Sarah Hepola's new book Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget, recounts her experience as a young woman climbing the career ladder, while wrestling with the knowledge that she did, in fact, have a drinking problem.
Frank, very funny and brutally honest, the memoir charts her college years spent drinking and passing out at keg parties, her early working years socialising in cocktail bars - blacking out afterwards, plus the poignant account of what happened next.
Forced to give up something which had long been a part of her identity, Sarah's journey through painful realisation and later, reinvention, is an inspirational one.
Read a moving extract here...
"I was 20 years old when I first started worrying I drank too much. I picked up one of those pamphlets at the student health center. Do you have a drinking problem? I was in college. I was pretty sure everyone I knew had a drinking problem. My photo album was a flipbook of evidence: My friend Dave, with a bottle of Jim Beam to his lips. My friend Anne, passed out on the couch with a red Solo cup still upright in her hand. Heroic postures of sin and debauch.
But there was something troubling about the way I drank. Friends would inch-worm up to me on Sundays, when our apartment was still wrecked with stink and regret. Hey. So. We need to talk. They tried to sound casual, like we were going to chat about boys and nail polish, but the next eight words were like needles sunk into my skin. Do you remember what you did last night?
And so, the pamphlet. It was such a corny, flimsy thing. It had probably been languishing on that rack of good intentions since the 1980s. The language was so alarmist and paternalistic (a word I’d just learned and enjoyed using).
Have you ever had a hangover? Come on. I felt pity for the wallflower who answered no to this question. Drinking at least three times a week was as fundamental to my education as choosing a major. My friends and I didn’t hang with anyone who didn’t party. There was something untrustworthy about people who crossed their arms at the bacchanal.
Next question: Do you ever drink to get drunk? Good lord. Why else would a person drink? To cure cancer? This was stupid. I had come to that health clinic with real fear in my heart, but already I felt foolish for being so dramatic.
Do you ever black out?
Wait, that one. That question, right there. Do you ever black out? I did. I blacked out the first time I got drunk, and it happened again. And again. Some blackouts were benign, the last few hours of an evening turning into a blurry strobe. Some were extravagant. Like the one that brought me to the health clinic, after waking up in my parents’ house and having no idea how I got there. Three hours, gone from my brain.
During uncomfortable conversations with my friends, I would listen in disbelief as they told stories about me that were like the work of an evil twin. I said what? I did what? But I didn’t want to betray how little I knew. I wanted to eject from those discussions as quickly as possible, so I would nod and tell them I felt terrible about what I’d done (whatever it turned out to be). The soft language of disarmament: I hear you. You are heard.
Other questions in the pamphlet were sort of ridiculous. Do you drink every day? Have you ever been sent to jail for your drinking? This was the low stuff of gutter drunks to me. I still shopped at the Gap. I had a Winnie-the-Pooh night lamp. No, I hadn’t been sent to jail, and no, I didn’t drink every day, and I was relieved to find those questions there, because they felt like exemption.
I was a college kid. I loved beer, and I loved the sophisticated sting of red wine, and I loved the fine and fiery stupor of bourbon and sometimes I got so wasted that I poured those drinks on my head while performing songs from A Chorus Line in some twilight state I could not recall, and in the scope of universe and all its problems, was this really—really—such a big deal?
I didn’t quit drinking that day. Of course I didn’t. But I left the clinic with the notion that alcohol was an escalating madness, and the blackout issue was the juncture separating two kinds of drinking. One kind was a comet in your veins. The other kind left you sunken and cratered, drained of all light.
I figured if I stayed in the middle, in the gray area, I would be OK. Blacking out was bad, but it wasn’t that big of a deal, right? It’s not like I was the only person who ever forgot a night of drinking, right? And it’s not like it happened to me that often.
At a party I threw a few months later, a friend danced in my living room in a giant fish costume. The next morning, as we stared at the shiny fabric in a heap on the floor, she said: Why is that costume there? I was flooded with gratitude. Not just me. Thank God.
In my 20s, friends called with that hush in their voice to tell me they’d woken up beside some guy. They called after forgotten wedding receptions where the open bar had proven a little too open. Not just me. Thank God.
In my early 30s, I used to have brunch with a sardonic guy who actually bragged about his blackouts. He called it “time travel,” which sounded so nifty, like a supernatural power. He wasn’t drinking too many Long Island iced teas; he was punching a hole in the space-time continuum.
I was laughing about my blackouts by then, too. I used to joke I was creating a show called CSI: Hangover, because I would be forced to dig around the apartment like a crime scene investigator, rooting through receipts and other detritus to build a plausible theory of the night’s events. I imagined myself crouched by the bed, wearing those blue plastic gloves and picking up each questionable item with long tweezers. This crumpled wrapper suggests our victim was hungry, I would say, holding the foil in the light and then giving it a long whiff. And this has the unmistakable smell of a Beef Meximelt.
It’s weird how a woman frightened by her own blackouts becomes a woman who shrugs them off like an unpaid cable bill. But any heavy drinker understands the constant redistricting and gerrymandering of what constitutes an actual “problem.” I’d come to think of blackouts as a surcharge for the grand spectacle of drinking. There was something deliciously chaotic about tossing your night up into the air and finding out the next morning what happened. Haven’t you seen The Hangover?
But there’s a certain point when you fall down the staircase, and you look around, and no one is amused anymore. By 35, I was 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. Her tone was alarmist, like the pamphlet I’d once read, but a trip to any keg party would illustrate that if blackouts doomed a person to alcoholism, then most of us were doomed.
“Everyone has blackouts," I told her.
She locked eyes with me. “No, they don’t."
For many years, I was confounded by my blackouts, but the mechanics are quite simple. The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus. Such a peculiar word, hippocampus, like a children’s book character. I imagine a beast with a twitching snout and big, flapping eye- lashes. But it’s actually the part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and the beast stops twitching. Shutdown. No more memories."