Sarah Hepola says there’s a lot she doesn’t remember. Her book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, fulfills its title’s promise. As she tells it, she would drink and drink and drink and then her mind, smooth as an Etch-a-Sketch, would shake itself blank.
We meet her when she is in Paris, coming to in the middle of a sexual encounter with a guy she doesn’t recognize in a hotel bed that isn’t hers. And from there we go backwards and forwards with her, to a childhood spent sneaking sips of beer from the family fridge to an adulthood in New York City, writing for Salon and being the five-foot-two girl who could throw them back better than every boy. Hepola is a reliable narrator of her decades of unreliability. From the vantage point of someone five years sober, she is both generous with and hard on herself. There’s intimacy here: Hepola is game to talk about love, sex, family, friendship, all the biggies. But there’s also critical distance, as laced throughout her narrative is research on the science of drinking and blackouts.
I spoke with Hepola by phone about drinking and consent, what it means to be a woman who drinks “like a man,” and writing under the influence.
In the process of talking about your book to so many people, have you learned anything new about your own story?
I feel like — this is totally corny — but I feel like I learn stuff all the time. Especially with some of these more complicated questions around things like alcohol and consent. That is such a tricky question, and it’s something that, when I was writing the book, I don’t have answers to that, I only have my own experience, my thoughts, my best guesses. I’m trying to sync that up with what I know about culture, and so every time I have one of those conversations, I feel like it introduces new questions. I don’t feel like there’s an easy answer on that one. And a lot of the questions around alcohol and consent have been centered around campuses, colleges and youth culture. I’m 40 years old right now, and I’m five years sober. And not only am I doing interviews, but I get five, ten emails a day, at least, of people talking about their own struggles. So I feel like I’m in a constant state of synthesizing all the new information that comes my way.
Is it upsetting to relieve the experiences in your life when sex and drinking mix in this way where the line of consent is blurred, or if it’s clear to you that you were violated in any way?
I think what’s strange to me is that those stores don’t upset me. I don’t know if that’s because when you write about something, it becomes almost like something that happened to a character in a book. And there is a mastery to telling your own narrative. I have a lot more emotional hotspots around things I think people would consider to be more emotionally mundane. Like almost losing my cat!
I really felt for you when that happened! Something living and vulnerable that depended on you went missing and that was very real to me. What are your other emotional hotspots?
The weirdest thing for me is I spent 25 years of my life experiencing blackouts, and I didn’t know what they were.
People that don’t necessarily get it, I don’t judge that. It’s not like, you’re a horrible person because you don’t get that losing my cat is like losing a part of my heart. The other emotional hotspot for me is my female friendships. I have this funny thing where people will ask me about things I did when I was drinking and ways I might have failed my friends, and I get choked up with tears, almost invariably. The third thing is my relationship with my mother, and how she’s reacted to the book, and her struggling with responsibility and what she needs to take on as a mother. Mothers have a tendency toward guilt; mine is no exception. And the ways she has bravely thought through her own emotional issues to never intervene in my telling my own story. Weirdly, all the stuff with consent and sexuality, I think it’s because, in some strange way, a lot of that stuff happened when I was really, really drunk, and the drunker I am, the more I feel like I wasn’t myself. I don’t mean I’m not responsible for those things, but I have a detachment from them, for better or ill.
Can you talk about the choice to open your book with this incident in Paris — when you came out of a blackout in the middle of having sex with someone, and you had no idea who they were or how you got there — and then to return to it, later, with this second half that is really upsetting in its own way, when the concierge who was very helpful and apparently understanding comes up to your room, invites himself in and starts kissing you? What was the thinking behind that, from a literary perspective? Were you worried at all about leading with something graphic and sexual?
It was a tricky choice to begin with that because I thought that centering the book around a sexual story, I knew was going to have some implications, that was complicated. But the story that opens the book — me coming out of a blackout having sex with a guy, and I don’t know where he came from — I feel nothing when I tell that story. Even then, I didn’t feel much of anything. I came to in the middle of my life, and it was really strange and terrible, but okay, that happened. The part that is really emotionally difficult for me is the second part of that story, the interaction with the concierge. It was difficult to experience, it was difficult to recall, to understand and to write about.
