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A Path From 'Blackout' Drunkenness To Sobriety And Self-Acceptance

Before Sarah Hepola got sober five years ago, she considered alcohol to be "the fuel of all adventure." These adventures included taking off her clothes in public, pouring beer on people's heads and waking up in strangers' beds. Frequently, Hepola didn't remember these incidents afterward because she had been in an alcohol-induced blackout.

Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon.com.
/ Zan Keith
Zan Keith
Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon.com.

"A blackout is very different from passing out," Hepola tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You're still walking and talking and interacting with people, but the recorder in your brain isn't going."

Hepola once performed in front of 300 people while in a blackout state. "I don't think they knew that I was in a blackout, and I didn't know I was in a blackout, but later I had no memory of that event," she says.

In her memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,Hepola, who is now an editor at Salon.com, wrestles with her reasons for drinking and examines how alcohol fit in with — and distorted — her idea of being an empowered woman.

Interview Highlights

On what she was later told about her behavior during her blackouts

One of the things that I was told [was] I would always take off my clothes. And that was really surprising to me. Even though, if you were raised in a Girls Gone Wild era, maybe that's not so strange; but see, that wasn't me. I was always so self-conscious, and I didn't want people to see me. And so the idea that I would get so drunk that I would take off my clothes — often my pants for some reason — it was really surprising to me. ... It was almost like maybe this uninhibited part of me felt true freedom. .... So it was, "Yeah!" It was just like, "Look, me!" Because maybe that's maybewhat my true self wanted — to be seen — but I was so loaded down by my fear of rejection, my fear of judgment.

The other thing that I would do — I would be aggressive. I would pour beer on people's heads, which was funny for a little while. I sometimes would say things that were kind of nasty and mean to friends of mine that I really liked. And again, I don't know exactly what that was about. You know, you have that whole idea of "in vino veritas," that idea that when you drink, the truth comes out. Well, that may be true for maybe the first three drinks, but after 11 or 15, I'm not sure that's truth anymore. I think they felt like a version of a truth.

On how her drinking life changed as her friends got married and had kids

When you drink a lot like I did, you surround yourself by other heavy drinkers — and what becomes normal is what's around you. As long as everybody's drinking as much as you do, you don't necessarily have to look at your behavior. But then, as people got older, the behaviors changed. It was getting lonelier on the party bus. There weren't as many people around me. But one thing happened in the last 10 to 15 [or] 20 years ... is that a lot of my married friends, and even friends who had kids, it became very important for them to still be cool and to still prove that they could hang. So sometimes even my mother-friends would still go out and get drunk with me, because it was like they wanted to show me that they hadn't lost it; they weren't just homebodies who sat around watching Netflix. That they could still go out and party.

There are times in life when you realize that maybe your dream wasn't the right dream for you.

You know, one of the things that happened to me is that I started to get the message from some of my friends, in various ways, that what I was doing wasn't necessarily cool anymore, and that it wasn't funny. And for them it wasn't like they were mean about it. It wasn't like they were saying, "Well, you're not cool anymore." It was more like my friends were really worried about me. And I was somebody who prided herself on being very independent. I mean, here I am this single woman — all of you guys got married, but I'm still out here in the big city alone. I'm an independent woman and all my friends are starting to give me this message that I'm not OK, and that I'm not necessarily taking such good care of myself. That really hurt. It really wounded my pride.

On how sex changed after she got sober

When I stopped drinking I actually thought I was never going to have sex again, because it just didn't make any sense to me — like, how would that happen? Because I only knew one way, which was that you get drunk. And you've just taken away my one — you know, that's all the game I have. That's my one method. So if I don't have that, what am I going to do? ...

When I got sober, it's almost like I had some turtle skin or something, everything was really super sensitive, and I did not want to be around men at all. I was so scared of them. One thing I would do is, I would get these, kind of, fantasies about guys — maybe like the barista at the coffee shop or like a guy in the meeting — and I would live with them in my mind. This is what I used to do when I was a little girl, too, by the way, and I was really lonely. I think it's a form of self-soothing that a lot of us do. You know, if you can't have closeness you create closeness in your own mind. But then when it came time to actually date people — and, by the way, I did not start dating until two years into sobriety, so I took my time — when I started dating, I was petrified. I was so scared.

On her decision to move back to Dallas, where she grew up, after she stopped drinking

When I got sober, what happened was that things became a lot more clear to me. I didn't necessarily need a new job, but I did not like New York. And I think that was really surprising to me, because I grew up as this kid in Dallas, Texas, kind of reaching for the greatness of New York. That's the greatest city on Earth, right? And everybody should be there. I always longed to be somebody that was living in New York — a writer. That was my dream. And I think there are times in life when you realize that maybe your dream wasn't the right dream for you.

And I would go back to Dallas — which is this city that is not necessarily cool. And it certainly wasn't cool when I was growing up in it. I have this line in my book — "I grew up in Dallas wondering why." ... And I always wanted to get out of there, just get out of this place! And [after I stopped drinking] I would go back and I would feel the beauty of home.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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