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Authors: Sarah Hepola

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Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

BOOK: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

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’m in Paris on a magazine assignment, which is exactly as great as it sounds. I eat dinner at a restaurant so fancy I have to keep resisting the urge to drop my fork just to see how fast someone will pick it up. I’m drinking cognac—the booze of kings and rap stars—and I love how the snifter sinks between the crooks of my fingers, amber liquid sloshing up the sides as I move it in a figure eight. Like swirling the ocean in the palm of my hand.

Somewhere near midnight, I tumble into a cab with my friend and the night starts to stutter and skip. She leans into me, the bundle of scarf around her face. It’s cold, and we are squished together on the vinyl seat, too lit to care about the intimacy of our limbs. The streets are a smear through the window. The taxi meter, a red blur. How did we get back so fast? A second ago, we were laughing in the cab. And now, I’m standing on the street alone.

I walk through the front door of my hotel, into the bright squint of the lobby. My heels clickety-clak across the white
stone. It’s that time of night when every floor has a banana peel, and if I’m not careful, I might find my face against the ground, my hands braced beside me, and I’ll have to explain to the concierge how clumsy and hilarious I am. So I walk with a vigilance I hope doesn’t show.

I exchange a few pleasantries with the concierge, a bit of theater to prove I’m not too drunk, and I’m proud of how steady my voice sounds. I don’t want him thinking I’m just another American girl wasted in Paris. The last thing I hear is my heels, steady as a metronome, echoing through the lobby. And then, there is nothing. Not a goddamn thing.

This happens to me sometimes. A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn’t notice. They’d simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.

It’s possible you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re a moderate drinker, who baby-sips two glasses of wine and leaves every party at a reasonable hour. Maybe you’re one of those lucky fellows who can slurp your whiskey all afternoon and never disappear into the drink. But if you’re like me, you know the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.

I don’t know how much time I lose in this darkness. Or what takes place. When the curtain lifts again, this is what I see.

There is a bed, and I’m on it. The lights are low. Sheets are wrapped around my ankles, soft and cool against my skin. I’m on top of a guy I’ve never seen before, and we’re having sex.

Hold on. Can this be right? I’m having sex with a man, and
I’ve never seen him before. It’s like the universe dropped me into someone else’s body. Into someone else’s
. But I seem to be enjoying it. I’m making all the right sounds.

As the room comes into focus, my body completes its erotic pantomime. I collapse beside him and weave my legs through his. I wonder if I should be worried right now, but I’m not scared. I don’t mean to suggest I’m brave. I mean to suggest you could break a piece of plywood over my head, and I would smile, nod, and keep going.

The guy isn’t bad-looking. Slightly balding, but he has kind eyes. They glisten in the low light. And I think, whoever picked up this man, she did an OK job.

“You really know how to wear a guy out,” he says. I trace a knuckle down the side of his face. It seems unfair that he should know me, and I don’t know him, but I’m unsure of the etiquette.
Excuse me, but who are you, and why are we fucking?

“I should go,” I tell him.

He gives an annoyed laugh. “You just said you wanted to stay.”

So I stay with the stranger in the shadows of a room I do not recognize, looking out onto a city that is not my home. The window stretches across the wall, and I stare at the twinkling lights. I smooth my hand along his chest. It seems like the polite thing to do. He strokes my hair, and brings my hand to his lips, and if anyone were watching us, we would look like two people in love.

A blackout is the untangling of a mystery. It’s detective work on your own life. A blackout is:
What happened last night? Who are you, and why are we fucking?

As I lie in the crook of his arm, I have so many questions.
But one is louder than the others. In literature, it’s the question that launches grand journeys, because heroes are often dropped into deep, dark jungles and forced to machete their way out. But for the blackout drinker, it’s the question that launches another shitty Saturday.

How did I get here?


was 33, and lying on a futon in the middle of the day watching a talk show, because I could. I was a freelance writer in New York, and I was hungover, and try to stop me.