I think somebody described that guy’s behavior towards me as “sordid opportunism.” When he said that, I thought: That is exactly right. I was bringing to it such a kind of guilty, afraid-to-offend, I’ve already got this kind of debasement going on in my evening and I’m already ashamed of it. And there’s no question that that guy was like, “Bingo! That girl’s ready for action!” Which is an awful feeling. And we’d had this interaction that was really quite positive and he was really nice and helpful. And the truth is, you can be a nice person, you can be good at your job, and you can still have this kind of shady side to you. All those things can be true at once.
In the editing process, when I was going over that part of the book with a friend of mine, I was reading it out loud to him, and I remember just crying. After that moment, when I cried reading it aloud, it’s just gone. It doesn’t affect me emotionally anymore. But it’s still a difficult passage. It’s not something I talk about at parties.
It seems, culturally, like we’re at a moment when audiences and readers are more open to, and even hungry for, these stories about women who don’t behave in the ways that women have always been expected to behave. We’re seeing a lot of that in comedy, with Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Trainwreck, this willingness to just be frank about the fact that women smoke and drink and have casual sex and make mistakes. Your story is a lot darker, though, and obviously, it’s so personal. What did you expect the response to be?
I wasn’t sure where people would be at with this. It’s a really fraught issue. But people would say, “I’m really glad we’re having this conversation.” They were eager to talk about some of the complications of it. They were eager to see someone talk about her own consent battles. Almost universally I get emails that just say, “this happened to me, this is my story.” And I get that from men, too! The Guardian ran an excerpt of this book, and it was basically the Paris episode, and my email exploded. It was 50/50: A lot of guys said, “That was my story.” I suspect that if we were to talk to men about alcohol and consent and things that they have done when they were really drunk, there would be things that they regretted, things they didn’t remember, things that they wondered what their role was in it. I think you would see a very similar set of complicated questions: What’s my role? What part of this is mine, what part of this wasn’t my responsibility? That question mark at the center of so many of those sexual interactions.
Tell me a bit more about the science of blackouts. What was most surprising thing you learned in your research?
I’m glad drinking was part of my story. I loved drinking, and I feel really lucky that I found drinking, and I feel really lucky that I figured out how to quit drinking.
The weirdest thing for me is I spent 25 years of my life experiencing blackouts, and I didn’t know what they were. That is just completely bizarre and in a lot of ways representative of the blind spots that troubled drinkers have in our lives. The most surprising was a scientist, Aaron White, explaining to me the risk factors of blackout: “You can hold your liquor, you drink really fast, you skip meals and you are female.” I was like: I am the poster child for blackout. That describes me completely. But if you had pressed me before that, I would have said the person who blacks out is a big, burly male, living in the gutter. And it turns out a petite female is really a much better poster child for blackouts because we just can’t metabolize alcohol the way other people can.
I’ve talked to a few of my friends about that fact — that being small and female and having a high tolerance for alcohol makes you far more likely to blackout than other people — and some people get really, really offended at that. Even though the presentation is just, “This is the science,” the notion that, one, most people actually do not experience blackouts in their lives and, two, you can be a woman who is strong in every way but you physically can’t metabolize alcohol like men can, and it’s even worse if you’re petite, and your high tolerance that makes you cool at parties is a vulnerability here, that angers people.
It’s upsetting to me, too! I was that way. The idea that I couldn’t drink like other men was absolutely offensive to me. And I could drink like other men! I was able to hold my liquor in a way that they could not. Sometimes I drank more than the guys. However, there was this consequence for me in my own body, which is that I would blackout, and it had really devastating personal consequences. Everybody’s biology is different and I think what upset your friends is a phrase that — I’ve always thought I’d get more pushback on it — but “nature insists on some double-standards.” Because it’s totally unfair! But if I were to think I could run as fast as someone six feet tall, you would tell me that’s a little delusional, wouldn’t you? There’s something at play here that we have to understand our own biology.
I’m speaking in large strokes; some small women will never black out. There’s always going to be exceptions to the rule. But I know that for me, someone 5’2″ who prided herself on being able to drink with 6’3″ men on a regular basis, I would’ve found that offensive. The idea that I couldn’t do anything was always offensive to me. And I’m not saying anybody can’t do anything. I’m just explaining how the biological mechanisms work. And the truth is, females can’t metabolize alcohol as fast as men. That’s not fair, but it’s also biology.
One thing that struck me in your story is how much you prided yourself on keeping up with guys, which I think is something many women relate to: This idea of proving your coolness by adopting male behavior and being even better at male behavior than men are. And there is no reverse, which is incredibly annoying — guys don’t adopt female behavior to charm women, but women drink like guys to win over men. Did you feel like guy behavior was just coded as cooler, and did that perception affect your drinking?
