The nights I can’t remember are the nights I can never forget.

As a UT student in the 1990s, Sarah Hepola regularly drank so much that she blacked out. But on a beer-soaked college campus, and in a culture that shrugs off the dangers of alcohol, it would take her years to get help. In this excerpt from her bestselling memoir Blackout, Hepola, BA ’97, delves into what happens to your brain when you drink to forget.

I was 20 years old when I first started worrying I drank too much. I picked up one of those pamphlets at the student health center. Do you have a drinking problem? I was in college. I was pretty sure everyone I knew had a drinking problem. My photo album was a flipbook of evidence: my friend Dave, with a bottle of Jim Beam to his lips. My friend Anne, passed out on the couch with a red Solo cup still upright in her hand. Heroic postures of sin and debauch.

But there was something troubling about the way I drank. Friends would inch-worm up to me on Sundays, when our apartment was still wrecked with stink and regret. Hey. So. We need to talk. They tried to sound casual, like we were going to chat about boys and nail polish, but the next eight words were like needles sunk into my skin. Do you remember what you did last night?

And so, the pamphlet. It was such a corny, flimsy thing. It had probably been languishing on that rack of good intentions since the 1980s. The language was so alarmist and paternalistic (a word I’d just learned and enjoyed using).

Have you ever had a hangover? Come on. I felt pity for the wallflower who answered no to this question. Drinking at least three times a week was as fundamental to my education as choosing a major. My friends and I didn’t hang with people who didn’t party. There was something untrustworthy about people who crossed their arms at the bacchanal.

Next question: Do you ever drink to get drunk? Good lord. Why else would a person drink? To cure cancer? This was stupid. I had come to that health clinic with real fear in my heart, but already I felt foolish for being so dramatic.

Do you ever blackout?

Wait, that one. That question, right there. Do you ever blackout?

I did. I blacked out the first time I got drunk, and it happened again. And again. Some blackouts were benign, the last few hours of an evening turning into a blurry strobe. Some were extravagant. Like the one that brought me to the health clinic, after waking up in my parents’ house and having no idea how I got there. Three hours, gone from my brain.

During uncomfortable conversations with my friends, I would listen in disbelief as they told stories about me that were like the work of an evil twin. I said what? I did what? But I didn’t want to betray how little I knew. I wanted to eject from those discussions as quickly as possible, so I would nod, and tell them I felt terrible about what I’d done (whatever it turned out to be). The soft language of disarmament: I hear you. You are heard.

Other questions in the pamphlet were sort of ridiculous. Do you drink every day? Have you ever been sent to jail for your drinking? This was the low stuff of gutter drunks to me. I still shopped at the Gap. I had a Winnie-the-Pooh night lamp. No, I hadn’t been sent to jail, and no, I didn’t drink every day, and I was relieved to find those questions there, because they felt like they exempted me.

I was a college kid. I loved beer, and I loved the sophisticated sting of red wine, and I loved the fine and fiery stupor of bourbon, and sometimes I got so wasted that I poured those drinks on my head while performing songs from A Chorus Line in some twilight state I could not recall, and in the scope of the universe and all its problems, was this really—really—such a big deal?

I didn’t quit drinking that day. Of course I didn’t. But I left the clinic with the notion that alcohol was an escalating madness, and the blackout issue was the juncture separating two kinds of drinking. One kind was a comet in your veins. The other kind left you sunken and cratered, drained of all light.

I figured if I stayed in the middle, in the gray area, I would be OK. Blacking out was bad, but it wasn’t that big of a deal, right? It’s not like I was the only person who ever forgot a night of drinking, right? And it’s not like it happened to me that often.

At a party I threw a few months later, a friend danced in my living room in a giant fish costume. The next morning, as we stared at the shiny fabric in a heap on the floor, she said: Why is that costume there?

I was flooded with gratitude. Not just me. Thank God.

In my 20s, friends called with that hush in their voice to tell me they’d woken up beside some guy. They called after forgotten wedding receptions where the open bar had proven a little too open. Not just me. Thank God.

In my early 30s, I used to have brunch with a sardonic guy who actually bragged about his blackouts. He called it “time travel,” which sounded so nifty, like a supernatural power. He wasn’t drinking too many Long Island Iced Teas; he was punching a hole in the time-space continuum.

