Blackouts: The Alcoholic Litmus Test
I heard a story the other day from a guy who said I could share it here. This guy was talking about how, before he quit drinking and drugging 20 years ago, he wasn’t sure whether his blackouts really qualified him as an alcoholic. An old-timer pulled him aside and told him the story of another guy who wasn’t sure whether he was in fact truly blacking out. The idea is—how can you remember what you don’t remember, right? And the rationalization goes, If I can’t remember what I don’t remember, maybe there’s in fact nothing to remember, maybe I’m not exactly blacking out, maybe I just had a little bit too much and need to “be careful.”
The guy in the story stops at the bar and gets drunk. He wakes up the next morning and realizes he’s not sure exactly how he got home the night before. He checks to see if he’s OK. He gets ready for work and can’t find his car keys. He asks his wife to go down to the garage and check that they’re there. And she goes down, and she screams.
“What’s the matter?” he calls.
She comes upstairs and tells him that, yes, the keys are there. And also: there is a dead child lying on the front of the car.
The guy who told me this story said that the day after hearing it, he got his ass to rehab.
Was it a true story? Who knows. It could have been true, right? I don’t know about you, but I certainly drove while f*@ked up.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how I used to drink heavily. I’m getting ready for my 25th college reunion. College was the moment in my life where I started drinking. I could say: it was where I started doing what I saw people at home doing every day—using chemicals to make themselves feel better. I was able to do it at college because there was nobody around to tell me not to do it. That’s the way I ran my life: I did what I could get away with, I mean, who didn’t live that way?
At my college, at that time, booze was rampant. You weren’t supposed to have alcohol on campus, but everyone did, and if you were a cute little 20-year-old undergraduate girl, the security guys let you off the hook fairly easily. Off-campus, the kegs rolled. Actually, grain-alcohol punch was the big thing. We made it with fruit slices (reputed to soak up all the alcohol). Or, rather, I never made it myself. I always drank other people’s grain-punch for free.
I had my first drink at 17 at one of those parties. My parents dropped me off on Saturday morning, and by that night I was standing in some strange house, and some upperclass boy was making me a gin-and-tonic, which if I remember correctly—he filled a tall iced-tea glass with gin and splashed a little tonic in. I drank about an inch of it and was pretty gone. Wasted, hammered, trashed.
I remember thinking, Is this the way Daddy feels EVERY DAY? (Of course it was not the way Dad felt every day, Dad drank the five or six or seven or ten beers he drank every day just to keep himself feeling normal, but it was a long time before I realized that in any experiential manner—and it wasn’t with alcohol that I realized it.)
The upperclass boy groped me and sucked my face and it was all very Exotic and Independent, and though I hated the taste of all the drinks I ever had in school, even wine—even wine spritzers (a crappy ’80s invention)—I drank them anyway not because I enjoyed them but:
- because above all I needed to be like all the other girls, and
- because I needed to get away from the war in my head.
In fact, as it turned out, I was not like all the other girls. Most of the other girls knew when to stop drinking.
In fact, trying to drink away the war in my head was like trying to douse a fire with—well, Cointreau? Ouzo? something very fume-y and volatile, anyhow.
The year after I graduated from that school I went to my old roommate’s wedding. I was pissed at my date, who had intentionally picked out a truly revolting suit to wear to this wedding—at which some of my old friends would be present, including some young men who had expressed an interest in me; this was the main thing that mattered to me: how people saw me, whether they approved of me. And because the guy I was dating also drank way too much way too often, he knew this about me and bought the suit to take me down a peg or two. Or else, he just didn’t give a shit. Pick one. … And he made fun of these people even though he didn’t know them—like my father he’d get drunk, and like my mother he’d make fun of my friends, and it was this kind person I chose for my first post-college Relationship.
I had made a beautiful linen coat-dress to wear, with tailored seams and asymmetrical buttons and an invisible hand-sewn hem. Moreover I had starved myself to be able to look super-brilliant in this dress—to Make An Impression—and meanwhile this guy with two degrees and a thriving Private Practice bought this vile bullshit suit from a dollar store or somewhere, and there was no way I could deal with the fact that I had to appear with this asshole in church and then at the reception at the exclusive restaurant at the top of the mountain overlooking the city.
It occurs to me now, of course, that I had choices, one of which was either To Be Or Not To Be with this man, another of which was to tell him that after all he couldn’t come with me if he refused to make himself presentable. But the only choice I thought I had at the time was to show up with him, then drink so much that I didn’t feel the war taking place in my head.
And so I drank, and I drank some more, and I became very drunk indeed, in my accustomed manner: on my friend’s open bar at her wedding reception. I became so drunk that I don’t remember crashing my car while driving down the mountain. I woke up in the emergency room, across the river, while one doctor sewed up the half-moon gash on my head and another doctor picked glass out of my knees and arms. My date was in the bed next to me.
“Why did he let you get in the car?” my mother moaned the next day. (My mother was very good at taking other people’s inventory.)
At that time, if you were a cute 20-something professional-looking girl who crashed her car with a sky-high blood-alcohol level, the cops (it was cops now, not just security guards but COPS; it wasn’t just college policy but The Law) didn’t arrest you. They took one look at your face and let you off.
The police report said the other car had crossed the line. Still, I was sued by both people in the other car, and eventually (two years after I dumped him, just before the statute of limitations ran out) by my old boyfriend, and because my blood alcohol level was in fact sky-high, my insurance paid out a great deal of money and my policy was cancelled.
I stopped drinking for a while after that. Then I went to graduate school and began drinking again, although with some trepidation. Pretty soon after that I sought treatment for my intractable migraines (which an MRI proved were not a result of my head injury), and the painkiller dance started.
I never blacked out again. For a long time, even after I detoxed and started going to meetings, I viewed this episode as a youthful misadventure, something that “happens” when you’re young but that you grow out of—sort of like a kid who climbs trees but keeps falling out of them. Denial runs very strong and deep in my family. … Recently I was discussing this car-crash with my sister, five years younger than I. I forget exactly what I said because her reaction was so extreme, but I mentioned in passing the fact that I was drunk at the time of the crash.
“You were DRUNK??!” she screeched, incredulous. This is what, 24 years later? It took me about two seconds to realize that my parents had hidden the truth from her because they were ashamed of me. A lie of omission. I expected to feel overwhelming disgrace, but what I felt was relief. I love my sister deeply, and love can only stand on a foundation of truth.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they hid the most important and embarrassing detail from you,” I said.
It wasn’t long after revealing this truth to my sister that I realized fully that, the evening of that wedding, I had blacked out. I had driven in a BLACKOUT. I cannot remember what happened in that space of time.
“Blackout” is also called, in technical terms, “alcohol-related amnesia.”
It wasn’t just the head injury, the concussion, that carved out that black hole. It was the alcohol. It was the addiction.