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Entrepreneur, coach, and author Kay Allison joins the program to discuss her new book Juicy AF (Alcohol-Free): Stop The Drinking Spiral, Create Your Future. Kay shares her thoughts about why the alcohol-free population should be part of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and the work-related situations that can be tough for alcohol-free employees to navigate. She also shares her own journey of becoming alcohol-free and practical ways that employers can make work-related events more inclusive of alcohol-free employees.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
KAY ALLISON: What I find with the women that I work with is her biggest fear is that we are not good enough, like existentially flawed in some way and that we'll be okay if we are married or are 10 pounds thinner, are younger, are older, are more successful or whatever it happens to be, whatever that metric happens to be, but we come in with this profound sense of inadequacy. And AA is geared to reduce our egos. It's called ego deflation, which in the 1930s, guys presented as these gigantic balloons of massive egos. And so to be taken down a peg or 90 was an appropriate antidote. But today, especially for women, "Constantly reminding myself that I have character defects," which is their language, and to write about them on a daily basis of where I am, inadequate afraid, or dishonest or resentful exacerbates our fundamental problem rather than being an antidote for it.
DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now on to the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode features a conversation with entrepreneur, executive coach and author Kay Allison. Kay is the author of the book Juicy AF, AF stands for alcohol-free, Stop the Drinking Spiral, Create Your Future and the conversation focuses on a diversity dimension that doesn't get explored perhaps as much as others, which is the alcohol-free population, and why the alcohol-free population should be part of DEI. Kay talks about what work-related situations are tough for alcohol-free employees and also practical ways to make work-related events more inclusive of alcohol-free people, all this and more and now onto the conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Kay, welcome to The Will to Change.
KAY ALLISON: Thanks, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am so excited to have this conversation. It's a topic I've been tracking ever since and the story I always share with permission from my good friend who lives on the West Coast, works for one of our clients and came up to me one day and said, "I cover," we teach this concept of covering, where we're downplaying unknown stigmatized identity, and she says, "I cover because I'm sober and the way I cover is that I make up excuses not to go to mixers with the colleagues and client celebrations. I am avoiding things that I know are valuable or invaluable for my career progression," and now she's actually more and more out about it, which I love and reminds me that we all have a closet of some kind and it was a progression and an evolution for her to begin to speak about it. And now she's a shining light and a beacon for others to have that conversation. And it's one that's building at her company, but I think organizations don't quite yet ... They're just not on top of this yet.
And that's what we're going to talk about today, is how can we raise awareness of our own biases and the stereotypes that surround this topic and then how can we build workplaces that are more comfortable and more psychologically safe for all of us, including those of us who have or are coping with alcohol issues and incorporate this into our DEI strategy because that's ultimately where this is going. And when I teach this, I love being able to use that example as one of the many diversity dimensions that we do not include when we speak about this topic, along with other things that I have put under the waterline of the iceberg I teach from which is everything from neurodiversity to chronic illness to mental health challenges, to true gender identity and true gender expression to being a veteran.
It goes so far beyond race and gender and it's so wonderful to have a more holistic conversation about everything that is interrupting our ability to do our best and bring our full selves, but also to reorder the workplace, redesign the workplace to not be a place where everybody hides, not be a place where we compromise our authenticity and our true stories because I don't think we can contribute from that place. So anyway, I discovered you through a friend and you are one of the few that I know of that's really tackling this. And so I just want to welcome you to the audience for The Will to Change. Tell us a little bit about who you are. You have a wonderful book coming up January 10th.
I'm going to let you tell us about that. That's your second book and you wrote a first book in a previous life, which I'm sure you'll tell us about too because it's an integral part of your story, but introduce yourself to us and tell us your diversity story.
KAY ALLISON: Jennifer, what a wonderful and warm introduction. And I just instantly was captivated when we first met, so I'm really, really grateful for the conversation. I started my career actually as a cellist and quickly realized I was not going to be successful enough doing that. So I got a degree in marketing communications from Northwestern and worked my way up in corporate advertising. I was a senior vice president of a global ad agency and was simultaneously a success outwardly and filled with shame inwardly. I was drinking a bottle of wine by myself at least a few nights a week and woke up with hangxiety maybe 50% of the time, 60% of the time. And I took an audit of my drinking and because the negative consequences were starting to creep in and I was starting to see it in my career, I had had a pretty meteoric rise in my career, and suddenly, it was stalled.
