'Blackout' Author Sarah Hepola Talks Women, Alcohol, and Power

"We all find different ways for alcohol to fix something -- it's a very versatile fix for human frailty," Sarah Hepola tells me over the phone.

That is, of course, until it sends you spiraling into oblivion and you find yourself, say, zapping back from a blackout mid-sex in a hotel in Paris... with a stranger you've no memory of meeting. Or maybe you're forced to move out of your studio apartment after blacking out and almost burning it down. Or, perhaps, you moon people in bumper-to-bumper traffic, "which is a little bit like mooning someone and then being stuck in a grocery line with them for the next 10 minutes." Or you tarnish friendships, eviscerate evenings, wake up in a strange dog bed with no idea how you landed there.

For Hepola, oblivion looked like all of this. Her evenings, as she says, "came with trapdoors," her life marked by the untangling of the mysteries of her alcohol-fueled blackouts: "What happened last night? Who are you and why are we fucking?"

And in her New York Times bestselling breakout memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Hepola offers an unflinching look into her own self-destruction, inviting readers to witness her "humiliation buffet" -- and, ultimately, her sober self-realization.

Infused with sharp humor and carried along with elegant, brisk prose, Blackout traces the arc of Hepola's life, beginning when she was seven years old and snuck her first sips of Pearl Light from the family fridge in Dallas, "the land of rump-shaking cheerleaders and Mary Kay." After guiding us through her adolescent tribulations, first relationships, and drunken antics at the University of Texas, Hepola brings us along for her years as a binge-drinking journalist -- first in Austin and then in New York City, where she settled in as Salon's personal essays editor. Finally, at age 35, she confronts the crippling reality of her addiction, working through the "slow and aching present" of her newfound sobriety and piecing together the blueprint of her existence.

Though conceivably Hepola is the (at times infamous) star of Blackout, at the crux of the book is the question of power -- political, professional, personal -- and how one defines and negotiates it.

You might conclude that because Hepola had taken trashed tumbles down marble staircases and woken up naked in her parents' house under a poster of James Dean, she might roundly vilify booze in her sobriety. But in conversation as in her writing, Hepola is measured and nuanced; alcohol can be at once a harbinger of complete destruction, and also, she concedes as we chat about stress management, a more streamlined tactic for calming nerves than yoga.

"There is some wisdom in the idea that there is empowerment in alcohol," she tells me flat out.

The fact is, women's ability to drink more tells you about women's rising place in society. We have more money, more access to leisure time, more freedom. If you watch a show like Mad Men, you can track the power Joan and Peggy have by their proximity to the bottle of liquor. The more power they have in their workplace, the more they get to drink at work.

And it may be this very rise of women, seemingly ironically and somewhat uncomfortably, that contributed to Hepola's addiction. In Blackout, she describes her admiration for tough, take-no-bullshit women: "I looked up to women who drink. My heart belonged to the defiant ones, the cigarette smokers, the pants wearers, the ones who gave a stiff arm to history."

But this stiff-arming didn't come naturally to Hepola, who imbibed partly to embolden herself:

We're lucky enough to be a living in a time where a lot of women want to be brave and strong and we're encouraged to fight for our place in the world, and I didn't know how to do that. Alcohol gave me expression that I didn't otherwise have. When I was drinking, I felt very powerful. That was one of its appeals to me. My voice felt very small, and drinking made it feel like a roar -- I loved that.

But while drinking enabled Hepola to feel powerful for a while -- allowing her to pursue entanglements with men, for instance, and write freely and openly at her first gig as a reporter for the Austin Chronicle -- it eventually stopped working. The power it afforded her drained out, leaving a shred of a human in its wake.

Hepola describes this trajectory to me as alcohol's "boomerang effect":

How many times have I gone out drinking, and the first three hours are awesome, and then it comes back around and it's awful? That is, in miniature, the life cycle of an alcoholic: the first few years are exciting and expansive and amazing, and then after a while your world starts shrinking.

When I asked Hepola if she thought that women abusing alcohol was an inevitable part of striving for equality, she told me she'd spent a lot of time researching that question, and time and again she'd come across the "idea that people who do not have positions of power imitate people who do." And in her own life, when she was coming into adulthood and looking around at those in power -- men -- she found they were "all drinking recklessly. They were just kind of giving two middle fingers to the world and didn't really care." Down the line, however, she told me:

I realized I was drinking to please men. I was imitating men to show them that I was a person to be reckoned with. And a lot of the behaviors I was imitating were not good ones.

Of course there were a few major differences between Hepola and these men she began to imitate. The first was biology. In writing Blackout, Hepola reached out to Aaron White, a leading expert on blackouts at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Though it's been long believed that blackouts are a "guy's thing," he explained that it's women who are actually more susceptible to the experience than men, due to a difference in how they metabolize booze. As Hepola wrote, "Nature, as it turns out, insists on a few double standards."

In addition to being more susceptible to blackouts, the way women experience blackouts is different as well. As White told Hepola, "When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them."

This commitment to exploring and teasing out the complexity and nuance not just of drinking and addiction, but of being a person navigating the pressures of the world, is what makes Blackout such a powerful read. It's Hepola's openness and relatability, her inviting the reader in to watch how she grappled with the nuts and bolts of life, that elevates the book within the addiction memoir canon.

I wanted to show it differently, that addiction just kind of curdles the human; you can watch the trajectory. The truth is, I was a garden variety drunk. I wasn't in any way 'hard' -- I mostly drank beer. And yet it still robbed me of my soul and agency. You don't need to do cocaine on a moving train to hit your rock bottom.

When I asked Hepola how her book had been received, she told me:

When I go to book events or when I talk to interviewers, almost invariably, they tell me, "thank you so much for writing this." They relate to the human stuff under the drinking. If they did have a drinking problem, they see a lot of their decisions and behaviors reflected back to them. If they don't have have a drinking problem, they ask, "Why is alcohol such a central part of my social life?"

Sounding grateful and adding that she's "bolstered by the fact that so many people reached out to thank me," Hepola also conceded, "I'm still waiting for the pushback. I'm waiting for the boomerang."

But while it's true that there may be a boomerang effect with Stella Artois, Hepola's words don't as easily fade from memory or relevance.

This post originally appeared on The Establishment, a brand new multimedia site funded and run by women.

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