‘Blackout’ Author Sarah Hepola on Drinking, Consent, and Body Image Demons

Sarah Hepola, BA ’97, stole her first sips of beer at age seven. By the time she arrived at UT as a Plan II freshman, she saw alcohol as “the gasoline of all adventure” and empowerment as matching the guys drink for drink—even when she woke up the next morning with no memory of the night before.

Hepola’s bestselling memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget—look for an excerpt coming soon in your November|December 2015 Alcalde—chronicles her years of alcoholism and recovery in wildly entertaining prose, while offering valuable insights into why some women drink too much and the particular problems they face. She spoke with the Alcalde about her path to sobriety and beyond.

hepola.smaller.headshotThe Alcalde: Where did you first got the idea that empowerment meant acting like “the guys”?

Sarah Hepola: My brother was the first model to me of what a successful person is. He had these great adventures, and he made his own way in the world, barged into every room like, “All right, the party’s going to begin!” My older cousin, who was another role model for me, was a tough girl, and I saw the way that people admired her for that. It was like she had Teflon armor. I was always crying, and I got my feelings hurt so easily.

It never occurred to me that I was drinking as empowerment. But people in any system look to who’s in power, try to do what they do. For the past 50, 60 years, if you look to people in power in America, who are they? They’re men—and they’re drinking. They have the leisure time to do fun, foolish things, and people let them get away with it.

You talk about growing up in Dallas and feeling like you didn’t belong in the neighborhood.

I don’t name it in the book, but Texas readers will probably recognize the neighborhood as Highland Park. There are a lot of neighborhoods in Texas like it—a good public school system in an aspirational community, where there is a tremendous amount of economic jockeying. We moved from the East Coast, and we were clueless. My mom didn’t wear makeup. My dad worked at the EPA and rode the bus to work. We had no idea what we were getting into. I started to get these messages trickling in: “Oh, you don’t go to Vail? You don’t have a lake house?” Someone told my brother, “Oh, we saw your lawn guy.” That was my dad! And because I was a girl, the markers for me were just a little more intense: You need to have a Louis Vuitton purse. You need to have this brand of jeans. You need to be wearing this kind of bow in your hair. I did not think I was an OK person.

Did body image play into that feeling?

I hit puberty early, and my need to hide was primal. I would wear sweaters in the summertime. I remember reading that Judy Garland strapped down her boobs for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and I was like, “That’s a great idea! I should do that.” I was doing everything I could to undo what nature was doing to me. At the age of 9, I got into a war with my own body, and that war doesn’t ever end. I’m still in the trenches.

So where are you with those body image demons now? Has sobriety helped you be more accepting of yourself?

It has, in small increments. When I sobered up, my body was a place that didn’t feel good to me. I had an ulcer, and bad knees from all the falling, and I was carrying a lot of extra weight. At first all I felt was the blast of shame: I hate this body, I hate what I’ve done. This is the kind of toxic self-hatred that will push you back to drinking, so I had to be softer to myself as I started to develop better habits and over time, my body began to look and feel healthier.

For me the hard part is finding the balance between acceptance and change: What part of my body is just the way it’s gonna be, and what part do I have control over? I’m always trying to figure out that line. But in general I’m exceedingly grateful to my body. It took a lot of abuse and hung in there like a champ. Sobriety has helped me see what a tremendous joy a healthy body is. Why do so many of us dismiss that like it’s some meaningless entitlement? Why can’t we see what a gift that is?

In the book you talk about dieting playing a role in the way drinking affected your body.

If you’re determined to drink, as I eventually became, and you’re body-obsessed, you try to maximize drunkenness and minimize calories—the word now is “pre-gaming,” which is taking shots at home, drinking rapidly to get the most effect out of the alcohol. Those are risk factors for blackouts. The important thing to know about blackouts is it’s really about how fast you get drunk. When you drink on an empty stomach and you drink fast, those are the two ways to spike your blood alcohol content—and those are two things that women often do when they’re trying to lower calorie content and maximize drunkenness. The other thing is, the worse I felt about my body, the more I wanted to drink it away.

In a discussion of alcohol and consent, you say, “My consent battle was in me.” What does that mean to you?

Alcohol was mandatory for my romantic entanglements. I didn’t know how to be with somebody I was interested in sexually without being drunk first. I did not know how to open myself up, how to calm myself, and how to get over this enormous mountain of body-consciousness. Alcohol was a fix—it worked, and it was socially acceptable. If I had a blackout, and then the next morning I woke up with a guy, I didn’t wake up and think, “I didn’t give consent.” I’m not even sure I knew that word. When I told my friends, they did not say, “Oh my God, were you too drunk to consent?” They said, “Rock on. That’s awesome. You are a sexual adventuress.” I liked that idea, that I had not been out of control—I had been in control. Somehow, if a woman does it, it feels transgressive, right?

So when the story around alcohol and consent and sexual assault and all that stuff started to explode, I was really surprised not to hear more about the role of drinking . . . the conversation is not just, “Women need to drink less.” That’s not a fair solution, and it’s not going to solve the problem. Men also get more violent when they drink. What people do when they’re drunk is different than what they do when they’re not. When somebody says, “Oh, my son would never do that”—you’re right. Your son would never do that, sober. People will do crazy things when they are drunk, and when they are blackout drunk, they have a terrible disconnect with what they’ve done.

Are there signs to look for, if you suspect that someone you’re with is blackout drunk?

There’s no certifiable way that to tell when somebody is in a blackout, but there are little red flags. One of them is that they repeat themselves. When you’re talking to somebody, and they tell you a story, and then 10 minutes later they tell you the same story—that person’s in a blackout. My ex-boyfriend would always tell me that my eyes went dead, I got that unplugged look. But again, people in a blackout can present very well. That’s the scary thing about it.

Do you miss anything about drinking?

I took a lot of pride in being the party-starter. When I showed up, it was like, “Great! The party’s going to start now!” I brought with me all this possibility: This is a judgment-free zone, we’re all going to dance to Michael Jackson albums and put food on our faces! I miss that. But the people that know and love me, they still light up when I walk into a room.

Photo courtesy Zan Keith


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