And the way I drank and behaved at work events was wrecking my reputation, even though I was smart and a valued contributor and was making the company money. So I decided to go alcohol-free. I went to a 12-step program where I quickly realized that it is not an optimal solution for women and especially highly ambitious and high-achieving women. So I've taken what I loved from 12-step work. I've adapted some of the stuff that didn't work so well, ignored some of it and combined it with my own experiences to create a step-by-step framework that really helps professional women stop their drinking habit when it gets to a point where they're having negative consequences.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. For me, there's so many ways I want to go with this. First of all, just to dig into AA for a moment, I was just looking at the composition of it and also the inclusion issues within that support framework. Can you tell us ... You said it didn't work for you, I'm sure it doesn't work for a lot of people, not just because of its approach, but perhaps because of DEI issues and the way that it is conceived and designed and who started it and all that. I love being reminded that bias lives everywhere in every institution, anywhere, particularly those that were created, even those that are created now, but certainly those that have been created a while ago, right? But what are some of the issues there that you think don't really work effectively? And is it specific to gender and maybe other identities too?
KAY ALLISON: So AA was created by two men in the 1930s.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, 1930s.
KAY ALLISON: And it was born out of a very Christian culture at the time. At that point, according to Gallup or Pew, can't remember which one, but 70% of all Americans said they had been to a church or a synagogue in the preceding seven days, where today it's 40 something percent. And so there are two things that work against it. One is the insistence that you believe in God and the Judaeo-Christian underpinnings to everything they do. The second is that it is written from a very male-centric point of view and it goes beyond the pronouns, the gender pronouns, where the alcoholic is always he and him and she and her is always the wife of, but it goes beyond that.
What I find with the women that I work with is our biggest fear is that we are not good enough like existentially flawed in some way and that we'll be okay if we are married or are 10 pounds thinner, are younger, are older, are more successful or whatever it happens to be, whatever that metric happens to be, but we come in with this profound sense of inadequacy. And AA is geared to reduce our egos. It's called ego deflation, which in the 1930s, guys presented as these gigantic balloons of massive egos. And so to be taken down a peg or 90 was an appropriate antidote. But today, especially for women, "Constantly reminding myself that I have character defects," which is their language, and to write about them on a daily basis of where I am, inadequate, afraid or dishonest or resentful exacerbates our fundamental problem rather than being an antidote for it. So the gender part of it goes profoundly beyond the pronoun issue.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, beautiful analysis. That is a classic case of inequity in a design and in language. And it reminds me, there's a book on my shelf that I bought by a man called Ego is the Enemy, some of you may know this book, but I bought it not to read it, but I remember it and I think about it because that's not women's issue. It's not. And I can so relate to just as somebody who writes in the leadership space, the filter and the lens that we need to use to be inclusive for all learners, it has not been represented on our bookshelves forever. When I was studying leadership, I could only read men's thoughts about leadership really, except for a few female thought leaders.
And I keep it on my shelf to remind myself how fundamentally almost opposite our work is, the work that we need to do. So I really appreciate your tight focus on women. And I know you coach a lot of high-performing women. You were a high flyer that was living a double life and it began to be really problematic for you. And I know that you woke up one day and you said, "No more." And then you began to change your life. Can you take us back to that moment and maybe a little bit of what had preceded it? I know it's long and rocky. I was reading your book and I could imagine you had a lot of fun.
KAY ALLISON: Yes, I did. I was a naughty girl.
JENNIFER BROWN: You would've been a very fun person.
KAY ALLISON: I was a good girl by day and a bad girl by night and it was ...
JENNIFER BROWN: Really?
KAY ALLISON: ... awesome until it wasn't.
JENNIFER BROWN: Until it wasn't. Until it wasn't.
KAY ALLISON: Actually the part that I want to focus on, Jennifer, early in my alcohol-free life, very early on, I walked into a recovery meeting and there was this woman telling her story. She was professionally successful. She was in my field, so I knew her. She was beautiful, perfectly dressed, manicured, like the whole nine yards. And she told the story about being in her living room with her husband, but it starts to get weird because it was 3:00 AM and she was also there with her boyfriend and the police and she threw back these girls and she laughed and I was viscerally shocked. I remember thinking, "Oh, we don't talk about that stuff."
And what she represented to me was freedom, freedom from alcohol for sure, but also freedom from shame. And what was left was this sparkling beacon of aliveness and hope, which at the time, I didn't even know that that was possible. And so I wanted what she had. And today, that's what I want to be for other women.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, absolutely. And life is so much richer as you've discovered and you chronicle that a lot in the book. So we're also interested in the professional realm on this podcast and not just our journey in it, but the prevalence of alcohol as part of the culture, as something that is normed as part of something that's simultaneously viewed as a way to build culture. Particularly two years or three, whatever we are, two and a half, three years of the pandemic and we're returning to the office, but then we're not because of what's happening this winter. Anyway, we're still in that confused place. And then we have the holidays too. I love that in your book, I picked this up, Ram Dass, "If you think you're enlightened, spend a week with your family."
KAY ALLISON: It's like, "Yes."
