What It's Like When Alcohol Takes Over Your Life -- And Steals Your Memories

Silhouette of girl who is drinking
Silhouette of girl who is drinking

There are some crucial details missing from Sarah Hepola's new memoir, Blackout -- but that's the whole point.

In her book, released in June, the author -- who edits personal essays for Salon.com -- discusses her long, both complicated and sometimes devastatingly simple relationship with alcohol. It started early (she first stole sips of beer at age 7), and blazed a destructive path through several decades of her life.

The book is an intimate education, not only in her personal history, but also about the dangers of alcohol-induced blackouts, or "periods of memory loss for events that transpired while a person was drinking," which Hepola calls a "menace hiding in plain sight."

When she was having a blackout, Hepola explains, she could appear to be interacting with the world consciously -- but afterward, she would have no memory of what had happened. At one point, for example, she came out of a blackout while having sex with someone she didn't recognize: "It's like the universe dropped me into someone else's body. Into someone else's life. But I seem to be enjoying it. I'm making all the right sounds."

"[P]eople in a blackout can be surprisingly functional," she writes. "This is a point worth underscoring, since the most common misperception about blacking out is confusing it with passing out, losing consciousness after too much booze. But in a blackout, a person is anything but silent and immobile. ... The next day, your brain will have no imprint of [your] activities, almost as if they didn't happen." (Blackouts can be either partial or complete.)

I spoke to Hepola, a former colleague of mine, about drinking, body image, the politics of consent and what to do if you think you know someone who has a problem.

You mention that you were able to write off educational materials about excessive drinking -- like a student health center pamphlet, in college -- because they just didn’t seem that realistic to you. Given your experience, do you think there is a better way to educate people about these issues?

I don’t know. I wonder, too: is that a question I should really be answering? Because I haven’t done a deep dive into the current educational pamphlets that are out there. I’m telling you about what I saw when I was 19.

As a drinker and a snob, I had an allergy to educational materials, period. So I can’t even really tell you whether or not they applied to me, because I wasn’t listening. I didn’t have ears for that.

But one of the things that reached through my denial, for whatever reason, was other people’s stories. They were just telling me about their life, and I was like, “Oh man, me too. Me too. Oh God, I did that. Oh yeah, that was me.” You start to see the ways that their stories sync up with you.

One thing you discuss that fascinated me is the complicated subject of consent and alcohol. You say that in your own life, "alcohol often made the issue of consent very murky." Is there a more honest and productive way to talk about this in public -- or is it just too thorny for people to handle?

I think I’m gonna find out the answer to that question over the next few months. (Laughs.) So there’s a little bit of TBD on that answer.

When you are making policy, and when you are trying to make social change, it behooves you to speak in very clear terms, you know? I have that line in the book: “Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it." And this is not just a sex thing! This is about every corner of human life.

Political talking points don’t lie neatly along human behavior. We know that. It’s been a very interesting time, because we’ve had a conversation about consent that I have never seen before in my lifetime. I’m 40 years old, and during all these years that I’m getting wasted to the point of blackout, that I’m falling down stairs, that I’m having one night stands with guys, I cannot remember -- and I’m not saying this never happened, but I cannot remember -- a friend, a person around me, or anyone saying, “Were you too drunk to consent to this?” I just don’t remember that conversation ever happening.

For me, in terms of consent, there are these very clear lines. When a woman is passed out, that is a clear line that you should not cross. If you do, that is sexual assault. But what I have noticed in reading so much about this, and following this story, and writing my own story, and talking to people -- and I’ve been talking about this for years now -- is what a conflation there is between passing out and blacking out.

Yes. I think a lot of people don’t know the difference.

They have no idea. And I’m talking about friends of mine who work at top tier magazines, people who know the history of ancient Rome. And they don’t know the difference between blacking out and passing out.

Because I was part of a binge-drinking culture and because it was a part of my life, I always knew -- ever since I blacked out when I was 12. That’s when I first found out what blacking out was. And it never occurred to me that that conflation was happening, and it was happening on such a wide level.

I have spoken to women who, when they wake up and they can’t remember what happened the night before, their immediate thing is, “I was drugged; I was roofied.” And that is possible, but I think one of the things that wasn’t out there, to my thinking, was just how often excessive drinking leads to blacking out, especially for women.

Yeah. There was a lot about blackouts I didn’t know before I read your book.

I list some blood-alcohol content numbers in the book, which are average BACs: a fragmentary [partial] blackout happens at 0.20, and en bloc [complete] blackouts are, on average, at about 0.30. Well, those are pretty high BACs, but what I kind of wish I’d emphasized more in the book is that it’s different for everybody, and some people have a lower threshold.

My point in all of this is: “Hey, we’re having this explosive, important, necessary, fascinating, difficult conversation about consent. Good. Here’s something that I think helps enrich the conversation." We need to understand these terms -- "blackout" and "passing out” -- a little bit better, so that we can have a better conversation.


Another topic you explore -- related to your own weight loss -- is body acceptance. Do you think the recent cultural push for acceptance and body love can actually make it harder for people to make a change?

One of the reasons that I drank so much when I was drinking and involved with men is that I felt deeply uncomfortable with my own body. Deeply uncomfortable. And so alcohol became this way to drown those critical voices. But then, if you drink too much, alcohol lowers your judgement and your inhibitions.

