“Blackout” Drinker: Sarah Hepola’s Memoir About Recovery

As I inched into my 30s, I found myself in that precarious place where I knew I drank too much, but I believed I could manage it somehow. I was seeing a therapist, and when I talked to her about my blackouts, she gasped. I bristled at her concern.
“Everyone has blackouts,” I told her.
She locked eyes with me. “No, they don’t.” Sarah Hepola, Blackout

Why this particular quote from Sarah Hepola‘s recently published Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget? Because as a therapist I recognize it as a fairly common scenario—the denial that precedes an altogether different discovery about one’s drinking and its effects.

As Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, comments about the perceived normalcy of certain patterns of drinking:

Blackouts aside, Hepola’s brand of alcoholism tracks with a way of drinking that’s familiar to many of us: the wine-soaked book club, the cocktails with friends, the after-work drinks…
But what’s cute in college and socially acceptable in your twenties turns ugly in your thirties. There are those who drink the book club wine, then go happily home to bed. And there are those, like Hepola, who follow it up with a six pack or two of beer…

Hepola, now 40 and a Salon editor, has a lot to say about her history of blackout drinking. The quote at the top and the next couple are from a book excerpt in The Guardian.

What is a blackout? Contrary to popular belief, an alcohol-related blackout is not the same as passing out. Rather, it’s when you forget what’s happened to you: “the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.”

Behind the scenes of a blackout: 

The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and that’s it. Shutdown. No more memories.

Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed – what a friend of mine calls ‘getting caught in the drunkard’s loop’. The tendency to repeat what you just said is a classic sign of a blackout, although there are others. ‘Your eyes go dead, like a zombie,’ a boyfriend once told me. ‘It’s like you’re not there at all.’ People in a blackout often get a vacant, glazed-over look, as though their brain is unplugged. And, well, it kind of is.

Blackouts, by the way, come in different sizes, as it were. There are, for instance, “brownouts”—a fragmentary type; there are en bloc ones, a full-scale loss of memory for a significant period.

Felsenthal summarizes some details regarding Hepola’s drinking episodes:

She might tumble down staircases, expose herself publically, hijack a dinner party with emotional histrionics—but she wouldn’t find out until annoyed friends reported back to her in the morning. Why did she once wake up in a dog’s bed at someone else’s house? Why did she regularly wake up in the beds of strangers?

On Hepola Quitting Drinking

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