JENNIFER BROWN: So we're airing this podcast before the holiday season, but this is a tough time of year for folks who struggle. And it might be a time to have that wake-up call, but it's also a time of company celebrations. And if you are in person, I do wonder if those who are listening, are you being asked to come back and celebrate in person and have those gatherings been viewed through this lens? My guess is no, not at least most organizations, and unless you're one that has really been doing a deep dive on this. But I think we might go back to the old habits, the old things that we don't see from before the pandemic. I don't think the pandemic fixed this. And if anything, it probably exacerbated our behavior at home, right? Anyway, I just said a lot. You can jump in anywhere there you want to.
KAY ALLISON: Okay, so of American adults who drank, 62% reported binge drinking during the pandemic. It's staggering, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Staggering.
KAY ALLISON: Another statistic that's fascinating to me is 15% of all US adults have never had any alcohol.
JENNIFER BROWN: 15%.
KAY ALLISON: 15% and that's more than the African American population in America.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
KAY ALLISON: 15% don't drink, have never had a drink, are not going to drink. And almost half of us have not had a drink in the previous 30 days. So there's research that shows that the people who do drink at work are drinking at work because they think it's going to further their relationships, that drinking and some of them 5% drink even when they don't want to drink because they think it's a ticket to being part of the conversations that may prove to be beneficial to them in the future. Many of those people drink because their bosses are drinking and they want to fit in with the boss.
But here's the hidden cost. Biologically, even drinking seven drinks a week, regular size drinks, seven drinks a week on a regular basis, so a glass of wine every night or a couple on Thursday, a few more on Friday and maybe a few more on Saturday, any regular drinking of seven a week affects you biologically to a point where it thins your neocortex, so you're not making great decisions, where it increases your anxiety which shuts down your innovation and your creativity. And the really scary thing about it is that it rewires our neural circuits, so the habit of reaching for a drink is hardwired in way before we think we have a problem.
JENNIFER BROWN: So disturbing. You just touched on the discomfort with these rituals and yet the compulsion and the strategic need to be and put yourself around those who can share what I would call social and professional capital with you and already women and LGBTQ people and perhaps people of color and anyone who says, "If you're being honest, I'm not comfortable in these situations," because of a variety of factors too. Alcohol being one, time of day being another, right? With caregiving responsibilities. Late nights. Also harassment and uncomfortable conversations that inevitably occur impact some of us more adversely and more directly in situations like this.
Anyway, so there's so many reasons to avoid and yet so much is exchanged that is valuable. And I think that this is the thing that really hurts my heart because I already know that some of us are on the edge already. We aren't included. We aren't thought of. We're not on the CC list. We're not in friendship relationships across differences often, and then to add to that, that we're also uncomfortable, but then we feel there's a stigma of not joining and so we aren't honest. And then we do something that could hurt us more and make us really uncomfortable. I think it destroys belonging in its way because anytime we feel we need to do something to get access to something is not the right kind of dynamic obviously.
So what do you recommend when you are counseling your, first of all, the individuals you support? So I love that you get right into the tactical to say, "Here's some ways that ... Here's what you will hear. Here's what you can say to that and then here's where on the other side of the fence, we need organizations to up the awareness and the commitment to being more inclusive and making more inclusive choices." And I know that that's happening again in pockets, but this is not something that's I think thought of as a DEI issue, but you just literally gave us statistics that tell us very plainly this is a big problem that's not articulated.
KAY ALLISON: I think that's right, it is a hidden problem that people aren't talking about. It's not the one guy who's the vice president that you don't want to talk to after lunch. That is not the problem. It just isn't. So on a personal basis, I encourage the women that I work with to anticipate what's going to happen and to have a strategy, "Go early, leave early." "Oh, but the downside of leave early is you miss the brainstorm that happens that everybody's excited about the next day." And to really think through and have a couple ready answers for the uncomfortable questions. Uncomfortable questions like, "Hey, what can I get you to drink?" And everybody at the table, their heads swivel and look at you. You know what I mean? And you're leading off.
And if you ask for an iced tea when everybody else is drinking whiskey, it feels uncomfortable at first. It just does. Or to be prepared for the, "Why aren't you drinking? First of all, rude. Rude. And so to have ready responses that nobody needs to know, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
KAY ALLISON: So some of the responses are ... Gosh, some people would say, "That's none of your business."
JENNIFER BROWN: With a smile.
KAY ALLISON: With a smile, or, "Hey, I'm giving you a head start on my hangover tomorrow," or, "I don't feel like it tonight," or, "I'm thirsty. I need a glass of water," whatever. People really don't care. A lot of us drank in these work situations because of the social anxiety.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
KAY ALLISON: And we think that that first sip of wine is going to take the edge off. The insidious part of this is that it actually is increasing your social anxiety for the next time. And so the question really becomes, "You're going to be in pain either way. Do you want it short term or long term? Just pick your time horizon because it's going to be uncomfortable either way." And I would love to tell you that there isn't a tradeoff, but there is. The tradeoff is, "Can I tolerate some discomfort of saying something sassy or deflecting? Can I tolerate the discomfort of that social anxiety until everybody else is a drink in? Can I tolerate not being one of the boys?" At least this is the way it was when I started my career was, "Can you be one of the boys and not drink?" But what I tell the women I work with is it's temporary and it's not going to kill you.
