Drinking does have a specific appeal for women, because we have so many pressures hitting us at once: You need to excel at your job and take care of your family and still look super hot and screw like a porn star.
Sarah Hepola’s excellent memoir Blackout tells the familiar story of a love affair with booze gone wrong. When Hepola first starts to drink it allows her to escape and hide her insecurities but similar to a bad relationship, soon the love affair transforms into something complicated and dark, and she comes to see that things haven’t been good for a while. For anyone that has a problem with drinking, or knows someone who does, Blackout is an engaging and insightful read.
I spoke to Sarah about her book, her drinking, and her sobriety.
One thing almost all addicts have in common is an almost pathological need to hide their actions. How did it feel to put all of this out there?
I’ve been a personal writer for many years, so on one level, there’s nothing new about this. When I was drinking too much, I wrote about that, too. I was such a confessional drunk. I loved to get witty and spill my secrets to friends, which I told myself made me honest and I now see as just another way to control the narrative. Let me tell you how I screwed up before you get the chance.
Of course I was hiding during those years. I was hiding the cost to my spirit. I was hiding all the times my funny anecdotes were really sad anecdotes in disguise. This book is more of a sustained reveal, and it definitely feels more vulnerable, because I stripped away a protective layer of performance.
I think people would be surprised by what embarrasses me, though. None of the drinking bothers me. That stuff feels like facts in a case I’m reporting. The parts that make me cringe are mostly related to my family, or strained friendships, or my insane bond with my cat, a love that is both incredibly relatable and terribly uncool. People assume I must feel exposed by the drinking, but I feel much more exposed by the stuff that was underneath the drinking. My neediness. My sensitivity and self-absorption. That’s the real me, the one who was afraid she wasn’t enough, and still worries that sometimes.
What do you think makes women binge drinkers experience unique culturally? What did you tell yourself about how people perceived you when you were drinking?
I think men and women drink for the same reasons — because it feels good. But drinking does have a specific appeal for women, because we have so many pressures hitting us at once: You need to excel at your job and take care of your family and still look super hot and screw like a porn star. I write in the book that alcohol felt like freedom, and I was definitely someone who needed an escape from her own mind. I was so self-conscious, and self-critical, aware at any moment of 10 ways I was failing. Do my thighs look fat in this dress, did I say something stupid, was that joke funny, is my panty line showing. So much nonsense was clouding up my brain, and alcohol was a glorious release from that. It was a nice tall glass of “fuck it.”
Like a lot of women, I thought alcohol made me sexier, which might have been true for the first three drinks, because I was looser and happier, but you get diminishing returns from there on out. It’s hilarious how alcohol does the opposite of what you think it does: People get these droopy eyes, and purple teeth from drinking wine. I was slipping in my heels, knocking glasses over. I was not sexy. I may have been sexually available, but that is a very different thing.
Every drinker has a divide between the person they meant to be and the person they really were. I thought I was a fun drunk, and sometimes I was, but when those confessions came out, I could cry uncontrollably. A while ago, I was waxing nostalgic about my drinking days with a friend, saying I missed the charming-drunk side of me, and he said, with a gentle voice, “You weren’t funny. You were sad.” That was bracing, but I knew he was right. I may have been a fun drunk at 11pm but I was a hot mess at 2am. For a person who prided herself on being independent, people sure had to take care of me a lot.
Your book is titled “Blackout.” Can you expand a bit on that concept, of what would happen to you when you drank?
I was a blackout drinker, which means I would wake up from a night of drinking and not remember things that happened. Sometimes they were small things — why is there orange juice on the counter? And then sometimes they were really big things, like where am I, and how did I get here?
Drinkers know about blackouts, and on a site like this, I probably don’t have to explain them. But what has surprised me is how many of my highly educated friends conflate blackouts with passing out, which is when you fall asleep from too much booze. But people in a blackout often remain quite functional — they can laugh and tell stories but afterward they won’t know what they did. It’s a walking amnesia. And given how creepy my blackouts were, and how many problems they caused for me, it’s surprising how little I knew about them, and how casual I became in the last years of my drinking. Like, oh whatever, everyone has blackouts. What’s the big deal?