When I came out the other side of that, and I was sober and I was examining, Why did I drink so much?, one of the reasons was because I never felt comfortable in my body. And I needed to feel comfortable in my body. See, the body acceptance movement, I think, in its most pure form, is not, “You have to be this way and accept it”; it’s that you can love your body at any size. The question is: What size is that, and should it be? Your size might be different than my size.

Right. And it might be different from what you are at the moment -- without being “supermodel size,” either.

Oh, absolutely! I lost 50 pounds, but I still have to accept that I’m never going to have the body of my 5'10" actress friend. What I needed to do for myself was to find the body that I felt comfortable in, given the parameters that I have. And by the way, feminism never did this to me, the body acceptance movement never did this to me -- this was simply what I did, probably because I didn’t want to do the hard work of change. I just decided, I get to be however I want, and you need to accept me. I had not done the hard work of accepting myself; I was always drinking myself into an acceptance of myself, but I introduced new shame. It’s a bad situation, to be relying on alcohol for your acceptance, because then you start doing things that are unacceptable.

I was very disconnected from my body by the end. I was very disconnected from the emotional stakes of sex. I was very disconnected from, “Am I even hungry?” I am such a binge eater, and I will eat away my feelings in the same way that I would drink away my feelings. I had to learn a tolerance to sit in my own uncomfortable feelings -- and then you kind of start thinking, “What kind of life do I want to build for myself?”

Obviously, I don’t think that there will be a one-size-fits-all answer here, but I do think many of us know people who we think might have a problem -- and we honestly don’t know what to say. Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about broaching the subject of drinking problems with a friend?

Thank you for asking me that. My heart goes out to people who have that situation. I was not in that situation; I was on the other side of the fence. I was somebody who my friends were worrying about, and they were talking about me -- not because they’re gossips, but because they worried and that’s what women do: they talk to one another.

I think the first instinct when you have this situation is to cut that person out of your life. “I’m not gonna deal with that person because that person brings chaos” -- and I understand that. And in a way, you’re telling that person something. But if this is someone really close to you, and who you care about, then I think you might want to say -- not something like “you’re drinking too much,” because accusatory lines like that just bring up somebody’s porcupine needles -- but, “I’m worried about you. I’m watching you and you don’t look OK to me. The stories that you’re telling me aren’t funny anymore.”

That was something that was big for me. I told these stories and everyone laughed and I felt heroic. And when my friends stopped laughing... because, you know, laughter is a complicity; it’s “I’m in this with you.” When my friends stopped laughing, I was like, “Oh wow, OK, this isn’t so cool anymore.”

Each of my friends reacted differently to what was going on. Some of them just never spoke about it and silently worried. Some of them were just never going to cut me out, no matter what. I had friends where it was like -- I’m giving her my confessions every weekend and she’s trying to play nursemaid and priest and mother and all these things and she finally had to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” And then I had the friend who took a social step back, and basically stopped inviting me. Instead of just not inviting me, which she could have done -- she could have just slowly slinked out of my life, and I would have probably just stayed in denial and thought, “You know what? She’s really busy, she’s an actress; she’s out in LA with her husband, I’m not gonna worry about it. It’s not about me” -- she gave me a great gift by saying, and I’m paraphrasing: “This is actually about you; this is about your behavior. I’m worried about you. And it’s hard to be close to you right now.”

And that is a great gift that you can give someone. But it’s not like they’re gonna turn around and say, “Thank you! I’ve been waiting for someone to confront me on my drinking!” They will feel defensive, hurt. I felt betrayed. All my friends drank -- why were they telling me it’s not OK, when their drinking was OK? Which is one of the fundamental problems that alcoholics have to face: some people can keep alcohol in their life because they’re able to moderate it, but I could not.

What would you say to people who are maybe 30 days out from quitting? From reading your book, that seemed to me like perhaps the time that was the hardest for you.


Is there anything that would have been helpful for you to hear, or that you would say to people who are in that stage right now?

I was so scared that my life was over. That sounds really dramatic. But I think that when you’re in that place, you do feel dramatic. I thought that my dating life was over, because there was no way in hell that I was gonna be able to be intimate with somebody without drinking. I thought that my friendships were over, because alcohol had been such a point of bonding for us. And what happens to the addict when he or she is in this place, is that the first week, or month, or in my case, year, are so bad that they keep falling back, keep falling back -- which I did for two years leading up to the moment that I quit. And what I wish I could impart to someone is: If you can just get through that difficult first month, or two months, or whatever it turns out to be, I promise you, I swear to you, it is so much better on this side.

Every one of my friendships got stronger when I quit drinking -- because when you dare to tell the truth to the people who are close to you, and you dare to show your heart to them, that is an act of trust, and people, if they’re good friends -- and mine were -- they respond to that. They respond to that with love. 2015-07-01-1435774031-2460295-blackout.jpg

I don’t want to brag about where I am now. That’s not what this is about. What is important to me is that I thought my life was over, and truly, this whole chapter of my life was just beginning. There was so much that was on the other side of sobriety that was so much better. It’s like that line I have in the book: I thought sobriety was the boring part, but sobriety is the plot twist.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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