harshly, thinking they were weak. It took me time to understand that addiction is a disease.”

Guyon added, "And I think that's actually, you know, a chemical, scientific thing, that your signal isn't sent to your brain. It's about 20% of us, probably, who are the hazardous drinkers who just don't have that signal and should have given up years and years ago. And like Lotta, I just want people to know that you can have a really good life without drinking. You can have all the fun, and it's not something to be ashamed of."

Paddy emphasised, "We need to make space in New Zealand society for people who have got a problem with alcohol, and we don't actually do that… We don't even have space around the people that we love to say this drug is hurting me. So that's my message to people: just think about it. Try and make a tiny little bit of space for the people you care about.”  

All three of the panellists say they have no regrets over becoming sober.

Listen to audio of the panel discussion on YouTube.

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