I was a blackout drinker.
Perhaps you think you know what that means – drinking until I became a drooling mess, falling asleep in some bar booth or on a subway platform. If only it was that lame. No, drinking until you blackout doesn’t mean passing out, although later you may well wish you had. A blackout drinker is someone who, when a certain amount of alcohol enters their system, has a part of their mind shut off. I have heard the blackout drinker’s brain during an episode described as a VCR without a tape in it, but I think it’s even heavier than that. The blackout drinker is walking and talking, may seem absolutely together and not even obviously super intoxicated, but essential parts of their brain have been shut off. The blackout drinker is a danger to themselves and others.
As a blackout drinker I woke up many mornings in a state of panic. The things about which I panicked would bloom in the minutes after forcing my crusty, pained eyes open – it would start with a panic that I was late for something, then a panic that I had forgotten something big that day. But the panic would metastasize as I realized that I was waking up after a night out drinking and that I could not remember things like how I got home, or how I got into bed. Or maybe even where I had been after a certain hour of the night. I knew I had been at the Public House, but had I staggered off to the Drawing Room at 11? Or had I called an Uber and gone elsewhere? Did I go to somebody’s house? What had happened over the course of the night?
There could be pieces of the night before that might come through, flashes of events or faces or motions. Those were good mornings, when I had partial memories of the night, even if those memories filled me with dread. I’d scramble to figure out who I had insulted. Had I gotten into a fight? I would check my text messages – what the hell had I sent out at 2am? I would check Twitter to see if anything needed to be deleted.
Once I was out of bed I would walk through the house like a detective at a crime scene, looking for clues that could fill in the gaps. I was looking for things out of place – had I come home smashed and left the fridge open? Or the front door (that happened more than once, and I had cats at the time)? Was there food on the floor in the living room, or vomit in the tub? Was there another person in the house? Would there be an item that would fill in a gap in the night – a receipt, maybe, or a fast food bag? Just something to give me an idea of what my body had been doing while my mind had been completely and totally blanked out.
I never checked my bank account to see how much I had spent. There was no good answer to that question. I did, however, often have to check to see that I had taken my credit card home from the bar. One time I left my card at a bar in Telluride, Colorado. I had to have it FedExed to me.
To a normal person this sounds like a nightmare, to be unsure of what you did, where you were, what was happening around you. To me, an alcoholic, it was just part of the package. It didn’t occur to me – even into my 40s – that regular people don’t live like this. That regular people don’t have these Swiss cheese memories of nights, that regular people don’t have large swaths of their lives that exist only as expressionistic blurs of swirling colors and grotesque images. That regular people don’t have a curtain that sometimes drops suddenly over their mind, only pulling back groggy hours later. Regular people don’t wake up and wonder if they made a horrible pass at someone deeply inappropriate the night before. Regular people don’t avoid talking to their friends because they’re afraid they said something unpardonable to them. Regular people don’t get accused of sexual assault a decade and a half earlier and be unsure of whether or not they did it.
Here’s what’s wild about blacking out when drinking: research shows that you don’t forget the things you said and did, you never remember them in the first place. When you get blackout drunk your brain goes to a state where it is not making any memories at all. There is no way to recover the memories of a blackout, because they weren’t made. Again, it’s the VCR without a tape thing – you can press record all you like, but without a tape in the machine nothing is getting saved. That’s intense when you think about it – your brain is actively, absolutely not working properly in that time.
It gets worse. Because of the nature of the brain shutdown happening in a blackout, the person loses what we call ‘higher-order consciousness.” There are simply parts of the person that are no longer turned on, and they may be functionally not themselves. I always identified with the Wolf Man because of my anger issues – poor Larry Talbot was unable to stop the wolf from erupting from within, no matter how pure his heart or how many prayers he said at night – but it was really Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde who described my bad nights of blackout drinking.
Are you still you if parts of your brain are no longer working properly? Scientists have discovered that people in blackouts have suppressed activity in the hippocampus – the part of your brain making long term memories – but also in the amygdala, the part of your brain that regulates your emotions, your fear and your aggression. So a person in a blackout is not only no longer recording their lives, they’re no longer controlling themselves in the ways they normally do. Dr. Jekyll begone, welcome Edward Hyde.
