I recently read the book The Girl on The Train, a thriller in the vein of Gone Girl, and currently being made into a film starring Emily Blunt in the lead. In the story (no real spoilers here people) the narrator is an alcoholic – drinks every day, drinks in secret, blah blah – and it was descriptions of the events of her drinking life that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, to the point where I noticed my heart beat accelerating, my breath shortening.
I promptly put the book down, and didn’t come back to it for another 2 weeks.
The narrator, Rachel, talks about the process of waking up in the morning and having to untangle yourself from a giant block of blank – feeling around to work out where you are and how you got there, about the overwhelming anxiety when you have to try and produce a stack of memory that is missing, completely gone, from a time when you were functioning – talking, dancing, laughing, shagging. This happens even when some monumental event has taken place – a fight, argument, sex – it shows how little control you can have over your own mind. Can the memory be reclaimed? Do you want it to be? Sometimes just so much easier to pull the duvet back over your head and go with ‘whats done is done, we can’t change it, so let’s not think about it.’
I am talking about ‘blackouts.’ As I spoke about in a post way-back-when in June – blackouts for me had become a regular feature of my drinking – once or twice a week – like a night bus, dodgy kebab or macarena-related pulled muscle. However, what I found was that it is not a concept that everyone is familiar with – my flatmate who is one of my best friends just thought that blackouts were a myth that people used to side-step any embarassment for acting like a total douche the night before – “I don’t remember it, therefore it didn’t happen, haha.’ I think that was my most used line only behind ‘its not a party if i’m not there’ and ‘drink it, don’t be a little bitch’ (cringe) for 2011-14.
There is no way that my flatmate should have understood that blackouts are very much a real thing – if you haven’t experienced what it is have a sinkhole of memory in your life, in an evening, sometimes lasting hours (my ‘worst’ was 8 hours long) when you know you were engaged in the world around you – then why should you be expected to believe anything else?
In Croatia, at the start of Eurotrip 2010.
A blackout occurs, in the simplest scientific terms, when the blood alcohol level is too high and the hippocampus, a region of the brain central to the formation of memory, is prevented from working properly leading to short term memory not being formed. As such, its not a case of drinking so much that you forget, its a case of drinking so much that you don’t store it in the first place. Have you ever been out with a friend who is drunk, and keeps repeating themself? This will be because their ability to form short term memory is affected by alcohol, so they forget that they have made their insightful, deep, thought provoking comment already, three times. The eyes glaze over but the mechanics still work.
There are partial blackouts, where you may remember fragments, or a string of them – a song, an incident, a taste – and there are complete blackouts where you remember nothing. One minute it is 10.30pm and you are walking in to your favourite tequila bar, and the next it is 8am the next day, you can’t move your jaw, have no phone and you’ve ‘come to’ on Streatham high street completely aware of where you are, but with no idea of where you were five minutes ago.
Imagine jumping out of an airplane, into pitch black. You fall silently, twisting in the air, to be jolted awake by the impact of hitting the ground. No parachutes here – lights, camera, life. A hop, a skip, and a resounding bump.
Complete blackouts were my forte – waking up probably still dressed, in my bed (I would take that as a ‘win’), with hours missing from my memory, hours in which I was far from inactive, and they often involved operating in a distorted reality. When I was 21 I went on a date, and got *hammered*, well I assume that I did, because I don’t remember drinking much, but I also don’t remember the following 6 hours. Its a funny experience to ‘wake up’ to find your body is already awake – walking, talking, dancing. In this instance I was flagging down traffic/running out into the road to stop it, convinced I was in Leeds (been there once) and that I was involved in a riot prevention operation. I wasn’t, but I was featured on BBC breakfast news having created a rather large traffic disturbance in Pimlico, London.
I honestly couldn’t even tell you how the date ended. I’m guessing not well – I have a feeling it involved me getting off with someone else in front of my date, but couldn’t tell you.
