I’m in Paris for work, which is exactly as great as it sounds. I eat dinner at a fancy restaurant and drink cognac — the booze of kings and rap stars. Somewhere near midnight, I tumble into a cab with my friend, and the night starts to stutter and skip. How did we get back so fast?
I walk through the front door of my hotel, alone. It’s that time of night when every floor has a banana peel and, if I’m not careful, I might find my face against the ground, my hands braced beside me. I exchange a few pleasantries with the concierge, a bit of theatre to prove I’m not too drunk. The last thing I hear is my heels, steady as a metronome, echoing through the lobby. And then there is nothing.
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 don’t know how much time I lose in this darkness. Or what takes place. When the curtain lifts again, this is what I see: there is a bed, and I’m on it. The lights are low. Sheets are wrapped around my ankles, soft and cool against my skin. I’m on top of a guy I’ve never seen before, and we’re having sex.
‘For the blackout drinker, it’s the question that launches another shitty Saturday. How did I get here?’
Hold on. Can this be right? I’m having sex with a man, and I’ve never seen him before. It’s as if the universe dropped me into someone else’s body. But I seem to be enjoying it. I’m making all the right sounds.
I collapse beside him and weave my legs through his. I wonder if I should be worried right now, but I’m not scared. I don’t mean to suggest I’m brave. I mean to suggest you could break a piece of plywood over my head, and I would smile, nod, and keep going.
The guy isn’t bad-looking. “You really know how to wear a guy out,” he says. It seems unfair that he should know me and I don’t know him, but I’m unsure of the etiquette.
“I should go,” I tell him.
He gives an annoyed laugh. “You just said you wanted to stay.”
So I stay with the stranger in the shadows of a room I do not recognise, looking out on to a city that is not my home. 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?
I was a freelance writer, which meant I spent most days hungover in front of the TV. I watched talk shows about all the things that could secretly harm me: my soap, my boyfriend, my diet. I remember one segment about “roofies”, or date rape drugs. This was 2007, but I’d been hearing about roofies since the late 1990s: odourless, colourless substances dropped into a drink to erase memory, like something out of a sci-fi movie. Every once in a while, motherly types (including my actual mother) worried I might be vulnerable to this invisible menace.
‘Women on the wagon’ club together to cut back on drinking
In fact, I had a different drinking problem, although I wouldn’t have used the word “problem”, at least not without air quotes. One morning, I woke up in the living room of a good-looking guy’s apartment. The last thing I remembered was talking to my friend Lisa the night before. She held both my hands. “Do not go home with that guy,” she said, and I said, “I promise.” Then I went back into the bar and he ordered us another round.
This was the kind of excitement I wanted from a single life in New York, the kind of excitement I was hoping to find when I left Texas at the age of 31. I wanted stories, and I understood drinking to be the fuel of all adventure. The best evenings were the ones you might regret.
“I had sex with some random dude and woke up on a leaking air mattress,” I texted my friend Stephanie.
“Congratulations!” she texted back.
Awesome. High-five. These were the responses I got from female friends when I told them about my drunken escapades. Most of my friends were married by this point. Sometimes they wondered aloud what being unattached in their 30s would be like, careening around the city at 2am. Once, I’d got so blasted at a party, I woke up in a dog’s bed, in someone else’s house. “Do you think you got roofied?” my friend asked me. “Yes,” I told her. “I think someone slipped me 10 drinks.”
I had wanted alcohol to make me fearless, but by this point I was scared all the time
‘I needed alcohol to drink away the things that plagued me. Not just my doubts about sex. My self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears.’
I did worry I drank too much. Actually, I had worried for a long time. I slipped in a club one night and bashed my kneecap. I fell down staircases (yes, plural). Sometimes I only skidded down a few steps – gravity problems, I used to joke – and then a few times I sailed to the bottom like a rag doll.
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.”
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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. “Your eyes go dead, like a zombie,” a boyfriend once told me. “It’s like you’re not there at all.” People in a blackout often get a vacant, glazed-over look, as though their brain is unplugged. And, well, it kind of is.
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%.
White also says that, while roofies aren’t a myth, studies suggest the fear outpaces the incidence. It turns out that “being roofied” often doesn’t involve roofies at all. People just don’t realise how common it is to experience a blackout.
My therapist was correct: not everyone has blackouts. Most people will never have one in their lifetime. But they are not rare in drinking circles. In fact, they’re common. A 2002 study published in the Journal of American College Health found that among drinkers at Duke University, more than half had experienced blackouts.
