The first time Sarah Hepola, author of the new memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, got drunk, she was eleven years old, visiting her cousin for summer vacation. At a lake house party an older guy handed her a beer. Several beers later, the rest of the night became hazy. The next morning her cousin asked if she remembered taking her pants off. She didn’t.
It was the first of many blackouts for Hepola over the next 24 years, as she went from booze-hungry preteen to binge-drinking college girl, to hard-drinking journalist. Socially awkward, painfully lacking in confidence, Hepola found courage in alcohol. Drinking meant she could seduce the boy she liked, she could steal the karaoke stage at her company holiday party. Drinking gave her a connection to the “defiant” women she looked up to, “the cigarette smokers, the pants wearers, the ones who gave a stiff arm to history.” Drinking eventually meant she could overcome her own self-doubt to find her voice as a writer.
But it came with consequences. Standing only five feet two inches, with the double curse of a high tolerance and a family history of alcoholism, Hepola could seemingly keep up with anyone. Until she couldn’t: There were hours of the night that would inevitably disappear from memory, “blank space where pivotal scenes should be.” 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? “A blackout is the untangling of a mystery,” Hepola writes. “It’s detective work on your own life. A blackout is: What happened last night? Who are you and why are we fucking?”
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. “I thought nothing of spending most evenings in a bar, because that’s what my friends were doing. I thought nothing of mandating wine bottles for any difficult conversation—for any conversation at all—because that’s what I saw in movies and television.”
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. After her early career karaoke triumph, her boss at The Austin Chronicle gave Hepola a gag gift, a two-beer-holding hat “so you can drink more at work.” A decade later, as her drinking friends began to reign in their consumption—or as the ones who didn’t became functional alcoholics—Hepola kept blacking out. Her life, even as she held down a good job at Salon, became more and more squalid. She almost lost her beloved cat. She almost burned down her wonderful apartment and was forced to move into a tiny studio. Her friends stopped extending invitations. Her therapist gave her an ultimatum: Quit drinking or quit seeing me. “It occurred to me for the first time that perhaps no real consequences would ever come to me,” she writes. “I would not end up in a hospital. I would not wind up in jail. Perhaps no one and nothing would ever stop me. Instead, I would carry on like this, a hopeless little lush in a space getting smaller each year. I had held on to many things. But not myself.”
The latter half of Blackout is about finding herself again. “I’ve never liked the part of the book where the main character gets sober,” she writes, echoing David Carr in his own addiction memoir, The Night of the Gun. “No more cheap sex with strangers.” When I read this, I found myself nodding along. But it’s sobriety that allows Hepola to confront her past with clarity, conviction, and humor. She consults with scientists to uncover the murky physiology of blackouts, and finds out they occur when blood alcohol levels get high enough to shut down the hippocampus, obliterating long-term memory (thought short-term memory, which is a two-minute loop, remains functional). She combs her childhood memories and family history to find threads of meaning. She even revisits the scene of one of her crimes, the Paris hotel where, years earlier, she woke up from a blackout in the middle of the night (rare), terrified to find herself on top of a man she didn’t recognize.
“I can’t believe I’d once thought the only interesting part of a story was when the heroine was drinking,” she realizes, and by the time she does, I’m right there with her. “Sobriety wasn’t the boring part. Sobriety was the plot twist.”
Hepola spoke with Vogue.com about blacking out, sobering up, and learning to laugh, even at life’s most painful twists and turns.
I’m 31, and even my friends still occasionally use the phrase “I got black out” to mean they had a hardcore night. What’s up with that?
That’s not a phrase that was used amongst my tribe. I only know that phrase anecdotally. You have this binge-drinking behavior that starts in college, goes through your twenties, and certain phrases take on a certain currency. It became increasingly clear to me as I worked on this book how little I knew about blackout even though it had been something that derailed my life for so many years. And then further, how little [other] people knew about it. Even drunks, even people that blackout regularly, don’t really know how it works. People think it’s passing out. That was the most common thing I heard. It just seemed to me like we all needed a-come-to-Jesus moment about what the hell blackout was.
The science of blackouts is really interesting. What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Probably when I heard the risk factors from [scientist] Aaron White, who now works at the NIAAA: If you hold your liquor, if you drink fast, if you skip meals, and if you’re a woman. Uh? I guess I associated blackout with hardcore alcoholic drinkers because the medical literature had over-emphasized that link for a long time. Drinking research was done on men. There was this idea that [blacking out] was mostly a male problem. [But] women don’t metabolize alcohol as well as men do. Even if you’re the same size as a guy, you’re going to get drunker than him. Here I am, five foot two, with my little swagger, walking into these drinking circles and declaring that I can drink these guys under the table. It’s one of those things that should be thunderously obvious to me, but from an early age I had drunk with fluency. I was just really good at it. I loved beer and I held my liquor. I didn’t vomit like my other friends and I didn’t pass out like they would. I could just keep going.