There’s no question that in my behavior, through my college years, twenties, thirties, that a lot of things that I do that I deem “cool” are basically things that I’ve copied from the men around me. Drinking as much as they can, having sexual adventures like they do, and also not getting emotionally attached. That was something I really had to push myself on because — I think you could make the argument that the romantic-comedy industry warped me as a teenager — I got to college and I wanted to find looooove and a boyfriend, and I was so heartbroken when we broke up. I was really shaped around wanting a romantic partner, and I had to reorient myself to this world of, we didn’t have the word “hookups” at the time, but that’s basically what it was. How do you detach emotion from sex? It seems like that came a lot easier to my male friends. I wanted to do a lot of things like the guys.
There’s that great Dorothy Parker line, that so revealing line she had: “God, help me write like a man.” What you’re doing is you’re angling for power. How can I be more powerful, how can I be better? You’re setting your laser sight on whoever’s got the most power, and in the time that I was growing up and in the industry I was growing up in — I’m writing in journalism — it’s men. And I want to set myself alongside them, and stand toe-to-toe with them.
You write about the way being in New York enabled your drinking in a way that rings very true, I think, to anyone in a city, even someone who doesn’t have a drinking problem. It’s a culture in which you could easily have a drinking problem and no one would know, because drinking regularly is so ordinary. There’s always a happy hour, there’s always the weekend, there’s the “let’s grab a drink” as the shorthand for “let’s spend time together.” Can you talk about that experience?
The culture of New York not only encourages and celebrates drinking, but if you have a drinking problem, it is incredibly easy to mask it, because it becomes normalized. I went out with my female friends, and I had a kind of rotating list of them, so Thursday was Lisa and we drink a ton. The next day, Lisa is like, “I’m so hungover,” and stays home on Friday, but I go out with Stephanie on Friday, drink a ton, and so on. So I continue to be the binge-drinking friend who goes out every single night. Or I’d stay home drinking, and no one knew about that because I lived alone. I felt like no individual friend of mine was aware of how much I was drinking with other friends.
Did they really have no idea? Or did they know, but they just didn’t let on that they knew, and you thought you were putting one over on everybody but really…
Nature insists on some double standards. That’s not fair, but it’s also biology.
Unfortunately, yes, they knew. I’m still dealing with this because I find it a little embarrassing. They had a better idea. Even their parents had an idea that something was wrong with me. People knew that I wasn’t doing well. It’s funny how we work so hard to hide those things. Very few people thought, “Oh, Sarah is an alcoholic.” But they all thought, “Sarah’s not doing well, something’s wrong, what is it?” There was a lot of whispering, eye-rolling, and I wasn’t aware of it. I’m glad, because it would have hurt me so much in that time period. I was so invested in thinking that I was fooling people. Now it’s been five years since that time and I think people feel like it’s safe to tell me that now. The other night, a friend asked if I remembered when “we set you up on ad ate with this guy and you drank a whole bottle of wine before he even showed up, and you got really loud?” It’s not even that bad of a drinking story, but it’s so uncomfortable. I didn’t know that I was making everyone uncomfortable. I always thought that I was funny and people liked me and now I find out, in retrospect, that I wasn’t.
You were also writing a ton during this period. When you look back, is the writing a mess? Or did drinking make your writing better?
I’m sorry to tell you this but some of the writing holds up! Wouldn’t it be great if you sober up and you’re like, “No that was bullshit, what was I doing?” I wish that I could look back and think everything was such a mess. But the truth is, I took my writing really, really seriously. But what I could never do was write longform, and I think that’s very indicative of the addict. You can’t have long, sustained relationships; you can only have flings. Because you can’t sit still to tell a sustained narrative. All my stories from drinking are jaunty 1,500 words. You get a feeling of intimacy but you really don’t, because there’s so much I conveniently leave out.
So you went from never writing longform to writing a book? That’s very jump-into-the-ocean of you.
It really was. I always wanted to write a book, ever since I was a kid. And I did a personal essay for Slate about shutting down my blog, because it was a distraction and I was going to write a novel about the education system or whatever. And that story went viral, and I was on NPR, and I got all this attention. And can I tell you, I wrote three pages of that book and nothing more. Then I just got super-involved in this Flavor of Love marathon that was on TV. That year is seriously me on a futon, eating mac and cheese, recovering from a hangover and watching VH1. That just gives you an impression of the kind of follow-through I had at the time.