The show was discussing roofies. GHB, Rohypnol, the date rape drugs. This was 2007, but I’d been hearing about roofies since the late ’90s: odorless, colorless substances dropped into a drink to erase memory, like something out of a sci-fi movie. I’d recently seen a network crime drama in which the heroine was slipped a roofie and woke up in a dangerous man’s house. Every once in a while, motherly types (including my actual mother) worried I might be vulnerable to this invisible menace. The talk show host, for one, was very concerned.
Ladies, cover your drinks.

I had a different drinking problem, although I wouldn’t have used the word “problem,” at least not without air quotes. One morning, I woke up in the living room of a cute British guy’s apartment. The inflatable mattress was leaking, and my ass was scraping the ground in a plastic hammock. The last thing I
remembered was walking my friend Lisa to the subway the night before. She held both my hands. “Do
go home with that guy,” she said, and I said, “I promise. Pinky swear.” Then I went back into the bar, and he ordered us another round.

This was the kind of excitement I wanted from a single life in New York, the kind of excitement I was hoping to find when I left Texas at the age of 31 in a Honda loaded down with books and heartbreak. I understood the city was not the shimmering fantasia portrayed by charming Audrey Hepburn movies and Woody Allen valentines and four fancy ladies on HBO. But I wanted my own stories, and I understood drinking to be the gasoline of all adventure. The best evenings were the ones you might regret.

“I had sex with some random British dude and woke up on a leaking air mattress,” I texted my friend Stephanie.

“Congratulations!” she texted back.

Awesome. High-five. Hell, yeah. These were the responses I got from female friends when I told them about my drunken escapades. Most of my friends were married by this point. Sometimes they wondered aloud what being unattached in their 30s would be like. Careening around the city at 2 am. Tilting the wide brim of a martini glass toward the sky to catch whatever plunked into it.

Being unattached in my 30s felt good. I wasn’t so lonely; reality TV was quite robust that year. Design programs. Chef programs. Musicians who used to be famous dating women who hoped to become famous. That roofie talk show made it seem like being a single woman was perilous, and you had to be on guard at all times, but I was numb to terror alerts by then. Whatever horror existed in the world, I was pretty sure GHB was not my problem.

Once, I’d gotten so blasted at a party I woke up in a dog bed, in someone else’s house.

“Do you think you got roofied?” my friend asked me.

“Yes,” I told her. “I think someone slipped me ten drinks.”

often talk about the “hidden drinking” of women. That’s been the line for decades. Bottles stashed behind the potted plant. Sips taken with shaking hands when no one is looking, because “society looks down on women who drink.”

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. In college, we drank like the boys. After college, we hung around in dive bars with our male friends, and later, when everyone grew lousy with expendable income and the freedom of having no kids, we drained bottles of cabernet over steak dinners and debated the smoothest blends of Mexican tequila.

I joined a women’s book club when I was in my late 20s. It was called “Bitches and Books,” which seemed funny at the time. We gathered once a month, and balanced tiny white plates of brie and crackers on our knees as we discussed Ann Patchett and Augusten Burroughs and drank wine. Rivers of wine. Waterfalls of wine. Wine and confession. Wine and sisterhood.

Wine had become our social glue, the mechanism of our bonding. We needed the wine to shut out the jackhammers of our own perfectionism and unlock the secrets we kept within. Wine was the centerpiece of dinner parties and relaxing evenings at home. It was a requirement for work events and formal festivities. Let’s not even mention the word “bachelorette.” Friends
moved their weddings out of churches and into restaurants and bars, where waiters served champagne before the bride had even appeared. The cool mothers had chardonnay playdates and never let the demands of child rearing keep them from happy hour. DIY sites sold onesies with a wink.
Mommy drinks because I cry.

I wrote stories about my drinking. Some were fiction, and some were painfully true, and I liked that my snappy comic tone made it hard to tell which was which. I wrote about getting wasted before 4 pm (true) and waking up after a hard-partying music festival next to Chuck Klosterman (not true), slamming shots with strangers and drinking queso from a to-go cup (more or less true). Women today are notorious for judging each other—about how we raise children, about how we look in a swimsuit, about how we discuss race, gender, or class. Yet no matter how reckless or boozing my tales were, I never felt judged for one of them. In fact, I kind of thought women looked up to me.