When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them
I was particularly at risk, but I didn’t realise it. Blackout drinkers tend to be the ones who hold their alcohol. I’m 5ft 2in, yet I matched a 6ft 3in boyfriend drink for drink. I made genius decisions such as skipping dinner, trying to cut calories, because I was always scheming my way back into the size 8 dresses in the back of my closet. And I am female: alcohol metabolises in our systems differently. Our bodies are often smaller, and a higher body fat percentage means we get drunker faster.
The stories that men and women tell about their blackouts are different, too. I’ve heard countless tales of men waking up to find their faces bruised, their knuckles bloodied by some fit of unremembered violence. The stories women tell are scary in another way. As Aaron 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.”
I heard a saying once about drunks: men wake up in jail cells and women wake up in strangers’ beds. It’s not like that for everybody. But it was like that for me. In my life, alcohol often made the issue of consent very murky. More like an ink spill and nothing close to a clear line. Sex was a complicated bargain. It was chase, and it was hunt. It was hide-and-seek, clash and surrender, and the pendulum could swing inside my brain all night: I will, no, I won’t; I should, no, I can’t.
Drinking: how sensible of young people to lose the bottle
I drank to drown those voices, because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman. I wanted the same freedom from internal conflict that my male friends seemed to enjoy. So I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, but I woke up a person who cared enormously. Many yeses on Friday nights would have been nos on Saturday mornings. I had wanted alcohol to make me fearless, but by this point I was scared all the time. Afraid of what I’d said and done in blackouts. Afraid I would have to stop. Afraid of a life without alcohol, because booze had been my trustiest tool.
I needed alcohol to drink away the things that plagued me. Not just my doubts about sex – my self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears. I drank away all the parts that made me human, in other words, and I knew this was wrong. My mind could cobble together a thousand PowerPoint presentations to keep me seated on a bar stool. But when the lights were off and I lay very quietly in my bed, I knew: there was something fundamentally wrong about losing the narrative of my own life.
When the curtains opened up in my mind that night in Paris, and I was in the middle of having sex with a man I didn’t even remember meeting, the strange part is how calm I remained. I was still wrapped in the soothing vapours of the cognac, no clue where I was, but not particularly concerned: I’ll figure this out.
I was pretty sure I was in my hotel. I recognised the swirly brown carpet, the brushed-steel light fixtures. The panic started when I noticed the time. It was almost 2am. “Shit, my flight leaves in a few hours,” I said.
Actually, the flight wasn’t until 11am, but I understood there was not nearly enough time between then and now. The awfulness of my circumstances began to dawn on me.
‘I wonder sometimes if anything could have prevented me becoming an alcoholic, or if drinking was my fate’
As I left, the click of the lock’s tongue in the groove brought me such relief. The sound of a narrow escape. I was on my way to the elevator when I realised I did not have my bag: my passport, my money, my driving licence, my room card. I did not have my way back home. I turned around and stared at the line of doorways behind me. Shit. They all look the same. Which one?
I don’t know how long I sat in that hallway – 10 minutes, 10 years. When I finally stood up, I had a plan. “Bonjour,” I said to the concierge.
“Good evening,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“I left my bag in someone’s room,” I said.
“Not a problem,” he said, and began tapping on the computer. “What room was it?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Not a problem,” he said. More tapping. “What was the guest’s name?”
A tear slipped down my cheek, and I watched it splat. “I don’t know.”
He nodded, his mouth an expressionless line. But I could see the pity in his eyes. He felt sorry for me. And somehow this pebble of sympathy was enough to shatter my fragile reserve. I crumpled into tears. “Don’t cry,” he said. He took my hand. His fingers were dry and cold, and they swallowed mine. “It’s going to be OK,” he said.
And I believed him, because I needed to.
“Is it possible this gentleman is the one you were talking to at the bar tonight?” the concierge asked.
And there it was, finally. My first clue. Of course, I’d gone to the hotel bar.
“Yes,” I pretended. “That is definitely the guy. So you saw me with him tonight?”
He smiled. “Of course.”
He handed me a new key to my room. He told me he would figure out the guy’s name, but that he might need an hour or two. “I don’t want you to worry any more,” he said. “Go rest.”
“Hey, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Jackson,” he said.
“I’m Sarah,” I told him, and I took his hand with both of mine. “Jackson, you’re the hero of my story tonight.”
“Not a problem,” he said, and flashed a smile.