A lot of this memoir takes place while you were living in New York. I kept thinking about a line I once heard Keith Gessen read from his novel: that in New York, everyone is drunk all the time. You can float around the city, and every morning you can say, “Oh my god, I was so drunk last night,” and nobody thinks twice about it.
I love that quote. It’s so true. When I moved to New York, cabbies happened to me. Beer was available all night, and the bars were open till four. I got just as drunk when I lived in Texas, but I think I had to have more people take care of me. There are more checks and balances. In New York I lived alone. You don’t have the obstacles. Salon, where I eventually went to work, they didn’t have a drinking culture like the places I worked in Texas. They weren’t going to the bars after work, but I would go to the steakhouses near my office and sit at the bar and work with my laptop and drink. I felt like, if I’m doing work, nobody’s judging me. You never run out of places to go where you can sit at the bar. They kind of roll out the red carpet to alcohol.
There’s also something empowering about going and sitting at a bar alone. It feels almost like a virtue to feel comfortable doing that.
I’m glad you said that. I was never embarrassed about doing that. I think there was something for me about all those steakhouses. They’re really luxurious. They’re little dens of indulgence. There was a sense of empowerment in those moments. For so many decades there were all these really obnoxious social norms around women and drinking. Men had entry into places where women were not allowed. The first woman to drink at McSorley’s was in, like, 1970. That’s not that long ago! You’re given so many messages: You need to be polite, you need to sit like this. There was always this part of me that wanted to give that the double barrel flip off. But the funny thing is: I also kind of buy into that thing. I’m a terrible people pleaser. I do take care of people around me, and I am polite all the time. But I have this rage inside me that I think alcohol allows me to tap into. It allowed me access to this bravado. I remember in college seeing these women who would do these topless bike rides. I was like, whoa, how could they do that? I just didn’t have any access to that kind of fierceness. And then when I drank, I did.
You call the first thing you wrote about becoming sober an act of going on the record. Is this book also that?
I’d been reading a bunch of recovery memoirs, which were a tremendous comfort to me. But I was looking at literature and a lot of it would say women are embarrassed of drinking so much. I was like, oh no! I was very proud of drinking so much. I felt there had been a cultural shift. Feminism is to thank for so many things I have: my job, my social freedom. I had to learn [not to take] full advantage of all my freedoms—if nobody is going to stop you, you have to stop yourself. I think Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story is a genius book. It came out in 1996. I thought there was an opportunity to tell a story for a newer generation. Nobody had written about blackout.
I will tell you, in sobriety you have to look around you and figure out: How can I make this life better than my drinking life? Because if it’s not, there’s too much temptation to go back. I was always that person that was going to write a book. I wrote a piece for Slate in 2006 that was like: I’m going to shut down my blog and write a book. It was like a big viral piece, I got on some NPR show. I was like, this is great! I’m getting so much praise for shutting down my blog and writing this book! And then I just never wrote the book. I didn’t have any follow-through. The time I had to myself, Saturdays and Sundays, was spent on my futon watching Flavor of Love marathons. Me from the years 2005 to 2007 is just like a montage of VH1 shows.
So you drank to be brave, and those escapades became these great stories, even while they were incredibly self-destructive. But it sounds like even once you got sober, you still have some fun telling those stories. You’re still dining out on them?
Oh, that’s funny. I really thought that drinking made me funny. That is really a ridiculous thing to think. I was funny at work and I was never drunk. People have these ideas of these superpowers, whatever your addiction is. I’m still the same person I was in my drinking life; I just don’t drink anymore.
They say comedy is tragedy plus time. I think about me at 25, sitting at staff meetings at The Austin Chronicle, burning with envy to be on the cover. How do I get there? I’m just so greedy for attention and fame. I have this idea that drinking is a way to get me that.
How strange, how ironic, how, maybe, troubling, that I was on the cover of The Austin Chronicle last week. And it’s my drinking stories that got me there. I hope the message that I’m sending is not get drunk and tell stories because it will make you interesting. I hope what I’m telling people is that your dark past can still be a kind of hope. You can still find ways of connecting through those past experiences of pain. That’s what comedians have been doing forever. They take very painful experiences—divorce, death, cancer—and they turn that into something you can laugh about. They make it easier to be alive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The post A New Memoir Explores a Taboo Subject: Blackout Drinking appeared first on Vogue.