By the late aughts, bumbling, blotto heroines were a staple of our narratives.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
was like a tree that had grown a thousand limbs. Carrie Bradshaw was a media empire. Chelsea Handler was building a savvy business brand playing the part of a woman much drunker and more foolish than she could possibly be. (Was there any book title more indicative of the moment than
Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea?
A longing for spiritual deliverance, the innocence of young adult literature, and Grey Goose.) My smart, successful female friends tore through their
Us Weeklies
, while
New Yorker
s piled on a corner table like homework, and followed the misadventures of the era’s party girls. In an age of sex tapes and beaver shots, there was nothing edgy or remotely shocking about a woman like me reporting that, hey, everyone, I fell off my bar stool.

I sometimes wondered what my mother thought. “Well, I
think you exaggerate,” she told me once. In the personal essay I’d just written, for example, I mentioned having six beers. “I don’t think a woman can have that many drinks in one night,” she said. And my mother was right—it was more like eight.

They added up fast! Two drinks at home getting ready, three drinks with dinner, three pints at the bar afterward. And those were the nights I kept count.

My mother never drank like me. She was a sipper. A one-glass-with-dinner kind of lady. She tells me she cut loose at college frat parties, dancing in her bobby socks—a phrase that suggests how wild she did
get—but I’ve never seen her drunk and couldn’t imagine what it would look like. When her extended family got together, my rowdy Irish uncles gathered in a separate room, splitting a bottle of Scotch and laughing loudly enough to rattle the walls, while my mother and her sister took care of the kids. Screw that. I wanted to be the center of the party, not the person sweeping up afterward.

By the time I was old enough to drink, culture had shifted to accommodate my desires. For generations, women had been the abstainers, the watchdogs and caretakers—women were a major force behind Prohibition, after all—but as women’s place in society rose, so did their consumption, and ’70s feminists ushered in a new spirit of equal-opportunity drinking. Over the following decades, as men turned away from the bottle, women did not, which meant that by the twenty-first century, when it came to drinking, women had nearly closed the gender gap. A 2013 CDC report declared binge drinking a “dangerous health problem” for women 18 to 34, especially whites and Hispanics. Nearly 14 million women in the country enjoyed an average of three binges a month, six drinks at a time. That equates to a hell of a lot of book clubs.

It’s worth noting that the country, as a whole, is drinking less than we used to when alcohol hit its peak in the 1970s, the result of a higher drinking age and a shift away from three-martini lunches, among other factors. But a certain group of women have made booze a very public and very integral part of their culture. Young, educated, and drunk: That was life on the ground for me.

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. Glasses of white wine had become shorthand for honest communication.
Clink, clink, here’s to us.
I may have found the Hollywood empowerment tales of “you-go-girl drinking” to be patronizing, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t capture my value system.

Empowerment. It was an early buzzword for the twenty-first century. Everything from building schools in third-world countries to emailing pictures of your ass to strangers became empowering. For years, I kept an
story tacked above my desk: “Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does.” The word’s ubiquity suggested how much women wanted power but how conflicted we were about getting it. Ripping your pubic hair out by the roots was empowerment. Taking Jägermeister shots at the bar was empowerment. I just wish those shots had empowered me not to trip off the curb.

I did worry I drank too much. Actually, I had worried for a long time. I slipped in a club one night and bashed my kneecap. I fell down staircases (yes, plural). Sometimes I only skidded down a few steps—
gravity problems
, I used to joke—and then a few times I sailed to the bottom like a rag doll, and I’m not sure which is crazier: that I drank as long as I did, or that I kept wearing heels.

I think I knew I was in trouble. The small, still voice inside me always knew. I didn’t hide the drinking, but I hid how much it hurt.

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.

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