2 years before that, aged 19 and in the summer before I moved to London, I was travelling around Europe with a good friend from school. We were away for 30 days – a whistlestop tour of about 8 different cities, and when we got to Berlin, our penultimate city, we decided to go out for the night. I’d already been my fair share of travel partner from hell, all incidents caused by my drinking and then disassociating from what was going on around me, but disappearing from my friend’s side in a busy club, to go missing for hours in the Berlin night was I think, the cherry on the top. This time, I ‘woke up’ to find myself at the bottom of a tall viaduct, in the torrential rain, wearing only a tshirt. My mission (as in, I had been instructed by a voice, no joke) was to camando-crawl across the fenced off wasteland I saw in front of me, as if I was seen from the viaduct, I would be shot.
So I did, but not before sending my friend a text with the words ‘don’t call me, I’m at the bridge’ (what a dick). I climbed under a chain link fence (much skinnier then), and crawled in the mud for 40 metres. I then had to make my way across a city, with no money, no idea of direction, no battery on my phone, and with an arm shredded to bits.
I was in Berlin. I’d never been there before, it was my first night, and I’d left my friend all on her own, with no idea of where I was, whether I was ok, with the evidence I had provided pointing if anything to the contrary. Way to ruin someone else’s night, and go towards straining a good friendship. This is a particular low point that I find it hard to talk about, it is one of only a few times when I consider my drinking to have genuinely hurt a friend who deserved better, rather than just hurting myself.
My first 4 years in London were spent working in bars – if you can’t beat them, join them. At one place, where I worked for 3 years, I would get so drunk whilst I was working that I often blacked out during shift. Waking up the next day with bruises, wondering if you still had a job, who you had to apologise to, and what for, taking a mental inventory of why you hated yourself, dialing the pizza place, texting the person you had been sleeping with to see if they too were feeling self-destructive enough that they wanted to do it again. That was my Sunday, often.
Have you ever had the most outrageous dream, in which you do things that you would never do on a day to day basis – scream at the person at work who does your head in, engage in the wildest sexual behaviour, run naked through central London – to then check yourself – what are you doing? – before rationalising that it is a dream so fuck it, enjoy..? When I would wake up following a blackout, wherever I was, (went through a good 2 year phase of ‘pavement napping’) I often found myself questioning how bad could my actions that I couldn’t remember really have been? I would then remember everything that I knew had gone before over the years – Pimlico, Berlin, Salisbury, ‘coming to’ in the middle of sex not knowing where i was or who I was with, waking up on buses and pavements furnished only with question marks – and realise that I’d set the bar pretty low, anything could have happened.
Ask no questions, hear no lies – or truths for that matter.
It’s quite a thing to knowingly facilitate the non-recording of parts of your life, like some hapless uncle with the camera at the family christening who doesn’t press the red button, to press the ‘skip’ button, fast forward to the next scene.
No-one wants to admit that actually they don’t remember that conversation, the name of the bar, the person that they made out with. ‘If I don’t remember it, it didn’t happen’ said with a laugh, comes from a painful place for many people – we try to normalise the behaviour, make a joke about it to our comrades in arms, and just hope that actually they don’t remember either.
If I went out for the night, and didn’t blackout, I would consider myself sober, even if a judge or police report wouldn’t. When I’m out with friends now, and people ask me if it is boring to not drink, I can only tell them that nothing will ever be as refreshing as waking up the next morning and being able to remember how I spent my night, and how I’ve lived my life.
I’ve found myself leaving the room or literally sticking my fingers in my ears in the past so that I don’t have to hear a recount of what I did the night before. The thing is, ‘chanting lalala and squeezing my eyes shut like a child didn’t change history, shockingly, and it also didn’t change people knowing about it, or talking about it. I am now determined to no longer leave the room – this is who I have been, and what I have done, and these are the places that this has taken me. Its not just about skipping through parts of our lives on account of how we are so arrogant that these scenes don’t matter, it is about the next day, about the following times, about the process of normalising destructive behaviour, about the bottom of the mental barrel that these experiences can take you to.
It is also one of those things that people quite simply don’t talk about, a final frontier in the discourse around alcohol, a sign post painted with all of our drinking insecurities. ‘Blackouts – no memory, or control, here.’ Not discussing all of this – the things I had done, and the way I felt about them, drinking to not remember my life – kept me isolated within my problems, a vortex which moved too fast for self-control to be an option.
I don’t want that to be the case for others – it’s a achingly lonely place – so let’s talk about it.