JENNIFER BROWN: And doing the opposite might kill you.
KAY ALLISON: And it really might.
JENNIFER BROWN: It really might or is your choice to ... So on the icebergs waterline that we talked about, there's like the deflections are maybe right under the waterline, but you could even tell the truth. I think you said in your book, "I used to drink and now I don't anymore," or, "I had a problem."
KAY ALLISON: Yeah, I had a problem when I was younger.
JENNIFER BROWN: When I was younger.
KAY ALLISON: I was younger yesterday. Sure. I know exactly, only a couple years ago. But here's the other piece of it, Jennifer, I just got a message from a woman, honestly, I don't even remember her, but she said that she had asked me 16 years ago if I would be open to having a conversation with her. She was right out of school and she asked me, "What do you attribute your success to?" And according to her, I looked her in the eye and unflinchingly said, "I got sober." And she said it was unexpected and shocking, but 16 years later, she's totally changed her relationship with alcohol. And it was my lack of shame and my forthrightness and matter of factness about it that really set her up to make this change.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a legacy that is beautiful. So I think we can lead, especially when we remember like you just demonstrated, there is a whole community of people who share our story and our struggle and that sometimes our challenges overcome what make us who we are, the better leader, the better ... Something we're really proud of. That was really difficult I think of being LGBTQ. We did this exercise when we teach high-potential LGBTQ talent in organizations and it's my favorite moment that we get to say, "What are the gifts of being LGBTQ?" And we go through and we make a long list of all the things that we developed as a result of struggling and with safety, right? Being terrified, developing more empathy, vigilance, emotional intelligence and the ability to create trust with other people.
I think we happen to be a different kind of leader because when you walk that road, you have to grapple with so much and you have that dark night of the soul when you might lose the love of your family. You may be very exposed to violence and you are having this experience that strengthens you and that forges you truly. And I know you feel transformed, but yeah, it's not surprising. I'm glad that you told the truth in that moment. It must have been a very unguarded moment because-
KAY ALLISON: When she wrote that, I was like, "I did?"
JENNIFER BROWN: "Really?"
KAY ALLISON: "Oh, my God," and I only probably had less than five years being alcohol-free, but I find that what I thought before I went alcohol-free was I had to impress you in order to be accepted and in order to be connected. And what I've learned is it's my vulnerability that connects us. It's not my impressiveness at all. That in turn becomes a little bit of a slippery slope, right? There are things that are work appropriate and there are things that are not work appropriate and I have ... I would tell people, like that young woman, in private moments, when people would ask me, "Why did you get so successful?" and I always attributed it to being free from alcohol and free from shame.
I haven't until recently broadcast the news that I'm alcohol-free and now I am. And the reason why I am is because my need to help other people transcends my embarrassment or fear of what other people are going to think about me. I had a very successful career after I went alcohol-free. I increased my income by 600%.
JENNIFER BROWN: Whoa. Wow.
KAY ALLISON: Plus a few years.
JENNIFER BROWN: Goodness.
KAY ALLISON: And I think it's because I got free. I got free of shame, I got free of being hungover, I got free from all this stuff that was draining my energy, and all of a sudden, I wrote my first book and I started two companies and I bought a commercial real estate. I became a professor at Northwestern. I had all this energy. But today, I'm out about it. And one of the reasons is Alcoholics Anonymous is anonymous which made sense in the 1930s because it was such a fledgling organization that if one person said, "I'm part of Alcoholics Anonymous," and then the next day was roaring drunk, it could have killed the whole thing.
But today, I think the unintended consequence of that is it reinforces the stigma of having a problem with alcohol and that incenses me. It just further stigmatizes those of us who have decided to go alcohol-free, whether we're addicts or just want to have more innovation and more energy in our worlds.
JENNIFER BROWN: I never thought about that. You're so right. You were so right about the name of the organization, the very name.
KAY ALLISON: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: If we define inclusive leadership as bringing our full selves and being vulnerable and brave, courageous, authentic and understanding that, like you just said, it's not about that moment of discomfort of disclosure, it's bigger than that. Now you have a purpose and it is to raise awareness, so that I think you can prevent or mitigate the pain of what you went through for future generations. This is why we all lower our waterline like me coming out on stage and on every stage, not because I need to, it's not an exercise for me anymore, but it definitely was a road of destigmatizing step by step. But I do it now because I know somebody needs to hear it. I understand the service that it needs to provide and the good that it needs to do in the world.
