September 26th, 2016
Since the publication of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, a New York Times best-selling memoir about alcoholism and recovery, Sarah Hepola has been in high demand. She’s been writing an advice column for Jezebel called “Ask a Former Drunk,” appearing on NPR, and giving readings around the country.
Blackout‘s popularity is not surprising. In recent years, there’s been a spate of well-received books about drunken debauchery followed by the redemption of recovery. Hepola, for her part, seems aware of the potential short-comings of the genre, noting, “I’ve never liked the part of the book where the main character gets sober.”
Though she does get sober at the end of Blackout, Hepola spends most of the book subtly and humorously detailing her complicated and ultimately destructive relationship with alcohol.
She deftly describes the role alcohol played in her life and in her community: How booze can be the glue in friendships; the balm for sex and dating anxiety; the release valve for appetites deemed unseemly, particularly in women.
On the phone, her tone is similar to the book’s: confiding, confident, thoughtful, and funny. She spoke to The Influence about being a “wandering mouth,” her “mundane” addiction, and why men don’t like dating sober women.
Sarah Beller: You’ve brought a lot of nuance to the conversation about alcohol and consent. In one of your recent Jezebel columns, you write: “Much of the conversation around alcohol and sex has focused on assault—the line at which intoxication becomes incapacitation, for instance—but what we fail to mention is how haunted people can be by the sex they actually, technically consented to.” I was wondering if you’ve gotten pushback from other women about suggesting that drinking can lead women to consent to sexual acts that they may later regret (an idea often seized on by rape apologists).
Sarah Hepola: I can tell you that when the book was coming out, that was probably the subject about which I had the most anxiety and fear. It’s a subject that’s really important and very sensitive. I felt like we were ready to have a more nuanced conversation about it, but I was scared. I don’t think I’ve every felt more ready to talk about that subject than since I wrote the column on Jezebel, and saw 200 or 300 comments of people sharing their stories. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I wanted people to have that conversation—to hear that other people were caught and confused and regretful but didn’t know what their part was.
It’s important to note that alcohol does not cause rape. However, alcohol has been used to normalize and give cover for an enormous amount of questionable sexual dynamics, on both sides, for decades. One of the things that was so jarring to me was that when I quit drinking I did not know how to have sex with men. I did not even know if I would ever have sex with men again. My female friends who were not even alcoholics were like “Oh yeah I don’t know if I could do that either.” They were like, “I could never date without drinking.” That’s how culturally mandatory it was for our group. I’m sure there are people that don’t experience this. But drinking and dating are so intertwined for those of us in our 20s, 30s and 40s [in my demographic].
And by the way, men don’t like dating women who don’t drink. And that’s kind of disturbing too. They are so much more comfortable with a woman who will be looser and more sexually available and more sexually demonstrative than with somebody with very high boundaries, who isn’t going to drink herself into compliance. Getting sober was hell on my dating life. But the truth is that drinking heavily was hell on it too, just in a very different way.
I would say that whether we’re talking about consent, or whether we’re talking about sexual agency, I think that women and men need to reflect more on the role of alcohol. I know for me I was letting alcohol do an enormous amount of the heavy lifting when it came to my own sexual confidence, going out in the world and getting what I wanted. I was looking like the “empowered woman” but the next day it was like, “What did I do? What did I say yes to?” And that’s not empowerment, it’s abnegation. I’m not saying that to be empowered you need to quit drinking. I’m not saying that at all. It can be a great personal freedom.
So the reaction has been pretty positive?
I haven’t lost my career over it yet…I will say that I know there are people who do not like what I’m saying and I respect that. I have not felt personally or professionally attacked by anyone. Plenty of people think it’s bullshit, but no one’s kicked me out of the “feminist club.” I’m here. My experience is that even if people disagree they’ve been very respectful.
Besides complicating the narrative around alcohol and sex, what else do you portray in Blackout that you didn’t see in existing narratives about addiction?
First of all this idea that [you can be an alcoholic and still] function really well—I was a very successful person—and yet I drank in a way that was emotionally damaging to me.
The other thing is that with a lot of addiction memoirs in the 90’s and early 00’s, [the genre] was in a game of one-upmanship with itself—what horrible thing could happen to this person? I think that’s how you get A Million Little Pieces, the James Frey book, where he makes up stories to make it sounds worse than it really was.
