Sarah Hepola is the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, a just-published memoir that’s climbing the best-seller lists. I spoke with Hepola about blacking out, recovery, and how those of us with self-destructive tendencies can learn to stop tearing ourselves apart.
Katie MacBride: In many of the stories in Blackout you describe navigating pretending to be the person you thought you wanted to be, as opposed to really knowing yourself. I can relate to that: Before I got sober, I would have described myself as an extrovert because I wanted to be a fun party girl. But the fact is, I need massive amounts of alone time to even pretend to function normally. How has your sense of you who you should be and who you are shifted since getting sober?
Sarah Hepola: I’m a quieter person when I’m sober. When I take those personality quizzes, I always get a 50-50 introvert-extrovert split, and my drinking years overrode that. I was loud, wild, funny, in-your-face. Like you, it was part of my fun party girl brand. But part of my demand to be seen was an overcompensation for who I had been as a young girl: Intensely shy, bleedingly insecure, lonely and hiding much of the time. Sobriety has allowed me to find a better integration of those two parts of my personality. I don’t take such wild swings.
When you stop drinking, you are forced to take a hard stare at who you are, because you aren’t anesthetizing your feelings anymore. It all came back to me in that first year: I’m such a sensitive person. I have anxiety problems, overthinking problems. And anger — that one was a surprise. I always thought, I love everyone! I’m never angry. And then I’d be so surprised when someone told me I’d been rude or nasty to them in a blackout. What? Me? Yes, me. Anger is a part of the human experience; I don’t get a pass.
KM: Almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with addiction, but there’s still a stigma around being an addict/alcoholic. Can you talk about your experience with that stigma and if you feel like writing is something that can chip away at people’s notions of addiction?
SH: I had to have minor surgery a few years ago for a yoga injury. The woman doing my intake asked if I had any medical issues, and I said, ‘I’m an alcoholic; I quit drinking a few years ago,’ and she thought for a little bit, then she said, ‘You shouldn’t put that down [on your intake form].’ She worried that the medical staff would judge me because people in medical fields get tired of drinkers and their ridiculous self-injuries. So I get it, but at the same time, how tragic that these medical professionals have learned to associate ‘alcoholic’ with annoying drunks and not a woman who is climbing her way back to the world. For me, ‘I’m an alcoholic’ is a phrase of incredible hope. It means you have a way out.
A lot of the stigma is just discomfort with the word. People don’t realize how many people in recovery they know, how many addicts are in their lives. (The documentary “The Anonymous People” is an interesting take on this topic.) Because literature is a way to get under the skin of another person, I would hope that my writing can offer a little insight into the experience of addiction. But I wasn’t thinking of that audience when I wrote it. I was thinking of the tortured drinker who wants to quit but can’t and is afraid to say ‘I’m an alcoholic’ because it means their life is over. I wanted them to know it’s not.
KM: I also suffered from the stereotype of being a hard drinker/hard writer (though I wasn’t as productive as you were; I usually got out about a paragraph before passing out). Why you do think the illusion of the creative alcoholic is so persistent?
SH: There’s a great nonfiction book by Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking, which is a beautiful survey of the male drinkers of 20th-century literature: Hemingway, Fitzgerald (a blackout drinker, by the way), Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Carver. Those guys are so brilliant, and such inveterate lushes, that it’s tempting to assign some special power to alcohol, because we want to disassemble the creative mystery of why a single human can write with such force. But what that book makes clear is how much alcohol took from them.
I do think there is an overlap between what makes a writer and what makes a drinker: sensitivity, feeling deeply, a tendency to be on the outside, obsessive thinking, the need for escape. But mostly, when people like me are at the bar saying, ‘Of course I drink; I’m a writer!’ they are wrapping themselves in an enabling legend to excuse the fact that they are not producing. Writers write. End of story.
KM: In one of the blackouts you write about, you find out the next day that you were saying, ‘No one will ever love me, no one will ever love me.’ I also had things I would only talk about, self-loathing refrains I would utter when I was blacked-out. Are these common characteristics of a blackout, or does everyone behave differently when they are blacked-out? Can you talk a little about your research and what you have learned about the neurological process of a blackout?