And I think that's when you cross a threshold as a leader, when you decide that similar to sharing a mental health challenge or sharing what it feels like to have a certain color of skin on a day-to-day basis and opening yourself up to that ... And yes, maybe stigma and stereotype, but even more bigger than that is the inspiration and the light shining that we can do that is such a relief, brings such relief to others who are hiding, who are fearful, who are not leading, not leading their own lives. And so to see and hear you, I love how you're redefining it. My question for you, can we stay on that for a minute?
KAY ALLISON: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: There's a relationship between mental health and relationship with alcohol. Could you tease that apart a bit for us? Tell us, because that's another huge, less understood, definitely not supported or resourced and definitely stigmatized a topic that is nevertheless showing up so overwhelmingly in the data that we collect at JBC that it's, wow, you talk about an opportunity and something that's on fire that is, especially with the pandemic and then you join that with the statistic you just shared about drinking in the pandemic, and ooh, that's a toxic combo.
KAY ALLISON: Yeah, it really is. Especially when you're working from home and you have a mug in your hand. Who knows what's in there?
JENNIFER BROWN: Who knows what's in the mug?
KAY ALLISON: Seriously. Yeah, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.
KAY ALLISON: So where I want to start with that is I said before that that first glass of wine, our culture believes it takes the edge off, but it really ramps up anxiety. And anxiety is one of the leading mental health conditions that many people talk about and are willing to deal with. But to your iceberg analogy, it really is the tip of the iceberg. What we find is that, as I said, through homeostasis, our bodies are brilliant. Not only do we shiver when we're cold and sweat when we're hot, but our bodies get geared up to anticipate things that we do on an ongoing basis, right? So if you are a regular coffee drinker, which I am, your body is actually groggier years in than if you had never been a coffee drinker. Groggier when you wake up because we anticipate the caffeine's coming on board.
The same thing happens with regular use of alcohol against seven drinks a week. Alcohol is relaxant, and if my body wants to keep me still living and we start to anticipate that the alcohol's coming on board, we don't want to get so relaxed that we forget to breathe or our heart forgets to beat. And so our baseline gets ratcheted up to be more revved to be anxious. So if somebody presents as being anxious, even moderate drinking could be a major force for that in their worlds. The other thing to think about is that the comorbidity between alcohol use and trauma is exceedingly high of people that have substance abuse issues. Over 50% have reported trauma in their background.
In my personal experience, it's higher than that. Scratch the surface of anybody who has had any concerns about their drinking and there is trauma on some level underneath it, but the anxiety is probably what leads and the alcohol is below the waterline and the trauma's way below the waterline.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. And you've had your own journey with understanding your own mental health as I read in the pages of the book. Can you elaborate on that discovery process?
KAY ALLISON: Yeah, it's really weird. It's like I have two emotional channels going simultaneously. One's super anxious and one is depressed. This is when I'm not well regulated. And depending on which one I focus on, it gets amplified. I have found that being sober has given me the emotional stability to be able to look at my mental health issues. Going into therapy alone wasn't enough to budge the alcohol. I thought that my mental health issues were the bottom of the iceberg, but really the drinking and the trauma was underneath that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, complex, and then seen through different cultural identity lenses, then we have the stigma around disclosing mental health issues or seeking help that I think is super cultured, if you will. Really different. We know this from a lot of data. So that's something that also keeps me up at night, that people aren't getting resourced in the way that they could be even with employers that do offer actually support, but it's not known about or it's known about, but it's too stigmatized to access. Therefore, employers don't really have accurate, I think an accurate understanding and picture of the need.
KAY ALLISON: Oh, definitely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right?
KAY ALLISON: A lot of IEPs and a lot of company-provided insurance will pay for rehab or whatever, but I don't want my boss to know that. I don't want my employer to know that. It's going to be used against me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, absolutely. So manager training, this is where the employer comes in and the choices that are made. And if I could wave my magic wand, the managers would be educated on a whole host of issues that we know statistically are going on for people and might even be going on for that manager, but especially being able to create enough psychological safety where someone might disclose what they're struggling with and so that it can be resourced, right? And that goes for mental health, it goes for substance abuse, it goes for being black and brown in a white-dominated workplace and suffering from microaggressions and macroaggressions every single day, sometimes by the way, in conjunction with the things that we've been talking about.
So that is an intersectionality aspect that, when we think of intersectionality, we usually are like, "Oh, race and gender," for example. But to me, it keeps going, mental health issues, substance abuse, trauma as you brought up. And so all of this I think can compound and make it harder to be honest and to disclose the fear of retaliation, and yet, the opportunity to reinvent how leaders and all of us show up in this system and make it better. The only way we can be change agents is if we embrace this and somehow get the courage to say, "It's not just me," and my stories needed as an irritant in the system as an accountability mechanism to say, "Hey, shoo." Yeah, yeah.