I was way too hooked on the instant gratification of online publishing, way too hooked on binge-drinking life, which means you’re involved in the hangover life: You are in a constant drinking and recovery mode. I could not sustain the attention for a longer piece of writing. As a sober person, this book took me years! And it’s not that long at all! I just didn’t have discipline to sit down and sit through the uncomfortable part. You’ve got to turn off that stream of attention, writing all the time and getting people to say you’re funny and they like you, and you go through days where the writing is going slow and you don’t know if it’s going to work out. I’ll tell you: Yes I could write when I was drinking, but my writing was limited.
There’s one interaction you have in the book with a friend, and you tell her that you don’t think she understands how hard it is to be single and by yourself, and she says, “Well, I don’t think you understand how hard it is to be married with a kid.” And I’m curious how much of your struggle to understand friends in other stages of life was just about how that is hard for anyone and how much of that, you think, was driven by drinking and people keeping their distance or not knowing how to help you when you were drinking all the time.
In the last years of my drinking, I think a lot of my behavior could be characterized as pretty self-interested. I really only saw my pain. I didn’t know what I was doing to other people, and I didn’t have a lot of empathy for what they were going through. To me, my married friends had it easy. You have someone to take care of you and help you! My married friends were some of the people that confronted me about my drinking, and that really pissed me off, because I thought, “That’s not fair. I have to do all this stuff all by myself. You get help, I don’t. So I drink too much, big deal. This is how I make it work.” I had to crack through lot of that denial.
There was a blind spot there. Several. One is, just because someone is married doesn’t mean that their life has gotten easier. It might mean making the rent is easier, but there are a lot of challenges that I was unaware of in my friends’ lives that they didn’t tell me about. We didn’t have shared experiences anymore, and so much of friendship is based on shared data sets, so when your data set changes, it’s a real challenge. And of course I had to eventually admit to myself that I wasn’t making my own life easier by drinking; I was making it harder by drinking. I had to crack through that denial: Drinking wasn’t helping my life and relationships, it was hurting that.
Sobriety was a release from some of that self-obsession. You start to realize you don’t have it so bad and a lot of your friends are struggling, and they may not have the shared vocabulary to talk to you about it. And one of the things that starts coming to me in those years too is, I’ve been given so much! I was in a good job in an amazing city with good friends and loving parents. I had kind of won the lottery in a lot of ways and I was just standing there, I was so mad because I didn’t get X, Y, Z. That’s a tough place to be in.
Even though a lot of the anecdotes in here, and the through-line, is that drinking was harmful to you and to the people around you, there are these moments where you describe drinking — the taste of alcohol, or the feeling of being the right-amount of drunk — that seem almost loving and wistful. Are you nostalgic for drinking? Do you miss it?
I don’t miss drinking, because drinking now at the age of, I’ll be 41 at the end of the month. it wouldn’t do for me what I wanted it to do. I wanted it to make me a better person, but it made me a worse person. But I think what you’re hitting on is, those were not all bad times. Some of those times were beautiful. I can remember really beautiful moments — moments of connection, laughter, transcendence — and those were wonderful. But it would be like asking me if I wanted to go back to college. No, because I’m 40 years old! That is my past, and a lot of it was painful, but I’m glad I can also remember the part of it that was beautiful and meaningful, because that’s also why I did it for so long.
People have said to me in these interviews, “why did you keep drinking for so long? You were exhibiting problems so early.” But if you have a full-throated love of alcohol like I did, you’ll excuse a lot. The good times kept happening for a long time. It’s like anything you love but have to leave eventually. There’s this fulcrum, where it’s all amazing, then it’s amazing with problems, and by the end it’s just problems, and that’s what it was for me. So I don’t want to go back to drinking, but in this twisted way, and I don’t know what other recovering alcoholics would say to this, but I’m glad drinking was part of my story. I loved drinking, and I feel really lucky that I found drinking, and I feel really lucky that I figured out how to quit drinking, that I found AA.
You wrote about being afraid, in the book, that the story would get boring once you got sober. Have readers talked to you about that part of the book at all? What’s the feedback been like?
So many people have said, “I’m glad you carried through after you quit drinking.” Because the most important thing for me, for people to know, life does not end when you get sober. I thought my dating life, my creative life, my intimacy with friends, I thought that was all over. And it’s gotten so much better. It’s so much better now than it was for me then.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.