SH: Medical journals have determined that a blackout does not make you act a certain way. That’s why someone who commits a crime in a blackout is still legally responsible. You are still conscious, you are still able to make decisions and interact with people, but the recorder in your brain has shut down. However, when a person has drunk themselves to the point of blackout, they are pretty wasted — usually between .2 and .3 [blood alcohol content] — and alcohol definitely influences the way a person talks and behaves. So in other words, it’s not the blackout that is making you act that way, it’s the booze. The disconnect and the shock and the shame you feel the next day is so intense because not only are you saying these crazy things but you also don’t remember them.
I was a strong believer in in vino veritas, this idea that the real truth emerged when I was drinking, but after a certain amount of booze, a person’s dials get all screwy. It’s a mixed-up truth, a distorted truth. And yet I think the 18-year-old girl who was crying that no one would ever love her was speaking some version of a buried fear. I felt unlovable. If I didn’t have a guy beside me, propping me up, I felt worthless. There are so many troubling streaks of codependency in my story and in many other alcoholic women whom I’ve spoken to over the years.
KM: I love that your sobriety begins halfway through the book. In so many recovery memoirs, sobriety is the end of the story. Things are often so gritty in sobriety and it’s not the cakewalk that most of us would like and sort of expected it to be. Can you talk about your experience with early sobriety?
SH: I had this idea that when I finally quit drinking the universe would reward me. Here’s your perfect boyfriend, here’s your size-6 figure back. Addicts are instant gratification monsters. We are so accustomed to parachuting out of difficult feelings, changing our internal complexion in a matter of a few sips. What is that Elizabeth Wurtzel book about addiction? More, Now, Again. The fact that sobriety was initially so god awful was one of the main reasons I spent about two years trying and failing to quit. I’d get through two weeks without drinking and it was like, this is miserable, screw this. But if you push past that initial discomfort — which, I’m not going to lie, lasts a long time for some people — there are such rich rewards. More stability and peace than I ever knew in my drinking life. I wanted to show the slow and painful walk out of an addiction, which is also the slow and painful walk facing many people thrust into a painful transition: someone leaving a marriage, losing a parent, healing from a devastating accident. We all want change to be fast, but change is slow. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
KM: You specifically mention AA as part of your recovery. Did you battle with the question of anonymity when writing the book? What are your thoughts on the notion that members of Alcoholics Anonymous shouldn’t identify themselves?
SH: In the personal essays I wrote for Salon about quitting I never mentioned AA, and sometimes I would get these notes from readers, saying, ‘Wow, it’s so cool that you quit on your own.’ Not even remotely; AA saved me. An integral part of my recovery story was how much I had fought against those rooms, because I thought they represented a dead end. And I wanted to show how my thinking shifted on that topic — how I came to see those rooms as a new beginning.
The anonymity tradition is sacred and very tricky in an age of social media and full disclosure, and I talked with many people about it over the years. Even people who aren’t writing books have to wrestle with the subject of when it’s appropriate to disclose your sobriety, because if no one knows you’re sober, then how can you be of service to people who might need your help? At the same time, it’s very important that people who come to meetings feel it’s a safe place, that they won’t be ‘busted’ outside those doors. My personal reading on the tradition of anonymity is that I will always protect your anonymity, but there are times when it might be appropriate to disclose my own.
I looked at how other memoir writers handled it. Some of them talked about ‘the rooms’ and ‘recovery meetings,’ and I get why they did that, but also you’re just saying it without saying it. Doesn’t everyone know what that means? My favorite recovery memoir is Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, and she speaks openly about being in AA; it was one of the things that opened the door for me. Marc Maron has mentioned AA on his podcast, and so have a few of his guests, and once again, the door opens a little bit more. If those people I admire find something useful in the program, maybe I can, too.
KM: A number of friends approached you about your drinking before you were able to quit. I’m so glad you bring this up because it challenges the notion that your pre-sobriety friends were necessarily binge-drinking pals. My friends were also the ones who saved me. What was it like repairing those relationships in sobriety?
SH: It’s been one of the most meaningful parts of my non-drinking life, finding my way back to stronger and better relationships with those people. When I quit drinking, I definitely lost some friends — your bar buddies usually aren’t going to make it into your sober life because you’ve lost the thing that tied you together. But with other people in my life the connection was much stronger than booze. The sobriety forced me to get honest with my friends and that honesty and vulnerability became a new bonding agent.
