Welcome to The (Not) Drinking Diary Series, today I’m chatting to Jon Wilkes, one of the founders of Real Kombucha.
Jon Wilks is a journalist, occasional folk musician and co-founder of Real Kombucha.
In his own words: I’m fascinated and delighted by the way in which attitudes towards drinking alcohol are changing in this country. It’s a great time to be involved in the alcohol free community.
Read on for his not drinking diary …
Name: Jon Wilkes
Location: Winchester, UK
1.Tell me a little about yourself …
I’m never sure where to start when someone asks me that question! I’ve done a few things over the years. As a journalist I was Editorial Director of Time Out magazine in Tokyo. I’ve also done content marketing for everyone from the British Museum to the boxer Barry McGuigan!
These days I’m following my passion a bit more, and I’ve co-founded a company with two friends. It’s called Real Kombucha, and we’re all about having something to drink when you’re not drinking. As a teetotaler myself, it’s really wonderful to be able to offer people a genuinely delicious, healthy choice. I’ve spent 10 years searching for a decent soft drink for adults that can replace all of those Coca Colas, J2Os and Ginger Beers that we non-drinkers have to make do with when we go out for an evening. Dry doesn’t have to mean dull – that’s what we’re trying to show people.
2.Tell me a little bit of your drinking story …
I don’t think I was ever an alcoholic, but I certainly grew slightly more dependent on alcohol than was healthy. I’m 40 now, and I gave up drinking shortly after my 30th birthday, so that’s a good 10 years ago.
At the time, I was a young parent trying to hold down a variety of jobs. Like a lot of people, I had a tendency to drink more to release stress, and I definitely felt I was more ‘entertaining’ when I was drunk, which for some reason must’ve been important to me. One of the jobs I did involved playing music in a hotel lounge bar in Japan, and there was a lot of free alcohol involved in that. I was coming home very late at night, drunk, waking up the baby, not getting sleep, then having to go out and do another couple of jobs during the day. Something had to give, and unfortunately it was my mental health.
3. What led you to think differently about drinking?
All the above, really. Living that lifestyle three or four nights a week meant that I was using alcohol to medicate hangovers, and those hangovers were becoming more and more like existential crises. I began having panic attacks, and that soon led to depression. It came to a head when I was diagnosed, at 30, with arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat that was a result of drinking, stress and anxiety. I was also blacking out more often – I’d wake up in strange places that I didn’t remember going to. It was getting scary, and I found the idea of my son growing up with this wreck of a parent incredibly sad.
It took a huge effort to stop drinking and remain sober, and I’d have had an even harder time if it wasn’t for the help of some very loving people. I have my very patient wife and one very good friend to thank for that – he knows who he is
4. How would you describe your relationship with alcohol now?
My relationship with alcohol is fine now, and has been since about six months following quitting. I haven’t touched the stuff for 10 years. It wasn’t an easy thing for me to give up, but I didn’t have to go through any of the horrific withdrawal things you hear about. In that sense, I was relatively lucky.
I guess you could call it a working relationship that I have with it now. I’m very keen on trying to show that a life without alcohol is a worthwhile thing, and that things really do pick up if you give yourself a chance. I’m doing that largely through the contacts I’m making with Real Kombucha. I became a co-founder in that company because I hated the lack of choice people were being offered, and I’ve since gone on to meet some really interesting people. I love what you’re doing here, Laurie, (thanks Jon!) and I love what people like Club Soda are doing. It’s great to see that behavioural change finally coming about.
5. What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since your approach to alcohol shifted?
It has to be to do with choice, as I’ve said already. Like most people who give up alcohol, I found myself getting very bored very easily when I went out. At first I thought it was because I wasn’t able to be myself anymore, and that my new self was dull, but I soon found that the problem was more to do with the environment. The fundamental self doesn’t change – you’re still the same person. The environment, on the other hand, suddenly becomes limiting and somewhat intimidating. Other people expect you to keep drinking, and they demand to know why you’ve stopped. Ordering a soft drink becomes an ordeal because it immediately announces you as somehow excluding yourself from the group. Once they’ve accepted that you aren’t going to drink alcohol, they want to know why. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had the “so, are you an alcoholic?” conversation. One of the things I’m particularly proud of, in terms of our branding at Real Kombucha, is the way in which it attracts a different kind of conversation. The topic becomes less “what are you?” and more “what on earth is that?!” (L’s note: I LOVE THIS!!!)
It’s strange, because statistics suggest that a lot of people in pubs aren’t actually drinking. According to Club Soda, 57% of people choose the pub they drink in based on the choice of soft drinks and alcohol alternatives available, which suggests to me that attitudes are changing – that they’re thinking more about the designated driver or pregnant woman in their group. What we need now is for more bars to follow suit and start offering real choice. If it’s true that 30% of Londoners between 18 and 24 are now teetotal, then pubs and bars are going to have to start catering for that sea-change.
The need for change in both choice and attitude was encapsulated in a conversation I had at the Restaurant Show in London earlier this year. The CEO of a large national pub chain tried to engage with me on this very subject, and he told me (with what looked like real disdain on his face) that teetotalers (or “your type” as he called us) are perfectly well catered for already. “We give you Diet Coke,” he said. “What more do you want?”
And people wonder why the pub industry seems to be struggling! (L’s note: My mum’s pub stocks Becks Blue, Bitburger Drive, Seedlip Spice, Fentimans, all of the Fever Tree tonics … maybe Kombucha is next?!)
6.What lessons have you learnt about life (and yourself) since your relationship with alcohol has changed?
That’s a pretty big question, and it’s quite hard to answer given that I stopped so long ago. Around the same time that I quit I started looking more seriously into things like mindfulness, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’m someone who spends a lot of time in his own head, chained to that inner monologue that never stops yapping on.
