I spoke with the author Sarah Hepola over zoom about her book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, society’s changing attitudes towards alcohol, and finding identity and connection in sobriety.
So first of all, I loved Blackout. Regarding the subtitle, “Remembering the things I drank to forget,” can you talk about some of the things you were trying to forget, and how you’ve confronted them in recovery?
I think the first thing I was trying to forget was the ordinary self-consciousness of what it was to be me. I was a really shy kid with an outsized fear of what people thought of me. Around the time of my adolescence, that made it nearly crippling to talk in public.
That was the albatross I carried around with me, and the first time I found drinking, it was freedom. It felt to me like someone opening the cage of your human body and you could fly out.
I fell in love with drinking young. I was dabbling in it from the time I was 7 or so; I would steal sips of my mom’s beer that she kept in the fridge. By the time I was 12 and 13, I was drinking as regularly as I could. When I got to college, that was really the explosion. And by the time I got to college, what it was dimming were more insecurities of that time, like that I wasn’t as smart as my friends, or that I wasn’t as bold as I wanted to be. I still had that shyness lingering around, so alcohol really muted those feelings.
Then the more you drink, the more problems you get. You start drinking to forget those. It becomes this recursive cycle, where it starts out as freedom and ends up as the cage itself. The things I drank to forget was like everything by the end of it. This is going to be a clichéd answer, but how did I confront it? Very, very slowly.
That’s been my experience too.
Yeah, I always think about how alcohol is instant transformation; it’s “change how you feel now, now, now.” Everything about recovery is slow; you slowly confront the things that have been plaguing you. For instance, my discomfort in my own body; how I dealt with that at first was not very mature—I just didn’t go anywhere. Then you develop the muscle strength that you had denied yourself in all those years of bypassing the problem. I was able to build up a lot of the strength in me that I was drinking to get.
One of the things I got from Blackout was that in the last several years or decades, alcohol has been sold as a tool of empowerment to women, but it ultimately ended up being disempowering for you. Can you talk more about that?
Yeah, absolutely. I think alcohol is one of the great leisure drugs; you see it across cultures and eras. Especially in America over the last couple hundred years, the people that were drinking in bars tended to be the people with power and time to burn. It was something you did because you weren’t working in the kitchen.
There was an era when women didn’t have access to that place. Alcohol starts becoming accessible to women through the feminist changes of the 70’s. Obviously women could have glasses of wine at home, but I mean public spaces like bars. So the liquor companies start marketing to women. It has this story of tracking along with women’s rising place in the world, much like cigarettes. This idea that: “You’ve made it; you’re a free woman; you can now drink.”
And there’s great joy in those female spaces. I have logged so many wonderful hours in girls’ happy hours. But what I was finding was that that power was really unstable. I was seeing the kind of binge drinking I was doing celebrated across culture. Everybody thought it was hilarious that I was this tripping down drunk; it was transgressive, because there were eras when women hadn’t been allowed to do that.
It took me a while to realize that the alcohol I found so powerful was really doing the opposite. When you get sober, you become very aware of how much alcohol is around you and the social messaging behind it. I got sober in 2010; there was a boom in drunk women behaving badly across the pop culture spectrum. The way you would signal on TV that a woman was complicated was that she would drink. The way you signaled to another woman that you weren’t a boring, conventional woman was, “I’m going to get drunk with you.” All these things had happened at that point over the past like 20 years, so it was a relatively fast climb.
Actually, my next question relates to that; I was going to ask if you think the culture around alcohol has changed at all since you quit drinking, because even since I quit drinking in 2015, I feel like there’s been a lot of changes in that fairly short time.
Absolutely, I think the major changes have been in that time. I think from 2010 to 2015 was really the height of these kind of drunken chattering classes. You would go to boutiques, and all the clothes and potholders and everything was branded about wine. When my book came out in 2015, that was still prominent in the culture. Then in the next few years, there’s this awakening of, “Oh, maybe that’s not such a good idea.”