A year ago, I was visiting my childhood friend Stephanie, who is in the book, and I said, ‘Do you ever get frustrated by the fact that we can’t drink together anymore?’ And she said, ‘No, because all we do is talk. All we’ve ever done is talk.’ Which is so true: When we were teenagers, we talked over cigarettes and Diet Coke. And when we were 30-something women, we talked over bottles of wine. And now we talk over coffee. The fundamental nature of our friendship never changes, but our accessories do.
KM: Neither of your parents are alcoholics. What was their reaction to your getting sober? How do they feel about what it means to be an alcoholic?
SH: My parents’ reaction to my getting sober was tremendous relief. They have watched and worried for many years and, like so many loving parents, struggled mightily with the line between supporting and enabling. And I protected them a great deal in terms of what I let them see. Because I was successful in my career and basically a good, kind-hearted person, and because for the last five years of my drinking I lived in New York City, they just didn’t see the depth of my problem. When I finally opened up to my mom, over the first weeks of my sobriety, that was a real pivotal moment for me. All along I’d been saying that my drinking didn’t hurt anyone else but me but those conversations proved otherwise. My parents had given me so much; I hated the idea of adding to their pain.
It’s true that neither of my parents drank much in my childhood, but my father’s drinking was creeping up there by the time I got to college. A bottle of wine while sitting in the armchair, that kind of thing. They both come from strong drinking cultures: My mother’s side is Irish, my father’s side is Finnish. My father had to quit drinking about 10 years ago because of medications he takes, but he told me one day, years into writing this book, that he thought he had alcoholic tendencies. I was like, you what? To me, there are two important lessons for me in that moment: One is how strong the genetic link is with drinking, and the other is how much more I need to learn about my dad. So much of him is in me. But because he is quiet, private and a bit hard to reach — unlike my mother, who is an open and highly verbal person — he’s remained a mystery. He and I have so much in common, though. I sometimes think of that introvert-extrovert split as basically the genetic version of my mom and dad, fighting inside me, just like my real mom and dad sometimes did in my childhood.
KM: ‘Be careful when you finally get happy. Because you can become greedy for the one thing you don’t have.’ In this quote in Blackout you’re talking about the first time you quit drinking. Do you feel that way now, or did you in early sobriety? Now how do you refrain from ‘getting greedy for the one thing you don’t have?’
SH: When I was 25 and I quit drinking, I still labored under the delusion that alcohol ‘fixed’ me. It made me better or faster or stronger and so I craved it all the time. Wouldn’t my life be better if … wouldn’t this night be more interesting if … One of the great gifts of my sobriety today is that I no longer believe that. The bubble of that delusion popped so I don’t crave booze the way I used to because I know it can’t fix me. In fact, it leaves me more broken. But I still fall victim to a similar strain of magical thinking. For a while, it was tied up with a book. If I could just write that book, I’d be _____. Then you write the book, and it’s like, whoops, guess that wasn’t it. So the idea mutates again. If I could just have that boyfriend, I’d be ______. I’m such a dreamer. I know true peace comes when you stop longing for things you don’t have. When you accept where you are today. What can I say? I’m trying.
KM: ‘Self-destruction is a taste I’ve savored all my life.’ This is my favorite line in your book; I feel like those words are also etched on my DNA and the DNA of so many other addicts. Do you have advice for anyone trying to fight that self-destructive urge?
SH: Working with other alcoholics really helps me. Because I see the self-destructive behavior in them and it helps to short-circuit it in me. I also think my self-destructive impulse was attention-seeking. I wanted people to rush to my side and tell me, ‘You’re not terrible, you’re not ugly, you’re not unlovable.’ But nobody can ever give you that. The more you demand that they do it, the more furious and empty you become. So you have to stop reaching outward. You have to stop looking for solutions in bottles and men and makeup mirrors. Maybe you’re right that it’s just a DNA thing. As Americans, we want to think we have control over our destinies but so much of a human life comes down to baseline genetics. But I will say that the less I stopped demanding other people put me together, the less I stopped tearing myself apart.