I was laughing about my blackouts by then, too. I used to joke I was creating a show called CSI: Hangover, because I would be forced to dig around the apartment like a television crime scene investigator, rooting through receipts and other detritus to build a plausible theory of the night’s events. I imagined myself crouched by the bed, wearing those blue plastic gloves and picking up each questionable item with long tweezers. This crumpled wrapper suggests our victim was hungry, I would say, holding the foil in the light and then giving it a long whiff. And this has the unmistakable smell of a Beef Meximelt.

It’s weird how a woman frightened by her own blackouts becomes a woman who shrugs them off like an unpaid cable bill. But any heavy drinker understands the constant redistricting and gerrymandering of what constitutes an actual “problem.” I’d come to think of blackouts as a surcharge for the grand spectacle of drinking. There was something deliciously chaotic about tossing your night up into the air and finding out the next morning what happened. Haven’t you seen The Hangover?

But there’s a certain point when you fall down the staircase, and you look around, and no one is amused anymore. By 35, I was in that precarious place where I knew I drank too much, but I believed I could manage somehow. I was seeing a therapist, and when I talked about my blackouts, she gasped. I bristled at her concern. Her tone was alarmist, like the pamphlet I’d once read, but a trip to any keg party would illustrate that if blackouts doomed a person to alcoholism, then most of us were doomed.

“Everyone has blackouts,” I told her.

She locked eyes with me. “No, they don’t.”


I didn’t know much about blackouts for a long time, but the mechanics are quite simple. The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus. Such a peculiar word, hippocampus, like a children’s book character. I imagine a beast with a twitching snout and big, flapping eyelashes. But it’s actually the part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and the beast stops twitching. Shutdown. No more memories.

Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed, what a friend of mine calls “getting caught in the drunkard’s loop.” The tendency to repeat what you just said is a classic sign of a blackout, although there are others. “Your eyes go dead, like a zombie,” a boyfriend once told me. “It’s like you’re not there at all.” People in a blackout often get a vacant, glazed-over look, as though their brain is unplugged. And, well, it kind of is.

Although some people learned to detect my blackouts, most could not. Blackouts are sneaky like that. They vary from person to person, and from night to night, the same way one drunk might put a lampshade on her head while another might sit quietly and stare into the middle distance. There’s no red indicator light to alert your audience when the brain is offline.

And people in a blackout can be surprisingly functional. This is a point worth underscoring, since the most common misperception about blacking out is confusing it with passing out, losing consciousness after too much booze. But in a blackout, a person is anything but silent and immobile. You can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of your past. You can sing the shit out of “Little Red Corvette” on a karaoke stage. You can run your greedy little hands over a man whose name you never asked. The next day, your brain will have no imprint of these activities, almost as if they didn’t happen. Once memories are lost in a blackout, they can’t be coaxed back. Simple logic: Information that wasn’t stored cannot be retrieved.

hepola.keystone.dormroom_graySome blackouts are worse than others, though. The less severe and more common form is a fragmentary blackout, or “brownout,” which is like a light flickering on and off in the brain. Perhaps you remember ordering your drink, but not walking to the bar. Perhaps you remember kissing that guy, but not who made the first move.

Then there are en bloc blackouts, in which memory is totally disabled. En bloc blackouts were a specialty of mine. The light goes out and does not return for hours sometimes.

We may understand the basics of a blackout, but we still don’t understand the nuances and complications. Is there any territory more vast and unknowable than the human mind? Ask anyone who’s lost a parent to dementia, or watched a spouse suffer a brain injury. What we remember, and how and why: This is a complex puzzle best explained by people in lab coats and not a girl who used to drink so much Dos Equis she would dip raw hot dogs in guacamole and shove them in her mouth.

One of the people in lab coats is Aaron White, a leading expert on blackouts. White is the program director for college drinking research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and he dispelled some of my own confusion about blackouts. I always thought my blackouts were caused by specific types of liquors. (Brown liquor, in particular.) According to White, brown liquor doesn’t cause blackouts any more than clear liquor does. It’s not the type of drink you put to your lips, it’s the amount of alcohol in the blood and how quickly you get to that level. Fragmentary blackouts happen at a blood alcohol content around .20, while en bloc blackouts happen around .30.

