Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Book Review)

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post Books site as "A Blackout Drinker Untangles the Mystery of Her Alcoholism.")

It's not too often that I feel compelled to tell you about a book via my blog. I think the only other books I've gushed about in my blog are David Sheff's Beautiful Boy, Kristen Johnston's GUTS, and the Center for Motivation and Change's Beyond Addiction. Just three books in more than six years of blogging.

Today I present number four.


When I was offered an advance reading copy of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, I jumped at the chance.

As the father of a son in long-term recovery, I have read more than my fair share of books about addiction. In fact, the shelves in my bedroom are filled with addiction-related books. Books about the science of addiction. Twelve-step books. Guides to helping loved ones get clean and sober. Memoirs written by people in recovery. Etc. (If you're looking for a book on addiction, come on over. Chances are it's on my shelf and you're welcome to borrow it.)

Reading about people's struggles with--and triumphs over--addiction is especially fascinating to me. In the world of drug and alcohol abuse, everyone's story is so similar; but at the same time, everyone's story is so unique. When someone is brave enough to put their temporary train wreck of a life down on paper for the world to see, I can't help but get sucked in.

Sarah Hepola started drinking at an early age and fell in love with alcohol. This object of her affection eventually took control of her life, and for years she would drink to the point of blacking out. As you can probably guess from the title, that is the focus of much of this book. And Hepola holds nothing back.
"A blackout is the untangling of a mystery. It's detective work on your own life. A blackout is: What happened last night? Who are you, and why are we fucking?"
In reality, as Hepola explains, a blackout happens when your blood becomes so saturated with alcohol that the part of your brain responsible for long-term memory--the hippocampus--shuts down. Your short-term memory still works, but with the long-term variety on strike, remembering what you did when you were blackout drunk becomes impossible.
"It's such a savage thing to lose your memory, but the crazy thing is, it doesn't hurt one bit. A blackout doesn't sting, or stab, or leave a scar when it robs you. Close your eyes and open them again. That's what a blackout feels like."
To say Blackout is a brutally honest memoir would be a bit of an understatement. Kind of like saying Taylor Swift has sold a few records. In her book, Hepola details--to the best of her recollection--numerous incidents from her drinking past, several of which end with her lying next to a stranger in bed.
"As I lie in the crook of his arm, I have so many questions. But one is louder than the others. In literature, it's the question that launches grand journeys, because heroes are often dropped into deep, dark jungles and forced to machete their way out. But for the blackout drinker, it's the question that launches another shitty Saturday. How did I get here?"
Blackout is not all about Hepola sleeping with strangers, though. It's so much more than that. It's a poignant and revealing look into the mind of an alcoholic that lets the reader experience all of the raw emotions the author feels during her struggles. It's a tale of friendships and how they evolve--and devolve--over the years. Best of all, though, it's a success story.

The second part of the book is about Hepola's sobriety and the realizations that come along with it. "I finally understood alcohol was not a cure for pain; it was merely a postponement," she writes. It may have taken her years to get to that point, and there were many stops along the way; but recovery is a journey, and Hepola found her way.

The new sober life that she is living is challenging, but Hepola is happy. "Maybe at some advanced age, we get the gift of being happy where we are," she says. "Or maybe where I am right now got a whole lot easier to take."

Blackout is one of the best memoirs I've read. Like Kristen Johnston's GUTS: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, it treats a sensitive subject with unbridled honesty and humor. Yes, Blackout is a touching and, at times, heartbreaking story. It will likely make you cry. But it will also make you laugh out loud. (One of the things you can do in a blackout? "You can sing the shit out of 'Little Red Corvette' on a karaoke stage.")

Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at and has written for numerous other publications. But I have no doubt that Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is her tour de force. At least for now.

Read this book. You won't be disappointed.

"The nights I can't remember are the nights I can never forget." --Sarah Hepola

(Note: Excerpts from Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget are Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Hepola. All rights reserved.)

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