SHEDNOTES 132: The mechanics of drink, part 232

The Shed is always interested in documentary material on drink and read most of the Guardian Magazine’s condensed version of the honest and well-written confessions of Sarah Hepola, a pretty Texan woman who used it as the fuel and the excuse for bed-hopping her way through her youth. There is a book. Details to follow but the Guardian story, with links, is at

The Shed has always suspected that memory blackouts are generally a convenience invented afterwards, but Hepola wants nobody to doubt that they happened all the time in her case and are apparently quite a common phenomenon.

She wrote, among other things: “This happens to me sometimes. A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn’t notice. They’d simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.

“It’s possible you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re a moderate drinker who baby-sips two glasses of wine and leaves every party at a reasonable hour. Maybe you are one of those lucky people who can slurp your whisky all afternoon and never disappear. But if you’re like me, you know the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.



“I knew blacking out was bad, but it wasn’t that big a deal, right? In my 20s, friends called with that hush in their voice to tell me they’d woken up beside some guy. Not just me. Thank God.

“In my early 30s, I used to have brunch with a sardonic guy who bragged about his blackouts. He called it ‘time travel’, which sounded so nifty, like a supernatural power. I was laughing about my blackouts by then, too. I used to joke I was creating a show called CSI: Hangover, because I would be forced to dig around the apartment like a crime scene investigator, rooting through receipts and other detritus to build a plausible theory of the night’s events.

“But there’s a certain point when you fall down the staircase, and you look around, and no one is amused any more. As I inched into my 30s, I found myself in that precarious place where I knew I drank too much, but I believed I could manage it somehow. I was seeing a therapist, and when I talked to her about my blackouts, she gasped. I bristled at her concern. ‘Everyone has blackouts,’ I told her. She locked eyes with me. ‘No, they don’t.’

“For many years, I was confounded by my blackouts, but the mechanics are quite simple. The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and that’s it. Shutdown. No more memories.

“Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed – what a friend of mine calls ‘getting caught in the drunkard’s loop’. The tendency to repeat what you just said is a classic sign of a blackout, although there are others.

“Although some people learned to detect my blackouts, most could not. Blackouts are sneaky like that. There is no definitive way to tell when someone is having one. And people in a blackout can be surprisingly functional: you can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of your past. The next day, your brain will have no imprint of these activities, almost as if they didn’t happen. Once memories are lost in a blackout, they can’t be coaxed back. Simple logic: information that wasn’t stored cannot be retrieved.

“Some blackouts are worse than others, though. The less severe and more common form is a fragmentary blackout, or ‘brownout’, which is like a light flickering on and off in the brain. Perhaps you remember ordering your drink, but not walking to the bar. Perhaps you remember kissing that guy, but not who made the first move.

“Then there are en bloc blackouts, in which memory is totally disabled. These were a speciality of mine. Sometimes, the light goes out and does not return for hours. I usually woke up from those blackouts on the safe shores of the next morning. The only exception was that night in Paris, when I zapped back to the world in the hotel room. I didn’t even know that could happen, one of the many reasons the night stayed with me so long.

“Aaron White, an expert on college drinking and a senior scientific adviser at the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains that it’s not a particular type of drink that causes a blackout (I always thought it was brown drinks – whisky, cognac – for me), it’s the amount of alcohol in the blood and how quickly you get to that level. Fragmentary blackouts seem to happen at a blood-alcohol content around 0.20%, while en bloc blackouts happen at around 0.30%.

“As White says: ‘When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.’”

* The above extracts are from the book Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget, by Sarah Hepola, published on 23 June by Two Roads at £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, with free UK p&p for online orders, go to or call 0330 333 6846.

* The book recommends/blames cognac “the booze of kings and rap stars” and The Shed has got a bottle in to try.


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