New Memoir Brings Awareness to Blackout Trend

By McCarton Ackerman 08/27/15

Sarah Hepola's new book details blacking out while having sex and doing stand-up comedy.

Sarah Hepola
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Blackouts from drinking are practically considered to be standard operating procedure among hard-partying college students, but a new book solely devoted to one person’s experience with them hopes to shed a sober light on the subject.

Sarah Hepola, a personal essays editor at Salon, is recalling her own memories (or lack of) on the subject in the new memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. Hepola drank for 25 years before entering recovery and now being sober for five years.

She recalled finding herself in the middle of a sexual encounter after coming to from a blackout and even had no memory of performing in front of hundreds of people at a comedy night during one particularly rowdy evening, making her question what else she had done during these episodes.

"Those people in the audience did not know I was in a blackout and I did not know I was in a blackout and so that's a very important thing to acknowledge when we think about what constitutes valid consent," she told CNN. "The legal standard for consent is that if you're incapacitated you can't consent, but what is incapacitation and does [a] blackout fall under that category?"

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines blackouts as periods of amnesia about things a person did or where they went. Underage and young drinkers are far more likely to report having experienced one before.

A 2002 study from Duke University surveyed 800 drinking students and found that 51% reported having at least one alcohol-induced blackout, with 9% admitting they blacked out within the last two weeks. Some of the students reported driving, having sex or engaging in other similarly risky behaviors during these episodes.

"There is sort of a recipe if you want to black out," said Aaron White, PhD, senior advisor to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "You basically drink in a way that gets alcohol into your brain fast and so that could be by doing shots, chugging beer, but also by skipping meals.”

White said women are more susceptible than men to blackouts because they are more likely to skip meals and choose beverages with higher alcohol concentrations like wine and spirits. However, he said that blackouts are largely preventable for both genders by making sure to “have food in your stomach, pace yourself [and] limit the amount you drink."

As for Hepola, she is hoping to use her book as a platform for people to talk more openly about blackouts and make it clear that the consequences can be potentially lethal.

“This is such a widely used and available substance. We have kind of turned a blind eye to the fact that kids abuse it,” she said. "It's a rite of passage for them, but I feel like there's just not at all an awareness that there are consequences."

You can read our interview with Hepola from June here.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.