I was interested in doing the opposite. I thought, “What if I looked very carefully at the small but devastating effects of the drinking life?” The idea that the wrecking ball can hit you from the inside is more realistic than the insane spin-outs. If all we see are those insane spin-outs, those of us whose problems are much smaller don’t see ourselves anywhere. We think, “I’m not this crazy train wreck.” People come up all the time and ask me, “Do you think I have a problem?” and I don’t know the answer to that, but if you’re wondering if you have a problem, it’s a good sign that you might.
What do you think is going on with that tendency for people to not think their problems are real or big enough?
There’s a funny mix of denial—like you don’t want to say you have a problem—and also a weird diminishment, like “I don’t want to take up space in the world and tell you I have a problem. Mine’s not really that big.” How bad does it have to get? I know that for myself, a lot of time when I would say “well look, I don’t have a problem,” that was a very convenient excuse to keep doing what I wanted to keep doing. I really, really liked drinking. I don’t think I knew it was a crutch. I remember the first time I heard “alcoholism” defined as “taking something to change your mood.” I was like “well, why the hell else would you take something?” That means that all of American culture is addicted, and maybe it is—American culture really does set us up for addiction. Addiction is a really important story in America, with our fixation on capitalism and the American Dream.
Everything in our culture sets us up to think that something outside of you can fix you. I really and truly believed that alcohol fixed me. When I’m talking to parents or young people and they want to know if they have a problem, there’s really no way to know if someone else has a problem. But a red flag is when a young person says “Alcohol makes me feel exactly how I want to feel—it makes me feel right, it fixes me.” When you get into that place where alcohol fixes you, that’s trouble territory.
Are there any other books or movies or tv shows that do speak to addiction in a way that resonates with you?
My very favorite memoir about drinking is Drinking: A Love Story. I love that book. I think she has this preternatural insight about women and the dynamics of alcohol. She’s not writing about issues of consent, but she writes about dating one guy and having an affair with another guy—she discusses the intense dynamics of being responsible for your own behavior. She is concerned with appetites; she wrote another book about anorexia.
I recently saw I Smile Back with Sarah Silverman. She plays a particular kind of alcoholic and drug user, which is an attractive mother in suburbia, with a good looking husband, who is nevertheless haunted by these demons. She’s unfulfilled, frantically and silently trying to numb herself, whether its with wine or sex with someone else. Her kind of constant debasement of the self was really creepy and really well done. It’s not my story, but I know women who have had that story.
I think a lot of times for women, you get caught in this “good girl” persona, so it’s interesting to see the ways that the “bad girl” leaks out. For me, it was like: I’m a successful writer, I’m a good friend. But there was a lot of self-destruction. I think for mothers, there’s a different story. You want to be a good mother, a good wife, but then secretly you have all these private self-destructions.
Read more from The Influence:
I also think that the documentary Amy is amazing. [Amy Winehouse’s] addiction almost seems to shape-shift within her. I think it’s so true for so many women—there’s an addiction to men, and to food, and to drink, and to drugs and to fame—actually no, she seems to push that away more than anything—but an addiction to being loved.
But you can never get a read on it; it’s not one substance that’s her problem—it’s the hole inside her that can never get filled. I think that the way you can watch the light drain from her eyes is one of the most powerful visual signs of addiction that I’ve ever seen. Early in the film you see these beautiful, vibrant eyes, and by the end she’s just a ghost. It’s this stunning visual portrayal of how addiction drains the life from the human spirit…I see this stuff in the recovery rooms. Fortunately, I see it in reverse. I see people come in, so drained and then you see the light return to their eyes and it’s so beautiful.
Blackout also deals with the way eating intersects with alcoholism. Can you relate to Amy Winehouse’s story?
With Amy Winehouse, you get into wondering what killed her. The drinking killed her, but that’s because the drugs had worn down her heart, and because the bulimia had worn down her stomach—it’s the interlocking ways that all these things work together. One of the things I graze upon in [my] story is that I was always trying to control my weight. And the more I controlled my weight, the more I skipped meals, the more egregious my blackouts became. Then I would feel shameful, then I would eat my way through the shame. It was like a table that I could never get balanced. I was trying to drink and eat in a way that would satisfy my appetites. And I would put sex on the table too. Drinking, sex, and eating are kind of like the three legs of a stool, and you’re trying to get them all balanced. I never could make it work.