As I headed towards the elevator, I felt like a new woman. I had a chance to restore order, to correct the insanity of the night. Jackson would find the guy’s name. I would meet the guy downstairs, suffer the indignity of small talk, then take my stuff and bolt.
No, better yet, Jackson would knock on the guy’s door and retrieve the purse himself. I didn’t care how it happened, just that it happened. It was all going to be OK.
I walked back into my room. And there, to the left of the entrance, on an otherwise unremarkable shelf, was my bag. I had lost so many things in my time: scarves, hats, gloves. But what amazed me was how many things I did not lose, even when my eyes had receded into my skull. I never lost my phone. I never lost my keys. Part of this was simple survival: you could not be a woman alone in the world without some part of you remaining vigilant. How did my bag get to my room? I have no idea, only that even in my blackout state, I made sure my treasure was tucked away safe: a woman locking up her diamond ring before she leaps into the ocean.
I called the front desk. “You’re never going to believe this,” I told Jackson. “My bag is in my room.”
“I told you this would work out,” he said.
“And you were right.”
I changed into my pyjamas and curled into a foetal position under the covers. Maybe I should have been relieved, but I had the haunted shivers of a woman who felt the bullet whizz past her face. Now that my crisis was resolved, I could start beating myself up for the ways I had failed. Such a wretched place to be. Alone in the dark, with your own misery.
The phone rang. “I found a leather jacket in the bar,” Jackson said. “Do you think it’s yours?”
And here comes the part of the story I wish I didn’t remember.
Jackson stands in my doorway. He’s so tall. He must be 6ft 2in. My leather jacket is draped over his arm like a fresh towel. I stand there with my hand on the door and wonder how much to tip him.
“Can I come in?” he asks, and there is not an ounce of me that wants him inside my room, but he was so helpful to me earlier, and I can’t scheme quickly enough to rebuff him.
I step back from the door and give him entry. I’m still thinking about the tip. Would €5 be enough? Would €100?
He closes the door and walks to my bed. It’s not far from the entryway, but each step breaches a great chasm. “You broke my heart when you cried earlier tonight,” he says, sitting down on the mattress. He’s only a few feet from me, and I remain with my back pressed against the wall.
“I know, I’m sorry about that,” I say, and I think: who is manning the desk right now? Are we going to get in trouble?
He leans forward on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees. “I was thinking, a beautiful woman like you should not be crying,” he says, and puts out his hand for me to take. I’m not sure what to do, but I walk over to him, as if on autopilot, and let my hand hang limply against his fingertips.
“You are very beautiful,” he says.
“Jackson, I’m really tired,” I say. “It’s been a really long day.”
Real drunks wait for the moment they hit bottom. As I lay in bed, I felt the gratitude of a woman who knows she is done
I think: if I tell him to go, he’ll probably stand up politely and walk out of the room without saying more than a few words. So why don’t I? Do I feel I owe him something?
He pulls me towards him, and we kiss. The kiss is neither bad nor good. I consider it a necessary penance. I can’t explain it. How little I care. All I keep thinking is: it will be easier this way.
We lie in the bed, and I let him run his hands along me. He kisses my nose, now wet with tears he doesn’t ask about; but he never asks for more.
At 4am, I push Jackson out the door. I climb into my bed and cry huge howling sobs. Real drunks wait and watch for the moment they hit bottom. As I lay in my hotel bed, covers pulled up to my neck, I felt the gratitude of a woman who knows, finally, she is done.
But I drank on the flight home. And I drank for five more years.
A life is bookended by forgetting, as though memory forms the tunnel that leads into and out of a human body. I’m friends with a married couple who have a two-year-old. She is all grunt and grab, a pint-size party animal in a polka-dot romper, and we laugh at how much she reminds us of our drunken selves. Any hint of music becomes a need to dance. Spinning in a circle. Slapping her toddler belly. One eye squinted, as though this balances her somehow.
I recognise this as the freedom drinking helped me to recapture. A magnificent place where no one’s judgment mattered, my needs were met, and my emotions could explode in a tantrum. And when I was finally spent, someone would scoop me up in their arms and place me safely in my crib again.
I wonder sometimes if anything could have prevented me from becoming an alcoholic, or if drinking was simply my fate. But I’ve come to think of being an alcoholic as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Those low years startled me awake. I stopped despairing for what I didn’t get and I began cherishing what I did.
Nobody remembers a life completely. We are all forgetting, all the time. But isn’t it some basic human instinct to hold on to as much as we can? If you are lucky, you will wake up, and remember this. I did.
This is an edited extract published in The Guardian: