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Book Reviews Review: Sarah Hepola avoids sobriety clichés in Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

Sarah Hepola

Zan Keith

Title
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget
Author
Sarah Hepola
Genre
Memoir
Publisher
Grand Central Publishing
Pages
240
Price
$29

Sarah Hepola has lapses in her memory. As someone who drank to get through the bulk of her life, she understands deeply that alcohol was an easy way to avoid who she was, how she felt and what she wanted.

From sneaking clandestine gulps of beer from her parents' fridge at six years old, to waking up in a stranger's hotel room in Paris after a fuzzy night of cognac, her experience is one both harrowing and easy to identify with. Anyone who has had a few after a good day, and a few more after a bad day, will find at least a part of themselves in her narrative, understanding that the world's most ubiquitous intoxicant at best postpones our ability to manage life and at worst cripples it.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank To Forget is Hepola's intimate chronicle of her decades-long relationship with alcohol, starting with those first tantalizing sips and ending with her final reluctant 2010 decision to embrace sobriety. "This book might sound like a satire of a memoir," she writes. "I am writing about events I can't remember."

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In explaining these blank spaces, Hepola creates a deeply personal document, shunning sweeping generalizations about addiction and avoiding cold facts or stats on the subject. Instead, we get Hepola's life story (and abusive love affair with drinking) from start to finish – how alcohol made her braver as a teen, how it was a salve during the emotional difficulty of her university years and how it became a convenient crutch for an anxious adulthood.

Wine muted the jackhammers of Hepola's perfectionism, bourbon her fear of being disliked and beer the exposure of sexual and emotional intimacy. She writes of drinking like one would a lost lover, or a method of salvation – with near worship. Yet alcohol's therapeutic pleasures came with the inevitable consequences of losing chunks of her experience to blackout, waking up with both bruises and men, wondering how each got there.

Despite the terrifying gaping holes in her memory, Hepola couldn't stop, going back to the bottle almost daily in an effort to find freedom, strength and comfort. Her ability to keep her life together while toppling off a bar stool is perhaps the key to the longevity of her addiction – as a successful journalist and editor at Salon.com, getting sauced was simply part of the lifestyle, even when friends and boyfriends were expressing concern or drifting away.

"What did it mean that I hid when I was sober, and stripped off all my clothes when I was blind drunk?" she asks. "What did it mean that I adored my roommate, but I lashed out at her after seven drinks?"

Hepola answers these questions with incredible likeability and humour, yet never makes light of the severity of her near lifelong addiction. She's self-effacing, but doesn't pass judgment on herself and therefore any reader who identifies with her struggles. When she falls down a flight of stairs, cries hysterically in public or moons strangers in a slow-moving car, we amazingly never find ourselves feeling sorry for her, or viewing her like a cautionary tale or subject of an after-school special.

For Hepola, drinking to excess was a form of empowerment denied to her, and sobriety a process of rediscovering that power within herself. She often wisely fits these personal reflections within a wider cultural context, with discussions of rape culture, the gendered industry of "empowerment" and how some women discover confidence in a bottle because the world won't allow it to them otherwise.

When Hepola finally quits the thing that's defined her life, she's equally honest about how awful the process of getting better really is.

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After waking up after a night of red and white wine, her memory "scooped out as if by a melon baller," she calls her mother and says it's time. Drinking's absence starkly reveals her own incapability and the damage done – her body broken, her bank account obliterated and her apartment resembling a squat. Her life was something she had to drink to tolerate and without it clouding her vision, she literally shuts herself in her closet for hours at a time to avoid both alcohol's thrall and the reality of who she really is.

"I thought when I finally quit drinking for good, the universe would open its treasure chest to me," she writes, but instead she feels raw and threatened by the world. She doesn't know how to care for her mind or her body, suddenly forced to learn how – and, ultimately, she does.

Blackout is certainly an inspirational story, but without the insufferable clichéd platitudes of self-help. The author doesn't claim to have answers, or that sobriety is a sudden euphoric escape from misery. She does, however, claim it is possible and does so in a relatable tone free of righteousness.

There are certainly lots of memoirs about alcoholism and Blackout is a worthy addition to that list, holding the potential to help anyone who has ever had to pour themselves another to cope.

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