I talk about my relationship with alcohol a lot. It’s my job. I run projects with young people about it. I meet people, and when asked what I do, end up talking about alcohol. I’m at a party, and it more often than not comes up. I talk about those moments I regret and feel shame, I talk about how I quit and how I started again. And how I learn to moderate and if it’s possible at all. I talk about what feelings I drank on. I talk about society and culture and health and happiness. I talk about tips to make it through a night sober. I talk about the fun nights out when I drank water and danced more than I ever did. I talk about great alternative drinks to alcohol.
What I never did, was talk about the things I couldn’t remember. But blacking out was something I had done for as long as I had been drinking. I chose to live by the mantra “If I couldn’t remember, it didn’t happen”. But my stomach would flip with dread when waking up the morning after. With my eyes creaking open, head throbbing, I worked through my checklist:
What didn’t I remember?
Who was I with?
What did I do? Say? Text? Call?
What had I lost?
How did I get home?
It’s hard to sit here and write this article. Until a few weeks ago, the blackouts are not something that I wished to open up about. It’s in those moments that I most violently self loathed. I’d give up on myself so entirely, it didn’t matter if I was hurt, if I was in danger, if I died. In the last few years of learning to self love, I have purposefully managed to skirt round the topic of blacking out. I know that to open up this pandora’s box of suffocated emotions is going to cause upheaval. However, a few weeks ago an article appeared on The Guardian, “Everyone has black outs, don’t they?”. As I sat and read Sarah Hepola’s story, I felt winded with emotion, reading a story that has been mine, that could have been mine if I continued to drink the way I did. I ordered her book and read it in a few days, hungry to connect. In a Rough As meet up that same week, myself and a 24 year old guy sat and talked about blacking out. On a Saturday. At 10 am. As we sat there swapping stories, when a few years ago I would be waking up to those familiar fears, thoughts and shame, I braced myself for the worst. What happened was an honest conversation with another person who knew exactly how I felt.
What is blacking out?
“I always thought blacking out was passing-out” said our founder Laura. “So I was okay, I never did that … but it seems I did. I don’t remember falling into a taxi and breaking my leg. That is a black out. I had lots of them.”
So what is happening:
Alcohol induced blackouts take place when the alcohol in your bloodstream peaks too high and too rapidly, exposing the brain to a sudden spike in blood alcohol content.
These large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial or complete blackouts, which are periods of memory loss for events that happened.
It basically screws the workings of your hippocampus, a brain region that plays a central role in the formation of new autobiographical memories. It does not stop you remembering the bits before you got pissed.
This can happen to anyone drinking on a night out – whether they normally drink very little or drink heavily regularly. But if you get blackouts often it also means you are drinking quickly and heavily often too – you need to take some action to control your drinking.
There are two types of blackouts: ‘en bloc’ and ‘fragmentary’ or ‘remembering nothing’ or ‘remembering some things’. So if you find your drinking buddy is repeating themselves often in the evening or starting a rant and then forgetting what it is half way through, they are suffering a blackout. They literally have made no memory of what they said or did.
How to prevent a blackout?
Eating a meal before a night out causes the valve between the stomach and the intestine to close for several hours, slowing the intake of alcohol into the bloodstream and prevents BAC spikes.
If you’re less thirsty, you’re less likely to drink as quickly. Load up on the water before a big night out.
3. Pace yourself
Slow down. Alternate between alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks. Hydrate with water! Research shows that people try to match sipping patterns with the people around them.
4. Drink weaker drinks
Ask at the bar about their low ABV beers, like we’ve started doing at our low/no alcohol beer tasting. Go from doubles to singles. Avoid shots – there’s nothing moderate about them. One Club Soda member buys one pint and a pint of lemonade that he spends the evening topping up. He’s constantly got a fresh drink in his hand, but finishes the night with just the one beer!
Do not underestimate the importance of sleep. Going out on a lack of sleep often leads to blackouts.
6. Don’t mix booze & meds
This one is nothing new, but most people ignore the recommendation to not drink while on meds…. Why?
7. Avoid drinking games
Or playing catch up. It means drinking fast and a lot in a short space of time.
8. Get support
When out, tell a buddy that you’re going out and concerned. Get them to check in with you or tell a mate who you’re with what’s going on. Give yourself a time to bow out gracefully.