During a hangover, that inner drone would get so loud that I would fear for my mental health. It’s definitely quieter these days. I’m tempted to say that maybe it has something to do with ageing and being more comfortable in my own skin, but as I said before, it seems too obvious to be a coincidence.
7. What benefits of cutting down on alcohol or stopping drinking have you experienced?
I remember getting a huge boost of energy, and that propelled me into the gym (somewhere I’d never even dreamt of going before). I lost a lot of weight, and for a year or two I was the healthiest I’ve ever been. But that was a decade ago. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve piled it all back on since. The trouble with having an addictive personality is that you replace one addiction with another. Let’s just say I have a fondness for cake these days… and leave it at that.
8. Are there any resources that have helped you to cut down or stop drinking?
Things change quickly. 10 years ago, it was all about blogs, and I remember reading an excellent book called A Head Full of Blue, by Nick Johnstone, which really seemed to resonate. These days I know there are a number of apps. I’ve used Headspace quite a lot in my determination to learn more about Mindfulness, and I can totally see how that might help someone struggling with any kind of addiction (in my case these days, an addiction to thinking).
9. How do you start your day? Do you have a morning routine?
I don’t, and I wish I did. The day starts in absolute chaos as I have kids that need to be readied and taken to school. Once I’ve done that and walked the dog, I do like to sit down with my Wunderlist app, sip at a bottle of Dry Dragon kombucha, and try and get my head in order, but it’s never that simple!
10. Do you have any rituals you always make time for?
I try to meditate for 10 minutes each night before bed, and I play traditional folk music, so I practice that daily. I play what they call finger-style guitar, which is very intricate and requires a kind of meditative concentration. I love running through those songs for half an hour each day because you’re brain and your fingers kind of disconnect, and things just seem to happen with amazing fluidity. It’s a very interesting state of mind to be in.
11. What’s your favourite thing to do (hangover free & not drinking) at the weekend?
Walking with my wife and kids is always lovely. While I regularly work in London, these days I live in North Hampshire, near a place called Watership Down (you’ll have heard of it maybe from the book and film). It’s a wonderful place to get our for a hike – loads of old Roman roads and iron age forts. There are few better places to be than on top of Beacon Hill on a crisp morning, clear skies above and a view that reaches as far as the South Downs. Of course, you can have all that with a hangover if you want to, but I prefer it with a clarity of mind that matches the view in front of you.
12. When it comes to your own personal development, what is one thing that you’re working on or learning right now?
Haha! Can I only have one? I guess it’s improving my sense of mental balance, although I don’t think that has a lot to do with being a drinker or otherwise. I was always an all-or-nothing person, and I think I’ll spend a lifetime trying to learn how not to be. Again, having a hangover doesn’t exactly help clarity of thought, so I assume I must be better at it now than I was in my twenties. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of mental conundrum I’d be in now, if I was still drinking.
13. What is the one thing you’re obsessed with at the moment that’s making your life better?
Well, being an all-or-nothing kind of person, I tend to get obsessed with things very easily. Even as a teenager, I remember my friends joking about how my obsessions were fairly intense but fairly transient. These days, however, I spend my time educating myself (let’s put it kindly!) about two things in particular: ways to drink and eat yourself fitter (hence the Real Kombucha), and the history of traditional British folk music. Hahaha! How I realize how bizarre that sounds. No wonder I feel a tad schizophrenic from time to time.
14.Any go-to people we should follow for inspiration? (Health, Fitness, Life, travel you name it!)
That’s a lovely question. Thanks for asking. There are a lot of people that go through life being fairly unsung, so this is a great chance to sing their praises.
At Real Kombucha, David Begg and Adrian Hodgson – my co-founders – are absolute legends. I don’t think I know anyone who works quite as hard as they do, and as the master brewers, it’s great to see how well people are responding to what they’re doing. Their brews are just so good – they totally deserve the plaudits they’re starting to receive.
I’m also a huge fan of Em Kuntze, a writer and colleague who I’m proud to call one of my best friends. She has dealt with all manner of crap that life has thrown at her, and she always comes up the stronger for it. We need more Ems in the world.
In the #AlcoholFree world, I’m impressed with the stuff that a number of people are doing. Laura Willoughby, the founder of Club Soda, is a force to be reckoned with, and I think the alcohol industry doesn’t yet realize what kind of fight they’ve got on their hands as she starts to get her teeth into them! And people like you, Laurie, and Stephanie Chivers are doing some great work.
I’m also impressed by what the Mac Twins are doing over at The Gut Stuff. It’s not exactly alcohol related, but they’re taking a very unique approach to a subject that is becoming less and less niche by the day. Well worth looking up. (L’s note: I’m looking them up right now!)
15. And finally, thinking differently about your relationship with alcohol can be challenging and isolating, is there any advice you turned to or do you have any words of wisdom for people reading this?
I’m not really very good at giving alcohol-related advice, mainly because I think each person arrives at the problem for very different reasons. However, an important point in mindfulness is learning to understand that you are not your thoughts.
There’s a great teacher called Pema Chödrön who encourages you to try and recognise when your thoughts have slipped into the usual frustrating monologue, and then chide yourself playfully: “Ah! I see you! I know what you’re doing, Mind! You’ve had your fun. Be off with you!”
For me, a large part of my drinking problem was listening to – and believing – the stories my inner monologue was telling me. “You are only entertaining when you’re drunk. People think you’re boring when you’re sober.” When I was hungover, that would become, “You’re worthless – your family would be better off without you.” It was horrible. I think knowing that lots of people suffer in that way helps – knowing that it isn’t just you. Mindfulness can help you separate yourself from those thoughts. You have to give it time, but it’s well worth a try.