What It's Like to Be a Blackout Drunk
Sarah Hepola, author of <i>Blackout</i>, on the paranoia, fun and pain of drinking so much your memory stops "recording".
Photo via Flickr user Melinda
Hands up who's awoken after sinking a few too many large House Reds and not had the faintest idea about how you got home, or why there's a block of cheddar with a bite taken out of it on your pillow? Who's spent an entire Sunday in a cold sweat, wracking your brain for details of what happened the night before, too scared to text friends for fear of what they might tell you you've done? Well, if that's you, take a deep breath because it's likely you're going to recognise a lot of yourself in Sarah Hepola's memoir Blackout, a book about what it's like to be a fucking nightmare drunk.
When I call Hepola – an editor at Salon who lives in Dallas, Texas – to talk about her honest, unflinching and very funny book, I tell her it struck such a chord that I had to put it down for a moment and dry my clammy palms. "It's kind of like one long trigger warning," Hepola conceded. "I've had several people tell me how painful it is to read and I have mixed feelings about that because I don't mean to bring people pain, but I guess it's good to know you're not alone."
And Hepola certainly isn't alone. "If my inbox is any indication," she explains, "then England has a small blackout problem."
Once there's a certain level of booze in your blood, your brain stops forming memories entirely. As Hepola explains in her book: "The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus – the part of the brain making long term memories." So you can try as hard as you like to remember what happened, but it will be futile because there's absolutely nothing there. Zilch.
"It's simple: the recorder in your brain has shut down," Hepola tells me. "Blackouts were the scariest, craziest part of my drinking and in all those years I never knew what was happening. That blind spot on its own is just stunning to me. And I've been really amazed at how many people – many of whom I considered smart, educated friends – did not know the difference between blacking out and passing out. They thought that blackout meant unconscious and asleep on the couch instead of being up and around and moving and functioning."
From the first time she got drunk aged 13 (although she'd already discovered she had a taste for beer at 11), to the time she finally decided to quit drinking almost 25 years later, blackouts were something of a speciality for Hepola. Like most other people, it wasn't that she sought to get blackout drunk. She'd have a couple of drinks, have a few more and then... nothing, until the next morning when the detective work on your own life begins with the help of little clues – receipts, text messages, the person lying next to you – to decipher what it is you did or said. And if there aren't any clues, then, well, good luck to you and your paranoia.
"I think the not knowing what happened is the worse part of the blackout experience," says Hepola. "But by my early twenties I did have some idea of what my behaviour was like. I know I tend to take my clothes off – and not in a sexy way, in a weird, uncomfortable exhibitionist way that makes people want to step away from me. The other thing I know I do is cry uncontrollably about my own essential unlovability. And I would also be very aggressive sexually with men. And because I knew that I had these behaviours, when I woke up at about five or six in the morning after a night out, I would just be in bed, quivering with fear."
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The behaviours Hepola describes are not exclusive to the female blackout experience – men cry and get naked, too – but I'd hazard they will no doubt speak vividly to many women for whom heavy drinking is central to socialising. Even if you've never blacked out, Hepola's description of how she drank with her girlfriends – of wine being the "social glue" that held them together, of a bottle on the table as "a byword for 'let's have a difficult conversation'" – will ring true.
When I suggest that women, perhaps more so than men, have the capacity to sit around a table all night working their way through bottle after bottle of wine, Hepola enthusiastically agrees. "You can watch the sun move across the sky, and the only way you can tell the time is by how many empties are piled up in the corner. That is literally your only metric, because you haven't moved for six hours. It's like: 'We're going to get through everything. We're going to drink it all.'"
There's no question that alcohol consumption – especially among university-educated women – has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. A report on dangerous drinking, undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development earlier this year, revealed that highly educated British women drink more than any other similar group in the Western world. It's a phenomenon being labelled by some as the "dark side of equality"; the idea that, as women find more work in traditionally male environments, become more financially independent and delay motherhood, they start drinking like men, too.
But I don't think that's the whole story. Not all women drink to be like men, or to match them. Especially as the stats showed that the heaviest drinkers in that bracket were doing their imbibing alone at home.
The height of Hepola's drinking was during the early days of Sex and the City which, as she puts it, "was a celebration of sisterhood – sisterhood as experienced through the pressure valve release of a shared cocktail".
The image of Carrie and co getting a bit tipsy on a cosmopolitan might be beyond naff now, but at the time the show was symbolic of how alcohol had become inextricably linked to female empowerment.
And for any teenage girl who watched SATC, it made drinking and smoking in a big city with your best gal pals look like the coolest thing in the world. And that's because it kind of is.
"We glamourise drinking. We portray it as what it makes us feel like – 'I'm sexy! I'm pretty! I'm funny! Clink clink' – but we rarely show what it really looks like."
And what it really looks like, or at least what it looked like for Hepola as she entered her thirties, was falling down stairs, almost burning down her own house, being overweight and having friends that no longer speak to you.
"You normalise things by laughing about them – as long as everyone's laughing about the fact you fell down the stairs, it's no big deal. But my antics were getting less and less amusing, and that's a huge part of when you know you have a problem."
How did you feel, I ask, when those people had to have THAT conversation with you?
"I was fucking heartbroken. Fucking heartbroken. I was embarrassed first of all. And I felt like everyone had broken a social contract – that they had said it was OK and now they were telling me it wasn't.
"I kept thinking something's going to stop me. Something's going to come along and it's going to take the wine glass out of my hand – I'm going to get pregnant, or I'm going to fall in love – but what I found was that all these things changed around me and I held on to that wine glass."
Hepola tried to stop drinking many times, and in the end it wasn't a catastrophically cringe-inducing incident that finally made her give up the bottle for good – rather the realisation that her life might never change otherwise.
"One of the reasons you keep drinking is because you feel like a terrible person. What make me feel good now is that I can use my experiences to help others. 'Me too' is a very important phrase. It makes you realise you are not alone."
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