You write about alcohol affecting your relationships with dating and sex, but also how it was a part of your female friendships. How has becoming sober affected your female friendships?
As women, we’re told to repress our appetites, and one of the things that alcohol allows us to do is express them. I always think about having this “lion’s roar”—I always use these grandiose expressions. When I drank I became a big wandering mouth. But then that wasn’t a true expression of myself either—it was an amplified version. I’m really not just a “wandering mouth.” The challenge was to balance the repressive “anorexia” with the gorging. What’s the true authentic person in the middle?
Growing up, I felt jealous of other women, and I felt threatened by them from an early age. I felt in competition with them for male attention, for teachers’ attention, for success from the world. I don’t think its just a female thing, but alcohol eased that and allowed me to really connect with my female friends. And one of the ways we bonded was in the shared vocabulary of self-destruction. I noticed it first with eating. We would bond about eating too much. It would be like “Oh, I ate 12 cupcakes,” “Oh I did too” “I love you, you’re the best.” I always notice when girls get together, someone will say “I had a whole pizza” and then some other girl will say “I love you,” or “You’re my best friend.” Just the admission that you ate a bunch of food is enough to gain another woman’s love. Drinking becomes one of these shared “bad-girl” indiscretions that you all do, and as long as you all do it no one has to reflect on it. As long as you’re all secretly shoveling cupcakes in your mouth no one has to wonder, why aren’t you doing this in public, why are you doing this in a closet?
When I quit drinking, I think that my friends didn’t know how to connect to me anymore. There had been a bridge that was built with wine bottles. Without that, how could we be honest with each other? What happens is that in time, I got a lot better at expressing myself without needing the permission of alcohol. I got better at integrating. When I was drinking, there was drunk Sarah and sober Sarah. Now there’s just kind of Sarah all the time. I don’t have a night-time personality and a morning personality—which, honestly, I miss sometimes. But I don’t have that anymore, I’m much more integrated.
My friendships are very deep and very easy because I surround myself with people that I find easy to talk to, easy to connect with. And who, they may still drink but they don’t necessarily need the alcohol to connect with me.
The way you talk about drinking and female friendships reminded me of this Amy Schumer sketch, where it’s all the women putting themselves down when they get a compliment. When one woman accepts a compliment by saying “thank you,” all the other women commit suicide. You write: “I used to hate it when a friend wasn’t drinking. ‘Good for you!’ I’d say, but inside I was steaming. Drinking was a shared activity, and one person’s abstinence was a violation of protocol.” It’s almost like drinking is a communal, self-destructive ritual that it’s an abandonment of some kind to stop.
I think what you’re describing, what you’re mirroring from that line in the book is that I felt betrayed when my friends quit drinking. I felt left behind. It pissed me off—probably because on some level I thought they were leaving me, I thought we weren’t gonna have fun anymore. How were we gonna have these great times together? There can be a little bit of “I don’t want you to succeed.” Women have such a gnarly relationship with self-esteem and self-destruction. They deprive themselves and then get really mad when they see someone else not depriving herself. A similar thing happens when women have really good boundaries. You think, “Oh I didn’t know we were allowed to do that—I thought we were just supposed to eat shit and smile.”
That great Amy Schumer sketch is so funny because it portrays a certain tribal behavior—and we haven’t reflected on the fact that we all deflect compliments because we’re afraid of looking arrogant. When you accept the compliment, it’s like, who do you think you are?
When I quit drinking, I’m sure there were people who thought, “Oh she thinks her stories are so special, she’s gonna tell it in a book?” When in fact, one of the things about my addiction is how un-special it was. I think it’s totally garden-variety, super mundane. But I do have a willingness to talk about it that other people don’t.
I just think it’s funny that the imperative for Hollywood and publishing is to tell the most extreme story, which is the least relatable. I have to be careful here—not everybody should write a memoir—but at the same time any story is about how you tell it. It serves us to have a variety of stories about addiction, and not just competition for who can be the most damaged.