KAY ALLISON: My other mission here, Jennifer, is to encourage people to consider their drinking as like, "What does it cost me and how does it benefit me? And are the costs worth the benefits? Are the benefits worth the costs?" Not to say, "Oh, I need to be an addict, I need to be an alcoholic, I need to be really have a problem in order to look at this." If my story of having gone from being a cog in a corporate wheel to starting 4-million companies and increasing my income dramatically isn't inspiring in from the sense of it was my drinking that was holding me back and I had no idea. I want to lower the bar ...
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
KAY ALLISON: ... for people to be able to say, "You know what? I'm making a different choice. I'd rather have that energy and direct it to something innovative in my future or to allow me to show up more fully because I'm not hungover or anxious." So that's really my mission, is to lower that standard of what triggers people to reconsider what they're doing.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. And, well, I noticed your language is different. I'm getting educated by you, but I hear words like alcohol-free. I was doing research on this and I saw how to build a recovery friendly workplace. I loved that because it's important. Language is important. What we refer to something as matters and what I hear you saying is the pathologizing of this, right? And yet, is it a pathology? Whatever, but what's maybe more important is to, and I think you chose alcohol-free intentionally and I love that It's also AF, whatever.
KAY ALLISON: Me too. Me too.
JENNIFER BROWN: AF.
KAY ALLISON: But I did because sober sounds so boring and I didn't want a boring life.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah, and we associate-
KAY ALLISON: I wanted a free life.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, and alcoholic, it's just this classic thing where I think we're revisiting all of our language to refer to things. Substance abuse versus substance use disorder, even as I was reading about this, it's a tiny shift, and not to de-pathologize things that are of great concern, but I'm a fan. It's like being LGBTQ, you talk about a community that was pathologized.
KAY ALLISON: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: So really it resonates. When we shift our language, it matters. And so I wondered, is sober a word you like? Is alcohol-free a word you like? What are some other ways we can speak about this in organizations to "norm" or what I prefer the word usualize versus nor normalize? How did usualize-
KAY ALLISON: I like that. Because who's normal and who wants-
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.
KAY ALLISON: That's why I have an issue with it.
JENNIFER BROWN: So how can we speak about this in as welcoming of a way as possible? It also reminds me, by the way, when we speak of gender, all of a sudden, all the male-identified people are like, "Oh, this doesn't have to do with me". It has everything to do with you. Everyone has a gender. If you're human, you have a gender or many genders maybe, but anyway, I want as few people, as you just said, to opt out of this and I think that's what you're going after as well. But we've got to deal with some of the baggage of the terms and come up with some new ways to speak about it. So what would you recommend?
KAY ALLISON: I use alcohol-free very specifically and very strategically sober. The word sober, the word alcoholic, the word recovery to me are all freighted with this baggage of "skid-row bum", people not of my socioeconomic status, not something that I aspire to, for sure, yes. Are there people that have substance use disorder? Yeah, there are 20 million of them in the United States. Was I one of them? No, I was never diagnosed. Was I one of the people who said, "This isn't working for me anymore. I got to do something different because I'm not living my full potential"? Yes. Am I the kind of mom I want to be? No. Is my career skyrocketing still? No. Let's take this one piece out and see what happens.
And so alcohol-free to me, I'm really attracted to the concept of freedom. I think my theme song is Don't Fence Me In. So I am very, very choiceful and conscious about using that terminology. If I'm going to have a party and it's a sober party, guess who's not invited? Everybody who isn't sober, but if I have an alcohol-free party, anybody can come. Anybody can come. Just you're going to be drinking lemonade and spritzers rather than whiskey or wine.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
KAY ALLISON: So I think that the chorale that gets drawn around words, I think it's different for alcohol-free than it is with alcoholic or sober.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for that. And I was reading, you said there's so many communities and I wonder if ... You're starting to allude to what this community might be that might form with this in a workplace, just like we have other diversity in employee resource groups. I'd like to see more mental health work being done by employees in the same vein as we do work on gender and racism in the workplace and homophobia and a lot of things that have sprung up organically that have ultimately been then "institutionalized", have become sanctioned and funded and more formal efforts, right? So we see a lot of this grassroots become a thread of the workplace culture eventually. And I think I see something like this becoming a part of our approach in the future.
But I was reading, there's a subreddit called Stop Drinking with 400,000 members in it. There's this sober, to your point about language, but there's a sober squad Facebook group for Peloton users. I was reading about the Phoenix, which is an active community for people who are adventurers. It's founded by your friend that is for the alcohol-free contingent. And I would imagine there's so much allyship that can occur as well. I feel I'm always looking for the opportunity to serve as an ally for communities that are finding their voice of an identity that I don't happen to carry or struggle with. So I feel that there's a role there too.
But what might a structure ... What is your dream state if could that you think would create enough of an awareness and particular actions that could be taken around workplace behaviors that would really truly support this, get it out into the open, begin to address it, improve it and usualize it?
