We talk to former politician, business woman and inveterate campaigner Laura Willoughby MBE, who gave up alcohol completely and now inspires others to do the same or to moderate their drinking.
An interview with Club Soda founder and teetotaller Laura Willoughby
What made you decide to do what you do?
I gave up drinking 4 years ago, but like many people I had been trying to moderate or change my drinking for a long time. I realised that if I had found something that fitted my mind-set and values that would support me to get on with tackling my drinking myself I may have changed sooner. 85% of the population drink and over a quarter of those people actively want to change their drinking – there needs to be a greater range of solutions. Who we get sober with is just as important as who we go to the pub with.
Why did you wait until you did to make the change?
Alcohol is a funny substance. We use it to celebrate and commiserate, when we are angry, stressed and happy – many of us have used it throughout our adult lives (or even longer). It is very hardwired into our psychology. It makes it a tough habit to break and it’s easy to find reasons not to change. I used every excuse from the fact that I enjoyed it through to it helped me sleep. What I know now is that it helps nothing, whatever our internal self talk tells us, and learning to live without it is very liberating. In the end for me I had just got to a point where I was tired of drinking and the stress, guilt and panic of waking up with hangovers finally tipped me into action. I quickly got hooked on feeling sober.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
I want to change the narrative around drinking. The language of 12 steps and recovery put me off. For a large number of people this is part of healthy lifestyle change and it is okay that we talk about changing drinking in those terms. It is okay to ask for help from people that feel like us. Club Soda won’t be right for everyone.
How did you make the change? What or who helped you?
I wish I knew what the secret ingredient was. I would bottle it and give it away for free. But now I know a lot more about behaviour change I think It was a combination of things that collided. Feeling tired of drinking, telling friends, setting a date, spending money on a workshop, a partner who gave up with me – that relationship was new so it gave me a new routine that was also exciting in its own right. She also fell off the wagon and it was hideous and made me afraid to drink again. Finally, the end of my first 3 months coincided with me volunteering at the Olympics. I turned up at 6am every day feeling like an athlete. I felt a great sense of achievement.
How did your family and friends react?
Relief. They never said it out loud, but it was written all over their faces. I felt ashamed.
How has your life changed having gone down this path?
I feel like the person I was at 21. I have the energy to take action and get on with things which is important to me. My brain has snapped back and I can engage with the arguments and debates that have been important to me. I’ve reconnected with my values.
What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
Alcohol affects everything about who you are mentally and physically so it’s no surprise that it takes time to change. But start now. You are only putting it off for the future you to do. I see changing your drinking as a marathon not a sprint. Each time you don’t achieve your goal you learn something new that will help you next time.
What do you love most about being the age you are?
This question took me a little by surprise. At the minute the challenge for me is not my age but my emotions. Living without alcohol when you are used it to accompany every emotion for nearly 25 years is well …fascinating. Nearly all of us have used alcohol when dealing with everything from meeting new people through to stress. Without alcohol it’s like living life in High Definition. You can’t blot out your feelings you actually have to deal with them. This is the emotional literacy I should have developed in my twenties!
What do you hate most about being the age you are?
I am recognising and having to live with the fact that fear is a strong emotion for me. I have taken some big risks. Given up my home, earning less than I was at 15 and I am part of a generation unlikely to get a state pension. The future seems very close and that scares me!
What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
My drinking was not as bad in my twenties, but my life then and now would have been better if I had realised it was not necessary (and actually not very nice). It would have meant I would have dealt with some emotional situations better that would have left me more secure now.
What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Don’t wait to act on your ideas. No one knows what they are doing so get on with it and learn as you go along.
Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
I am not here to tell you what to do. We don’t use the word should. (Which is interesting as when I found my partner on okcupid the line that drew me to his profile was that his answer to ‘Why should you contact me?’ was ‘No one should do anything’.)
Which woman do you most admire and why?
I read about many women and then make a mental note to use them when I am asked this question. Then I forget who they are (my memory has not improved since quitting!). There are so many amazing women who have made my life possible. But at the moment Jack Monroe fills me with pride. Our lives are not binary. We are not confined to boxes.
Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
I am a liberal. So people either think that I am either politically left or right (depending on where they come from). Being liberal is neither of those things. It’s a commitment to empowering individuality. It is a hard philosophy to articulate. But at Club Soda that translates into a commitment that your goal is up to you. We just want to give you the tools you need to make it happen.