White is accustomed to people’s ignorance about blackouts, because ours is a drinking culture disconnected from the dangers of alcohol. “If they were selling some drug at the gas station that shut down areas of your brain so that you were functioning with amnesia, we wouldn’t have it,” White says.

Katy Perry had a hit song about a blackout in 2011. “It was a blacked-out blur,” she sang, “and I’m pretty sure it ruled.” But White sees blackouts another way. From a clinical perspective, he explains, a blackout is like early Alzheimer’s.

The more I learned about blackouts, the more I wondered why I’d read so little about them. I’ve read many magazine articles dissecting some drug of the moment—how Ecstasy or meth or heroin hijacks the brain. I’ve read many click-bait stories on what new drugs your teens might be using. Moth balls, bath salts. I’ve seen many scare segments on roofies. And yet, I’ve never read a major article or seen a television program discussing blackouts. It’s a menace hiding in plain sight.

I discussed roofies with White. Roofies aren’t a myth, he said, but studies suggest the fear outpaces the incidence. Turns out, “being roofied” often doesn’t involve roofies at all. People just don’t realize how common it is to experience a blackout. And alcohol can have troubling interactions with prescription meds. Rohypnol is in the benzodiazepine family, often prescribed for anti-anxiety and sleep disorders. Ativan, Xanax, Lunesta—some of the most popular meds on the market—can all create an amnesiac effect when combined with booze.

My therapist was correct: Not everyone has a blackout. The majority of people will never have one in their lifetime. But blackouts are not rare in drinking circles. In fact, they’re common. A 2002 study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that among drinkers at Duke University, more than half had experienced blackouts.

I was particularly at risk, even though I didn’t realize it. Blackout drinkers tend to be the ones who hold their liquor. If you bolt to the toilet after your third Cosmo, or start snoring after your second margarita, you won’t build up enough booze in your bloodstream to shut the machine down. I was so proud of the way I could knock ’em back. I drank fast, and I drank a lot. I was a beer-binging Annie Oakley slinging her empties into the trash and popping off the next bottle cap with a sly smile. Wanna watch me go again, boys?

I’m also 5’2”. I need a stepping stool to reach some ceiling fan pulls, and yet, I matched a 6’3” boyfriend drink-for-drink. I also made genius decisions like skipping my dinner, trying to cut calories, because I was always scheming my way back to the size-four dresses that hung in the back of my closet, like arrowheads from an ancient civilization.


Behold the risk factors for blacking out: a genetic predisposition to holding your liquor, drinking fast, and skipping meals. Oh, and one more: being female.

For a long time, blackouts were thought to be a guy thing. Of course, for a long time, drinking problems were thought to be a guy thing. But researchers now understand that women are more susceptible to blackouts than men. Alcohol metabolizes in our system differently. Our bodies are smaller. It’s pure biology. Nature, as it turns out, insists on a few double standards.

The stories that men and women tell about their blackouts are different, too. Too much alcohol can strip us down to our base drives. Our snarling, animal selves. I’ve heard countless tales of men waking up to find their faces bruised, their knuckles bloodied by some fit of unremembered violence.

The stories women tell are scary in another way. As White says, “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”

I heard a saying once about drunks: Men wake up in jail cells, and women wake up in strangers’ beds. It’s not like that for everybody. But it was like that for me.

By the time I’d reached my mid-30s, I was scared all the time. Afraid of what I’d said and done in blackouts. Afraid I would have to stop. Afraid of a life without alcohol, because booze had been my trustiest tool.

I needed alcohol to drink away the things that plagued me. Not just my doubts about sex. My self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears. I drank away all the parts that made me human, in other words, and I knew this was wrong. My mind could cobble together a thousand PowerPoint presentations to keep me seated on a barstool. But when the lights were off, and I lay very still in my bed, I knew: There was something fundamentally wrong about losing the narrative of my own life.

Reprinted with permission from Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Grand Central Publishing).

Read an interview with Sarah Hepola here.

Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook.


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