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Shedding Some Light on Blackouts

In her new book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola looks back on and illuminates her drinking life, a time when she recurrently found herself awakening in the bed of a stranger and told herself that it meant that she was free and empowered rather than imprisoned in a horror show. Sarah experienced drinking as a doorway to feeling better about herself – her intellect, her body – and, as it is for many alcoholics, sexual behavior and alcohol consumption became intertwined. To hear Terry Gross’ interview with this author, who is very open about her story, click here.

Hepola reminds us that blackouts are not passing out, but a form of amnesia connected with reaching a high blood alcohol level, and that women black out more easily than men. Often,, because heavy drinkers have developed a level of tolerance, they may appear to be functioning well during blackouts, but later, after more of the alcohol is metabolized, that individual finds herself “coming to” with little or no idea what has been happening – the memories have not been recorded.

As I and others have noted many times, our society has an oddly paradoxical attitude toward heavy drinking. Essentially, we tend to applaud it, as a kind of embrace of the part of ourselves that wants to shed restrictions and inhibitions, go wild, enjoy (as if none of this were possible without chemical assistance). Until a person crosses a very thin line, and is undeniably out of control, unable to function, harming others or being harmed by them – at that point, we flip a switch and judge the drinker.

Upon describing her blacked out sexual episodes to her friends, Hepola says they found them “awesome” examples of sexual freedom. As “supportive” friends, they unwittingly fed her denial/blindness to her loss of control and delayed her coming to grips with reality and becoming more genuinely empowered.

Recurrent blackouts alone do not make for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence, but are certainly a signal that something is wrong and that one’s health and safety are at risk. If you relate to any part of this story, there are many kinds of support available, and many of those are listed on the Resources page of our web site. And of course lawyers, law students, and their family members are always welcome to arrange a confidential assessment with any of us clinicians at LCL.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

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