There’s a common misbelief that you don’t do anything when you’re drunk that you wouldn’t want to do when you’re sober. It’s simply not true for people with alcohol use disorders. Just as people with brain tumors or traumatic brain injuries may experience wild changes in their behavior and attitudes, so can people with significant drinking problems. Sure, an angry person will make for an angry drunk, but just being an angry person doesn’t mean you’re likely to start fist fights. Being an angry drunk certainly does. As an angry person I could be unpleasant to people, but it was only as a drunk that I would try to get into fights.
The suppression of activity in the amygdala leads to increased risk taking. The consequences of our actions are less obvious to us when we’re in this state, and so a woman who would never sleep with the gross guy at the end of the bar will absolutely go with him into the bathroom for a quick one. The man who would never put another person’s life at risk will completely get behind the wheel of a car. The hard worker will email something hateful to his boss. The good guy will steal from you.
All of these things can happen with any heavy drinker, but the extra level of horror for the blackout drinker is that they don’t remember any of it. For the blackout drinker it’s like they vacate their body and this other person – a person without regard for others, a person who is only interested in their immediate needs and desires, a person with no thought for the consequences of any of their actions, a person with no thought as to how their actions might impact another human being – takes over.
Maybe the best version of this I’ve ever seen in a film is in the movie Colossal, where Anne Hathaway is an alcoholic who wakes up to discover that in the night she accidentally became a giant monster who wreaks havoc in the city of Seoul. She watches the destruction on TV and only later puts two and two together to realize it was her doing it, and while the movie is funny and charming that premise chilled me to the bone. I was still drinking when I first saw the movie, and I have to tell you that recognizing that character in myself (and also recognizing myself in the Jason Sudeikis character) helped me on my path to recovery.
That movie captures the existential horror of the blackout: it was me doing those things, yet it was not me. I don’t recognize that person, and what’s more, I don’t remember that person. And yet, it was me. I am that monster, but I don’t remember that monster.
Blackout drinking tends to occur when your blood alcohol level spikes, especially quickly. I sometimes liked to get my night started with a bunch of shots (I would have a beer, maybe two, and that would suppress my decision making abilities to the point where I thought that a few shots of whiskey was a GREAT idea, and that would get me pushed over into oblivion), and those nights would often disappear completely, an abrupt end of consciousness but not of mobility. Some nights I would hold off on the shots until late; those were the nights where the memory tape peters out into static.
How do you deal with blackout drinking? The best answer I’ve found is to stop doing it. Over the course of my life I’ve tried to control the drinking – only drink out, never at home; only drink clear liquor; only drink on a full stomach; stop drinking Red Bull and vodka because it makes you fight; drink one water for every two drinks; keep it to one drink every half hour – but the reality is that anything you’re trying to control is, by definition, out of control.
If you don’t have a drinking problem you won’t recognize yourself in these words. You may have blacked out once, when you were younger, but it taught you how to drink. But if you do have a drinking problem you may well have been nodding along; you might have seen your own life in every paragraph. Maybe you’ll get there, to the place where you can learn how to drink like a regular person, where you don’t wake up feeling ashamed before you even remember what it is that you did last night, you just know that being awake means you should be ashamed. Maybe you’ll do it. I never figured it out. I never got there.
Eventually the guy who I unleashed when I blacked out, he came for me. I’m so lucky because when he came for me I managed to find another way to live where I no longer have to worry about him. But I know that if I stop living that way he’ll still be there. And he’s spent the last couple of years getting ready, Max Cady style. I’m hoping to never see that motherfucker ever again.
In the meantime I’m glad that I now remember everything that happens to me day-to-day (well, I remember a reasonable amount of it for someone who spent so many years being self-abusive). Whatever I do now, no matter how shitty or terrible, it’s me doing it. I remember it. It’s comforting to have that continuity of existence, to never wake up in the morning and dread checking my texts. I’m not free of my human foibles, failings and problems, but I am free in a much bigger, grander and more satisfying way.