This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I remember one of the worst shameovers I ever got, almost exactly a decade ago.
I was 21 and had been at a music festival. Me and two friends sloppily pounded a 750ml bottle of vodka in the parking lot before entering the grounds. I remember waking up a few hours later, face down in the grass. As I propped myself upright and looked around, I realized none of my friends were around me. So I set off to find them, and once I did, began drinking again. I have a vague memory of taking my shirt off, revealing a red lace bra.
After the day was over, my one friend who was our designated driver took us back home and I fell into a sweaty sleep. I dreamt that my friends staged an intervention for me. When I woke up, that dream kind of came true. It wasn’t a full intervention, but my DD friend called me and basically said “enough is enough.”
To be clear, the issue wasn’t that I was drinking constantly, per se. It was more a lack of self-control when I did drink—which was often to the point of blacking out. When I blacked out, all bets were off. I would still be “functioning”—walking/stumbling around, talking to people, dancing—but the next day I would have no memory of what I’d been doing, and often I’d been doing some pretty weird shit. At the festival, for example, my friends said I was parading around in my bra, and then stole fries from a complete stranger, and sat on some random dudes’ laps. In fact, during that time period in my early 20s, those were some of my signature moves, along with stealing from people, and occasionally hitchhiking. But my friends had had enough. They were tired of babysitting me, tired of how unpredictable I could be—gushing one minute, inexplicably angry the next.
After that festival, I vowed to stop blacking out and for the most part I did. But, as I got older, I found the shameovers persisted, and even seemed to be getting worse. Nowadays, if I overdo it, I wake up with a sense of anxiety, a feeling that I did something wrong, even if that wasn’t the case.
It’s a feeling Sarah Hepola can relate to. The Dallas-based journalist wrote a memoir called Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, which was published in 2015. It chronicles her addiction to alcohol, beginning with her carefree days of binge drinking in college, in a brutally honest, hilarious, and poignant way.
Hepola, 44, who hasn’t had a drink in more than eight years, likens the shameover moment to last call at a bar, when the lights come on and everything looks like shit.
“I think the thing that’s so challenging about that moment is it’s really you left alone… and having to rifle through this set of data,” she says. “Just like a horror movie, there will be a reveal and you’ll be like ‘I forgot that part.’ And it’s all happening in your own mind.”
One of Hepola’s weird drunk behaviors was mooning people.
“If I was drunk enough I would do that,” she said. “It was not cool. Nobody thought it was cool.”
Hepola had different ways of coping with a shame spiral after drinking. She would often try to use a sneaky tactic to find out how badly she’d behaved.
“I would often text the person that had the party and says ‘that was an awesome party.’ And they’d be like ‘Oh it was great to have you.’ Or they’d be like ‘Oh I was worried about you.’”
In college, she said she and her roommates would be laughing about her antics by noon the next day. But the older she got, the more she received the latter “concerned” response, especially because others around her weren’t drinking as much.
“I think maybe the shame spiral is because I knew there was something wrong with the way that I drank that much.”
Not all shameovers are warranted. Part of it is just the physiological reaction to alcohol, a depressant.
“It could be the lingering effects of alcohol on your nervous system,” Charlie Glickman, a Seattle-based sex educator, told VICE. “Your body can’t tell the difference between ‘I’m feeling depressed because something bad happened’ versus ‘I’m feeling depressed because my nervous system has the dial turned down a little bit.’”
Glickman also said intimacy, whether through a hookup or even just a revealing conversation with a colleague that perhaps wasn’t super appropriate in retrospect, can contribute to a shameover. When it comes to drunk hookups in particular, he said women can beat themselves up over having to do a “walk of shame.”
“That's partially because of slut shaming,” he said.
He recommends simple things like sleeping, staying hydrated, and eating protein to help get you through the hump, but also reminding yourself that you’re not a bad person just because you partied or had sex.
While he thinks the walk of shame should be renamed the “walk of awesome,” Glickman said if you’re having a shameover every time you hook up with someone, “it might be time to rethink your choices.”
Richard Stephens, a psychology professor at Keele University in the UK, researches hangovers.
He told VICE the amount a person drinks only predicts 20 to 30 percent of how hungover that person will get, whereas things like anxiety and guilt about drinking also play a role.
“I think there is probably a scientific basis for this idea of a shame hangover,” he said, but it hasn’t been studied much. He also said it’s unclear how hangovers change over a lifespan, despite the urban myth that they absolutely get worse with age.
In one paper he authored, a survey of 50,000 people, found younger people get hangovers much more frequently than older people, likely a product of binge drinking, he said. But it didn’t say which demographic’s hangovers are rougher.
“It could go either way. It could be that yes, indeed, hangovers get worse with age because of the decline of the body and older people have more chronic inflammation than younger people.” But it could also be that hangovers don’t seem as bad when you’re younger because you don’t have as many responsibilities. Or older people could simply be misremembering how bad their hangovers were in their early 20s.
Stephens said he’s interested in learning to what extent people learn from hangovers to moderate their drinking.
“When is the hangover a useful societal source?... Hangover is this kind of natural break on drinking because everybody knows if they overdo it then they feel awful the next morning.”
Hepola drank for 15 years. It took her two years to stop, and she attributes shameovers to motivating her.
“Part of it is you can’t tolerate living in that shame spiral anymore. It becomes unbearable to you,” she said.
As we wrapped up our hour-long conversation, she told me if I ever want to stop drinking I can call her.
“A lot of people age out of this and you just don’t know which one you’re going to be until the clock rolls forward a little bit more,” she said.
“If you ever do feel like you want to quit drinking and you need to talk to somebody about it, feel free to call me. But if you don’t, don’t ever feel bad about it.”
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