KAY ALLISON: That's a great question and I think that, if the efforts that happen with companies are around the problem in labeling the problem, it's not going to fly. If it is put forward and labeled around the benefit, then I think it's attractive to people, right? So instead of saying, "This is for people with a problem with alcohol," yikes, I don't want to be seen walking into that room. I don't know about you, but if it's about how to live free from anxiety or how to live with a sense of inner equanimity, sign me up all day long. And that's what it really has taken for me to stay sober, is not just, "Oh, I've got to find different ways to take the edge off of my anxiety that don't involve cork screw," but also, "How do I comport myself throughout the day? What principles do I align myself with on a daily basis, so that I don't develop that anxiety to start with?" That's where I think the huge opportunity is.
If the top of the iceberg is there's ramp in anxiety in corporate America and in smaller companies too, then maybe we deal with that and maybe it's about living with a sense of peace. How do we create an inner peace movement and as a way to deliver our business deliverables and performance, not just as a nice to have? If we're doing meditation for God's sakes, what else can we do that helps people take the edge off of their anxiety? Oh, by the way, if you're presenting with, "I'm attracted to not having anxiety," you may want to experiment for 30 days with not drinking and see what happens.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love what you're talking about is going upstream. You're literally going back to the source and then you're resourcing that, which is actually the real conversation. And then you're adding this to the list of wellness practices, behaviors, habits that we're already talking about, but you are making it more overt and you're naming it. And just naming something is so powerful. So I hear what you're doing. You're from the advertising world, but you and I know, words matter, messaging matters and I love what you just said to say this is not, again, pathologizing something and inviting the stigma. That would be like the LGBTQ groups in the workplace only talking about homophobia, only talking about hate crimes, instead of, not instead of, in addition though, as we do now, speaking of what's the opportunity to, for example, attract and retain this talented community. That has a whole different energy to it and also ...
KAY ALLISON: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: ... bring that insight, that lived experience to bear on every innovation that we attempt. How can we create so much comfort here and safety that all of our populations feel extremely included and heard and valued and their differences aren't swept under the rug? So this is a powerful question. I have a tactical question. Do events and celebrations, when you have an alcohol-free commitment, how do you design so that everybody gets a bit of what they want if the alcohol-free population is a piece of the population but not the whole? What would you advise? Is this an all or nothing or is there a middle ground that we can live in and how do we do that?
KAY ALLISON: Jennifer, I remember going into a work event once and the only thing they had available that didn't have booze in it was a Dixie cup full of tap water. Oh, nice. Oh, okay. Oh, that was an issue. Look, it's not an all or nothing situation, it's just, "Could you please have some sparkling water available for those of us that don't want to drink?" I went to a wedding where the bride and groom were both alcohol-free and they had this amazing seltzer water bar with different flavored sparkling waters, different cranberry and pomegranate and cherry juice and that kind of stuff and then all these beautiful garnishes, mint leaves and wild raspberries and it was so fun. It's just, "Please have some alternatives." Right now, the nonalcoholic beverage space is growing by leaps and bounds. There are nonalcoholic wines. There are nonalcoholic spirits.
When my son and his wife got married this last summer, because there's a large contingent of us who don't drink, they had a mocktail menu. There are ways to do this now where I'm not standing there with my Dixie cup that I have a glass that looks pretty just like your does.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. The Dixie cup, like the kid's table at the Thanksgiving.
KAY ALLISON: That's what it felt like. And it was one of those teeny ones too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, gosh.
KAY ALLISON: Oh, my God.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that's what it was like. Well, I hope it is changing. It's good to hear that ... I've heard about nonalcoholic spirits recently and I was very inspired to try some of those. Yeah, they sound delicious. Well, this has just been wonderful. Any parting words or things that we didn't cover that you want to make sure our audience understands or is equipped with? What would you leave us with? And then of course, I want to hear about where to find your book and follow you in all the socials.
KAY ALLISON: What I would leave people with is people's drinking doesn't have to be alcoholic in order for it to be affecting their performance in the workplace, right? So if we want innovation and we want good decision making and we want people showing up with their whole selves, any moderate drinking that's going on or is encouraged is working to the opposite effect. And to just at every work event to please just have a few nice options that don't look different and to give people the space to be able to make whatever choices they're making about what to ingest and not make it any of your business.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's right and I would add, are there leaders that are willing to share about their journey? Here and there, we hear some executive sharing that they're neurodiverse and have been dyslexic and how it's impacted them. And all of a sudden, you can feel in the organization this collective sigh of ...
KAY ALLISON: That's right.
JENNIFER BROWN: ... recognition and it's beautiful and how-
KAY ALLISON: I think we go through our careers with our shields up like Star Trek. We've got our shields up and we're pretending we've got it all together. And when somebody at the top actually lets their shield down just a teeny bit, everybody else's goes down a little bit too which means that we're more real.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's beautiful. I love that when that happens. So yeah, this is wonderful. Thank you for the work you do. And I know you run communities and you do coaching too. So feel free to not only tell us about your book, but how people who sense that this is impacting their lives can make some time and have some community to explore that and maybe make some different choices.
