When the journalist Sarah Hepola quit drinking five years ago, she thought her career was over. “Drinking had been entwined with my creativity and my work as a writer and editor,” she told Women in the World in a phone interview. But as it turned out, sobriety gave her the discipline to do the work she really wanted to do, while her decades of drinking provided the material. Her memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, came out Tuesday.
Hepola experienced her first blackout before she turned 12, and she regularly lost chunks of time to alcohol until she quit drinking for good at 35. Her new book explores the phenomenon of the blackout from a scientific as well as a personal angle; she reconstructs frightening nights whose details she might prefer not to remember. In this, Hepola is a non-fiction counterpart to Rachel, the protagonist of Paula Hawkins’s wildly successful 2015 thriller, the The Girl on the Train—a character who regularly drinks herself into oblivion, and one with whom contemporary readers have connected profoundly.
Hepola’s true story is bound to advance the conversation about gender and intoxication even further. She spoke with Women in the World about drinking to “keep up with the boys,” learning how to date sober, and not being able to have a drink on your publication day.
Women in the World: Why did you decide to write this book?
Sarah Hepola: When I quit drinking at the age of 35, I was so fragile that I really couldn’t conceive of writing again. Six months after I quit, I wrote a personal essay for Salon, where I worked [as personal essays editor], and it was about quitting drinking. When you want to write a book, what do they always tell you? “Write what you know.” And what did I know more than anything else? I knew myself and I knew drinking.
Reading other people’s stories was part of what had saved me and helped me to stay on the right path. I started to think, well, what can I say? Nobody had talked about blackouts, which were a huge part of my drinking story.
My favorite drinking memoir is a book by Caroline Knapp called Drinking: A Love Story. It’s a gorgeous book, a classic. But she wrote it in 1996, and in the years since then, there’s been a cultural shift around the relationship between women and alcohol. It’s become threaded into our social fabric, that if you were a mom or an older woman or a young woman—all kinds of women were drinking more and drinking more openly, drinking in public, getting wasted. I wanted to look at what had changed.
WITW: When did you have your first blackout?
SH: I had my first blackout about two weeks before I turned 12 years old. I had been hanging out with my cousin, who was 16, and somebody handed me a beer. I drank the beer and I just kept going. I had liked the taste of beer from the first time I ever sipped it. I used to steal sips of beer from my mom’s can in the fridge. I was a good kid, a straight-A student, an honor-roll kid, but it was this little secret that I had. So the first time I got drunk, I had a blackout. And the next day, my cousin asked me, “Do you remember doing this? Do you remember doing that?” I thought she was teasing me.
WITW: Did you even know what a blackout was at that point?
SH: I had absolutely no idea what that was. And I had no idea that it was going to be pretty much the blueprint for my drinking life. The next morning, I was so freaked out by the whole thing that I was like, “I’m never ever gonna drink like that again.” Which is poignant in a way—I was 12 years old and already trying to quit alcohol. It was really scary and I didn’t have that experience again until college, and then I started to black out regularly.
WITW: Are women more likely to get blackouts?
SH: Being a woman is a risk factor for a blackout. Women don’t metabolize alcohol as fast as men, and that means we get to the blackout point quicker. Other risk factors for a blackout are drinking fast, holding your liquor and skipping meals.
WITW: What, if anything, did your drinking have to do with being a woman?
SH: I came of age during this time when drinking became tied up with messages of empowerment. There was this exciting idea about holding your liquor and “drinking like the boys.” I was always very sensitive about people telling me, you know, “You can’t do that because you’re a girl.” Drinking was a place where I felt like I could hold my own.
I think there are specific things about drinking that appeal to women. For me, it was this roar of confidence. I had struggled with insecurity all my life. I never thought I was good enough. I had that ticker tape going in my mind all the time: “I’m sitting funny, I look fat in this, everyone thinks my story isn’t funny, everybody’s hotter than me.” Alcohol turns down the volume on those voices of self-criticism. It allowed me to be loving and happy and not care that I wasn’t winning the beauty parade.
WITW: How did drinking affect dating and relationships?
SH: I continually went to alcohol when I felt nervous and uncomfortable, and I always felt nervous and uncomfortable when I was in dating situations. It was the way that I learned to put myself out there. You fear rejection. You fear that you won’t be loved. So what do you do? You take a drink.
I have a line in the book where I say, I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, and I woke up a person that cared enormously. For me, with dating, it was not necessarily about connecting with a guy. It was about, “I hope he likes me, I hope I get chosen.” Alcohol made it so that I could be the person that I thought that guy wanted me to be.
WITW: What were the challenges when you started dating without drinking?
SH: I realized how completely entwined alcohol had become, not just with dating, but with being intimate. I had this phase where I couldn’t even believe the intimacy that occurred in normal human relations. It freaked me out. I couldn’t believe people give blow
jobs. I went on a date and this guy held my hand, and I thought my hand was frozen. It felt like this weird robot arm. I was back at that middle school dance where it’s all awkward and painful.
It reminded me that after all these years of trying to convince myself that sex was no big deal, that for me, it was. That the stakes of sex were actually kind of high. I had gotten very casual about that. And then, without the alcohol, it started to strike me:
This does matter to me. I care about who I’m naked in a bed with.
WITW: Were you nervous about writing something so personal?
SH: While I was writing it, all I cared about was doing a good job. Could I serve the material? Would it be good enough to sustain five to seven hours of a stranger’s time? I certainly had spikes of anxiety about how I was writing about the people in my life, but that was the central focus.
Then, I had a year between when I turned it in and when it came out. That’s a very long time to sit with your mind going, “What have I done?” There have been some incredibly dark days. The nervousness that I’ve had leading up to today has been about as bad as it’s ever been in my life. Sometimes I’ll ask other writers what I should do, and people will be like, “I usually drink or I take pills.” Those are not on my list.
This interview has been edited and condensed.