Coming to after another "rager" left her blackout drunk, Sarah Hepola would joke about creating a new TV show: CSI: Hangover. Armed with gloves and tweezers, Hepola, an editor at Salon.com, envisioned herself picking through the filth of her apartment looking for clues of what had gone on the night before – "detective work on your own life."
Hepola's startling new memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget tracks her heavy-drinking days and propensity to conk out and forget large swaths of time and raucous behaviour in between. "My evenings come with trapdoors," writes Hepola, who opens the book with a troubling anecdote: coming to mid-sex with a stranger in an unfamiliar hotel room in Paris.
For Hepola, who is now sober, booze had always been the "gasoline of all adventure," a "comet" in her veins. She started sneaking sips of beer from half empty cans in the fridge at age 7: "Nobody thought a little girl would steal beer," she writes. By age 12, she experienced her first blackout during a summer party at an arcade, where she vomited seven times, cried and took her pants off. "It was a blueprint," writes Hepola.
Later, in adulthood, alcohol gave her permission to do and be whatever she wanted, "shutting out the jackhammers" of perfectionism and self-doubt. Like other young women, Hepola saw boozing as a feminist right: She wanted to be like her Irish uncles putting back a bottle of Scotch, not her aunt and her mother, sweeping up after them.
By her thirties, Hepola's friends were marrying and settling down while she continued cavorting drunkenly around New York. When she blacked out, they'd be forced to fill in the blanks and worry that she'd been "roofied" – to which Hepola would retort, "Yes, I think someone slipped me ten drinks." By 35, Hepola realized she had a problem.
Blackout, a sharply-observed punch to the gut about getting sober, recounts those trapdoor nights but also mines the culture around women and drinking, a culture women have been writing about in droves lately: There was Toronto writer Jowita Bydlowska's bold Drunk Mom: A Memoir, Canadian journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston's Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol and Gabrielle Glaser's Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink – and How They Can Regain Control, to name a few.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared binge drinking a dangerous health issue for women age 18 to 34, this after some 14 million American women admitted to bingeing (defined as six drinks or more in one sitting) three times a month, according to a 2013 CDC report. When it comes to blackout – that's your hippocampus, the part of the brain that makes long-term memories, shutting down when your blood becomes too saturated with alcohol – women are especially vulnerable: not only are our bodies smaller, we metabolize alcohol differently than men.
It's a double standard women haven't wanted to hear. Even as we wring our hands about college girls binge drinking, alcohol has become a modern rite and our social glue. It's also been a key accessory for our pop culture heroines, from Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw swilling cosmos to Bridget Jones tallying her "alcohol units" (14 at New Year's).
Hepola spoke from Dallas with The Globe about why women booze, the evolving conversation around alcohol and sexual consent and her own "disappearing into the drink."
Why do women equate drinking with empowerment?
There is this fixation on empowerment. The word has been used for everything – drinking with the boys or pole-dancing classes – and it has really lost meaning. What this tells me is how much we want power.
One of the reasons why alcohol is so appealing here is because women are told how to behave in ways that men are not. For decades, women did not have the social freedoms men did. Mad Men is an incredible illustration of that. You track the rise of feminism along with Joan and Peggy's proximity to the bottle of Scotch. By the end of the show, they are drinking along with the boys. That is this entry into a liberated world.
This book is not about all women and all drinking but there is a certain strain of us drinking for that power. For me, I didn't have this natural grasp on authority that I saw in my male companions, who could walk into a room and say, "Let me tell you how it is." I had the constant reel of self-doubt going in my head. As women, we struggle a lot with that perfectionism and a fear of being made fun of. Alcohol removed my fear of other people's judgment. It was a cheat sheet: This makes me stronger, faster and funnier.
When I was growing up, when I wrapped my hands around a Pearl Light or a Keystone Light or a Coors Light and I could stand with guys and match them drink for drink, the feeling I got was, "I am your equal, I can run this race as fast as you." I needed that. I got a lot of admiration both from women and from men: "You can hold your liquor."
Generally though, women can't actually drink the way men drink.
Women can't metabolize alcohol as quickly as men can. The risk factors for blackout are drinking fast, drinking on an empty stomach and being female. "Nature insists on some double standards" – I'm just waiting for someone to tear me up on that line in the book. It's science, I don't know what else to say. My swagger as an 18-year-old college girl all of five-foot-two and 135 pounds, deciding that I can stand toe-to-toe with my six-foot male friends – what biology class was I in? It doesn't work.
Feminists have expressed displeasure with the women and drinking conversation, saying it reeks of temperance, and ask, "Why isn't anyone writing cautionary tales for men who drink?" What's the right way to talk about female alcoholism?
My story isn't how women should drink. Men and women deserve equal access and opportunity to all things, including booze. But one of the things about a free society is that it is incumbent on you to learn your limits because they're not enforced upon you. It's about learning how not to piss all over your freedom. I had to learn that and it took me many, many years.
You interviewed a researcher who studies college drinking patterns. He pointed to a troubling gender disparity: "When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them." In your own life, alcohol and the ensuing blackouts made the issue of sexual consent "very murky." What do you make of the affirmative consent model, which puts forth that a woman isn't capable of consenting when she's drunk?
I have done a tremendous amount of reading, thinking and talking about this subject and I share a lot of the reservations, confusion and hope that I've seen in other coverage about affirmative consent.
When people read stories about women in a "blackout," they assume it means unconscious and lying on a bed. That's a clear line for me: It's sexual assault. But blackout isn't passing out. Some people in a blackout will repeat themselves; others will vomit, urinate or fall down the stairs. Those are visible signs of incapacitation and they play an important part in consent.
But for others in a blackout – and I was one of these people – they just don't present in that fashion. They may be going after sex and enthusiastically consenting. Other people can't always tell that you're in a blackout, and you yourself do not know that you're in one. You're not a witness to your own behaviour.
With the legal standard of "you cannot consent to sex when you are incapacitated," the question becomes, "What is incapacitation?" If you are in a blackout, it is a grey zone of consent. I know that there are people out there who would characterize the scene in Paris as rape. I cringe when I say it, but an important detail is that I was on top of him. In that case, I do not believe that's rape.
However, if you're drinking into blackout and having sex with people, it's a problem. It startles me that in all the years I was drinking, I had very little conversation about this with my friends. I don't know if that's a personal blind spot or a generational blind spot.
It's problematic territory. As you put it so succinctly, it's hard to "match the clarity of political talking points to the complexity of life lived at last call."
So far I have been very relieved to find that when I speak with other feminist writers about these topics, they're nodding and saying, "We see what you're saying." I've talked to a lot of women who feel relieved to be having a deeper conversation about this. Maybe you start with broad strokes and as the conversation nudges forward, you can start to introduce the more nuanced territory. Maybe that's true of every lightning rod issue.
So how do we talk to young women about binge drinking, without sounding like Princeton Mom or like we're just old and out of touch?
I'm going to sound like a PSA announcement but it does start with education – knowing the science of what a blackout is – so you can make your own decisions in life. I was a blackout drinker who didn't even know that there were factors for blackout. That's a problem.
You've inscribed the book to "anyone who needs it."
I was writing for people living in this culture where drinking is the way we connect to one another, and to question, "Why is it that we need that?" I wasn't just writing for people with drinking problems. I have people that don't have drinking problems coming to me because this book is about the feelings underneath the drinking: the insecurity, the wild ambition, the fear of being unloved, the desire for intimacy and connection and not knowing how to get it. It's for anybody who feels like a weirdo in their own life, who feels estranged and alienated and reached for a fix when the fix is inside them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.