I think it would be hard to pinpoint what happened, but I do know that the conversation around sexual consent was really ramping up. I was getting a lot of pushback to not talk about it. I was like, “You guys, we can’t talk about sexual consent without talking about alcohol.” I felt like if we were going to have a reckoning about this culture that we were living in and created, we needed to look at the social costs of some of the well-ingrained habits.
Then I think because of the mindfulness movement, because of new age spirituality, you’re starting to see things like the sober curious movement. Marketing, which had once discovered the power of drinking women, is now discovering the power of non-drinkers. You get this proliferation of seltzers.
I also think that younger generations are just turning away from alcohol. Maybe because the iPhone is really the hub of social activity, so you don’t have as much bar interaction—but also things go in and out of fashion. Then you’re starting to see hard-hitting journalism about the cost of alcohol, things like the link between alcohol and cancer.
Yes, the pandemic hit and you’re still seeing all these stories of, “Ha ha ha, isn’t it funny that I’m drinking?” But I think what’s changed is that there’s a little bit less participatory laughter.
So you talked about how being the girl who could hold her liquor was a big part of your identity. How did it feel to disentangle from that, and do you have advice for someone else who sees it as part of their personality?
I’m 5’2 and shy, so this idea that I could do something other girls couldn’t was incredibly powerful to me. It gave me the brazen quality I wanted so much. When I quit, it was painful for me to lose that identity.
But I found that over the years as I got stronger, what emerged was that I could always hang with the boys—meaning that I can match them toe-to-toe in their argument. It’s not like I’m trying to shout them down; many of my male friends are wonderful people. It’s just that it seemed like men moved through the world with a certain swagger I had to totally fake. I was learning to move not necessarily with swagger, but with my own self-possession.
The advice I would give someone who is struggling with that; one is that I always thought my ability to drink like men was a good thing, and looking back, I really think it was bad. The body has ways of keeping you out of trouble; if you overdrink, you throw up or pass out. That’s what was happening to my female friends, but I was going into round 12 and 13. I was in trouble because I was so drunk, but I looked like I was doing fine. I kept saying I could hang with the boys, but it’s not entirely true, because parts of my system were shutting down.
Then the other thing is, I would question why the ability to hang with the boys so important to them. Is there something about their own strength, their own value, that they question? It’s hard for me to give advice because I never took advice—but I do know that what I was looking for in those interactions was something I’ve been able to find other places.
That’s really great advice—the idea of looking at what’s going on internally instead of externally.
You had mentioned being a shy kid, and in the book you talked about using alcohol as the way to find connection. Are there ways you find that in recovery?
Yeah, I think I’ll always miss that easy connection of sitting down at the bar next to someone and feeling like you can just talk to them. But I do know that I’ve found that other places. Being real about my own struggles has usually given other people permission to do that with me, and vice versa.
Being real with one another—that’s really the juice. That’s the thing I think you’re really drinking for. Obviously, there’s the elixir and some good feelings, but I always felt like what people are looking for is connection and intimacy. And not always but often, what happens in drinking is a kind of counterfeit intimacy, or at least a short-lived intimacy, or maybe an intimacy you don’t even remember.
You have to learn in sobriety not to vomit truth all over somebody. You have to find the balance of social norms and an appropriate vulnerability that might invite deeper discussion.
Yeah at least for me, when I was drinking, I didn’t have that balance. It was just like, “Tell everyone everything that’s ever happened to me.” I find there’s something really wonderful in sobriety about being able to share that authentically without spilling it to everyone you meet, all the time.
Oh yeah, I used to tell all my secrets to everybody at the bar, and obviously they weren’t secrets. You have the opportunity in sobriety to disperse that a little more strategically. The intimacy and connection of sobriety is a little more hard-won; it’s not quite as easy as popping down on that bar stool and turning to the left. But it is real and sustaining, and you can find it anywhere.