After I quit drinking, I started researching more about them. There were so many things I didn’t know. Basically, I was the poster child for blackout — I drank a lot, I drank really fast, and I often skipped meals. I was small, and I was female. Women are more prone to blackout because our bodies metabolize alcohol differently than men. For years, I had prided myself on keeping up with the boys. Why hadn’t I realized the simple, base-line genetics at play? If your boyfriend is a foot taller than you, maybe you SHOULDN’T be drinking as much as him.
So blackouts were a symbol of the damage hiding in plain sight for a habitual binge drinker like me. And there was also a metaphoric quality to them. I did not know my own story. I literally did not know what I had done sometimes. All along I had been trying to black out other things — uncomfortable feelings, unpleasant memories — but eventually, I was the one disappearing.
As a sober person it often takes more courage, grace, and strength to negotiate ones way through life. What has being sober mean to you as a person?
Not long ago, I was talking to a friend who had to quit drinking because of a medical issue, and he said: “Sobriety is bullshit, and don’t even try to tell me otherwise”. We had been talking about my book, and I think the idea was: I don’t want to read about how great your non-drinking life is, because mine sucks and you can’t convince me otherwise. I get that.
Alcohol is medicine, and when you take away someone’s medicine, they feel pain. I felt ferocious pain for the first two years of sobriety. It’s still surprising to me that I kept going, because seriously, why didn’t I just go back? But the world started floating back to me in tiny increments. Small, real conversations with friends. A Sunday without a hangover. I was editing personal essays at Salon, and I became obsessed with other people’s stories, because they were an escape for me. For that 20 minutes, or that hour, I wasn’t consumed with my own self-pity. Stories really carried me through that time — I would listen to stories in recovery meetings, and I would seek out other people’s stories in books or documentaries, and I would obsessively listen to podcasts where people talked about their own struggles, and it helped me to crawl out of my own tortured head space, just for a little while. The further you get from alcohol, the more you start to see your own life clearly, and probably the most important epiphany for me was when I realized that alcohol wasn’t making me stronger, it was draining me. I wanted to be braver, smarter, more in control, and it was doing the opposite instead. It was a counterfeit courage, like reaching for a plastic sword in a knife fight.
That floored me. I believed in booze the way some people believe in God. It was my salvation, my celebration, my commiseration, my answer for everything. But the way I drank was such a crutch. It prevented me from real growth, the kind of growth that actually makes you braver, smarter, more in control. After I saw that, I didn’t crave drinking so much, because I knew it wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. I wanted it to erase the pain of being human — and nothing can do that.
You write well. As someone who has been writing for so long what did it mean to you to tackle your first book?
Thanks. I’ve wanted to write a book since I was a little girl. My teachers would say to the class, she’s going to write a book one day, and that was such a rush. Adolescents all want to believe they’re special, and so this was my specialness, and I believed it to my core.
But books don’t write themselves. As an adult, I would start writing a book, but I would abandon them after a week or a month, like a whirlwind love affair that had run its course. I loved going to the bar, and kicking around book ideas with other writers, and I liked when friends introduced me as a person who was “going to write a book someday,” but the operative word there was “someday.” The older I got, the more unlikely a book appeared. I lacked focus. I lacked the follow-through.
You’d think when I quit drinking, the light bulb would have gone off: NOW I finally have the time and the misery and the extra hours to write a book. But actually, I thought my writing career was over. I was such a wreck that I couldn’t string sentences together. And I was so fragile, like a wounded animal.
It took about six months to start writing again. I wrote a story about drinking for Salon (http://www.salon.com/2010/12/31/lush_for_life/), and that’s when I realized maybe this was the opportunity I had been waiting for all along. I’d thought that so many times in the past, and I’d been wrong. But this time I needed it more. I needed to point to something I’d achieved in sobriety and say: This is why I quit. The book was definitely an incentive in those early years, and I do think every sober person owes it to themselves to start making a life they don’t want to drink themselves away from. Quitting drinking shouldn’t mean the end of adventure. It should be another beginning. Read more “the fix”…