KAY ALLISON: Yeah. So I have a book coming out, Juicy AF, with a little wink, alcohol-free. As you said at the beginning, it will be released January 10th. There is a place on my website to order it. Even now, you can get an advance access to it. And if you order on my website, I'll also send you a 58-page workbook, so you can take the ideas and actually put them into action in your life and a journal as well as a 30-minute call with me. I'm calling it an anxiety and energy audit. And the purpose of that call is for you to get clear on, "Where is my anxiety level? Where's my energy level and what's going on with my drinking? Is there any correlation there?"
So if you go to my website, juicyaf.life/book, you will be set up with that. And then I'm also offering a 30-day alcohol-free experiment for professional women, executive and entrepreneurial women.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wonderful. So generous to offer all of that. I hope you'll hear from some Will to Change listeners, and for us who might identify as allies in training to raise awareness, is there any advice you'd give us in terms of how we can support?
KAY ALLISON: I think talking freely about what's going on for you and making sure that if you are on a planning committee for an event, just make sure there's some sparkling water please.
JENNIFER BROWN: No Dixie cups. That's going to be the title of the episode, From Dixie Cup to Mocktail.
KAY ALLISON: There you go.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. And as we say, you all know I bring this up a lot, but bring someone with a lived experience to the table as we are on our allied journey. It's a journey, not a destination and it's work that's never really done because we always have more to learn, particularly about lived experiences that are not ours. We speak a lot about who needs to be at that table that's planning, to be able to speak about what's really going to resonate and not feel like it's either performative like, "Oh, there's the Dixie cups over there," that is not a check-the-box exercise, but it's really done mindfully and respectfully and in an inspirational way and a creative way, which I think is so possible with all of this now more than ever.
KAY ALLISON: I think that being curious about other people's experience is the key to the whole allyship movement. I was a market researcher for 15 years and I conducted focus groups all over the world. And the thing that's so fascinating to me is everything we do makes sense to us. And so if somebody's doing something that's inexplicable to you, get curious about how it makes sense to them. And that whole approach in terms of allyship has been so powerful for me in my own world where, if I'm interacting with a LGBTQ family member, I'm curious about that, "It's not my lived experience. So help me. Can you please help me?" When I've had women that I work with that have gone through gender transition, "I don't have any experience with this. Can you please help me understand? How do you want me to refer to you? Please educate me." I think I'm just asking for the same thing for people who are making different choices around the type of beverage that they consume.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely, and that the little choices we make, you have in your book, we make 35,000 choices a day, decisions and choice-
KAY ALLISON: That's exhausting.
JENNIFER BROWN: That was research that came out of Cornell, I think. And how will you measure your life? So being vigilant, including the right people in conversations and planning, asking those with the lived experience, although also educating ourselves and not leaning too much on you, which is an important piece of allyship too. And then just being like, if you and I were physically co-located, we are working together, it's raising my awareness about the little things, the little things every day and opening the door to say, "Please tell me when I might microaggress and make an assumption that makes you uncomfortable because I didn't anticipate that that would be a problem for you or challenge for you or something that you would be afraid to push back on."
There are microaggressions, I think, if I could term it that, probably towards every community and I can imagine the ones here. It's, "Oh, what do you mean you're not ... What do you mean? What's wrong?" It goes from that, but it's also probably just choices about where to eat. And it's very similar to food and similar to religious practices as well and cultural holidays and our general lack of sensitivity to other's experience and needs and then their fear to really hold us accountable and say, "Well, I have to tell you something. What you did, what you said, what you didn't think about." Let's not wait until after the fact. Let's try to, as change agents, always pull that folding chair up to the table and say, "Hey, I might be an ally or however I identify, but I want to verbalize this. I want to make sure this is in the conversation."
And that's something we all can do and some of us can do that more easily than others, which I think is another hallmark of ally. The ally opportunity is to really have a much less risky conversation than it would require for somebody who's deep in a struggle to also elevate that. So there's this partnership, just like you and I demonstrate right now, that that can be extremely effective in changing hearts and minds, supporting people and changing organizations for the better. So, Kay, thank you so much. January 10th, everybody, but you can get it now, juicyaf.life/book.
KAY ALLISON: Perfect. You got it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay. And take advantage of this time with this beautiful soul, everybody. Wow, I hope your email blows up because you're wise on multiple levels, not just what we've been talking about today. So run, don't walk, everybody, but thank you so much for the work you're doing, Kay. I appreciate it. I'm cheering you on.
KAY ALLISON: I so appreciate your support, your generosity and the opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe, so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to The Will to Change: Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening and we'll be back next time with a new episode.
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