I used to think it was OK to drink until I blacked out. Not anymore.
I was 18 when I had my first alcohol-related blackout. I woke up in my bed in my tiny dorm room, looked at my roommate, and said, “What happened last night?” On subsequent, similar mornings, questions included “Who are you?”, “Where am I?” and “How did I get here?”
I never found out the answers, but that didn’t stop me from drinking to such an extent that over the next 20 years, I regularly woke up with blank spaces where memories should have been.
I take full responsibility for drinking to the point of blacking out. Nobody forced me to have that tequila shot that tipped me over the edge. But in my social circles, blackouts were normal. Funny. Worthy of praise, even. You can’t remember anything about last night? It must have been quite a party!Slap on the back. Laughing about the huge chunks of time lost.
I didn’t understand just how dangerous my blackouts were.
Throughout college and into my 20s, I clung to the belief that women who drank were cool. Women who drank until they passed out were hard as nails, one of the boys, and not to be messed with. I drank like the boys, matching them, beer for beer. I was reckless and stupid, but in my mind I was adventurous and exciting. Hell, nobody was going to accuse me of being boring.
Even after I became a mother in my early 30s, I continued to ignore all warning signs. I scoffed at the 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that claimed binge drinking was a “dangerous health problem” for women 18 to 34. In the U.S., nearly 14 million women had an average of three binges a month, six drinks at a time. (Six? My quota was more like 16.) I told myself this report was just another form of woman-shaming by our patriarchal society.
But today, I’m sober. I have been for four months (123 days and counting).
Blackouts—for so long a regular part of my life—are now a thing of my past. I’ve admitted to having an alcohol use disorder, which is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as “problem drinking that becomes severe” and “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”
And importantly, I’ve stopped believing the myths that made me think it was OK to drink until blacking out, like…
1. Your lost memories will come back eventually.
They won’t. Ever. During a blackout, an entire section of the brain (the hippocampus, which is responsible for long-term memories) experiences a neurophysiological, chemical disruption and completely shuts down. “Alcohol reduces the amount of information that makes it to the hippocampus and shuts down neurons in the hippocampus that make memories,” Aaron White, Ph.D., senior scientific advisor to the NIAAA director and one of the country’s leading experts on blackouts, tells SELF. “This creates a temporary void in the record-keeping system.” Memories lost in a blackout will never come back, because the information wasn’t stored in the first place.
Blackouts come in two types, Dr. White says, depending on how severely the hippocampus is impaired. The most common and less severe fragmentary blackout, commonly referred to as a “brownout,” gives you fuzzy memories with details missing. You might remember downing a line of shots, but not ordering them at the bar, or arriving home, but not the taxi journey.
The more serious, complete blackouts (called “en bloc” blackouts) are when the memory is totally disabled. Welcome to my world. I’m not over-dramatizing when I say I’m lucky to be alive. When you wake up safe in your own bed with no recollection of the last 8, 9, 10 hours of your life—that’s scary.
2. Certain types of alcohol are more likely to cause blackouts.
I always used to blame my blackouts on tequila shots. It turns out, expensive wine will do the job just as well. It’s not the kind of booze you drink that causes a blackout, it’s the amount of alcohol in your blood and how quickly you reach that level, Dr. White explains. Fragmentary blackouts start at a blood-alcohol content around .20 g/dL (that’s grams per deciliter of blood), while en bloc blackouts start around .30 g/dL. Speed of drinking is a key factor.
“Normally, if someone drinks slowly, the brain immediately begins adjusting to the alcohol to minimize its effects on brain function,” Dr. White says. “This is called acute tolerance. If someone drinks quickly, the memory circuits have no time to adjust and can get shut down more easily.”
3. Only lightweights black out.
It’s a misconception that people who can’t handle their booze are more likely to black out. “Anyone can black out if they drink enough fast enough, regardless of whether they can ‘hold their liquor,’” Dr. White says. “Because memory circuits don’t become very tolerant to alcohol, heavy drinkers who can reach high blood alcohol concentrations and still walk around black out frequently.”
According to Dr. White, other risk factors for blacking out include being female (women are more likely to black out than men, perhaps because women tend to be smaller and have less water in their bodies than men, so each drink causes a greater increase in blood alcohol concentration), and drinking on an empty stomach.
4. You can’t function during a blackout.
Perhaps the most common myth about a blackout is that it involves passing out. This might well happen at some point, but during a blackout the person is often still able to talk and laugh and flirt and sing and dance, and may appear to be in control of all their faculties. However, the next day there will be no memory of those things, so it’s as if they didn’t really happen.
“People appear able to keep information active in short–term memory for at least a few seconds,” Dr. White says. “As a result, they can often carry on conversations, drive automobiles, and engage in other complicated behaviors. However, the process of transferring information from short–term to long–term storage in the brain has been completely blocked.”
5. Blackouts don’t cause any long-term damage.
While blackouts don’t directly cause harm by themselves, drinking to the extent that you black out can have serious consequences. The amount of alcohol consumption needed to produce blackouts impairs balance, motor coordination, decision making and impulse control, Dr. White warns, leading to an increased risk of poor decision-making, injury, and even death.
A 2011 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found a link between binge drinking (defined by the NIAAA as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to .08 g/dL) and a reduced ability to learn new verbal information in healthy college students.
Another 2011 study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, claims that repeated blackout drinking is associated with altered brain development in adolescents.
And if you don’t think your blackout habit is indicative of a bigger problem, think again.
“While a single blackout might not tell us much about a person other than they drank enough to shut down their memory areas at least once, as the number of blackouts goes up to two, three, or more, so do the odds of having an alcohol use disorder,” Dr. White says.
If I’d known what I know now about blackouts, would I have changed my drinking habits? Possibly, although it would have been a hard-fought contest between denial and science-based facts.
But I’ve accepted that I won’t get any of my lost memories back—because what choice do I have? And I’m focused on remembering everything else about the rest of my life.