Blacking Out-The Canary down the Coalmine of Addiction

Normally, we do not so much look at things as overlook them

Alan Watts

It NEVER occurred to me that blacking out from drinking was not the norm, I had made the fairly catastrophic assumption that blacking out when drinking was something everyone did at some point, maybe not every time but at least sometimes. Just like me of course!

I had no idea that blacking out during a heavy drinking session was not expected by most people, I also had no idea that it’s a really good warning sign that you may be even closer to sliding down that slippery slope harder and faster than those around you, because already as a weekend/binge drinker I was going hard enough and fast enough to induce a blackout state.

So what is ‘black-out drunk’? why is it dangerous? why doesn’t everyone get black out drunk?! After listening to ‘This Naked Mind’ (Annie Grace) podcast I realised, for the very first time that black outs are a whole thing of themselves that deserve my attention, since I’ve blacked out more times than I can remember (pun intended).

I’ve been all kinds of drunk in my drinking career. I’ve been the binge drinker, pass-out drunk, black-out drunk and an every evening drinker. I’ve had long periods of abstinence including the obvious ones of being pregnant and breastfeeding, though on the breastfeeding front I did have the odd glass here and there which equates to nearly 4 years of either being completely abstinent or drinking a glass or two once a month. There was also the random occasion in university in second year where I randomly stopped drinking but continued to do all the stuff I was doing with alcohol like going on nights out and socialising, you could almost call it spontaneous sobriety except I never planned to quit for good, it was more of a personal and social experiment and I did of course go back to binge drinking eventually.

Black out drinking, A definition:

An alcoholic blackout is amnesia for the events of any part of a drinking episode without loss of consciousness. It is characterised by memory impairment during intoxication in the relative absence of other skill deficits. It is not to be confused with ‘passing out’ read here.

Black out drinking, My Experience:

The puppet me, I’m walking, talking and interacting with people at a way WAY to drunk level. The things I have done and said in this state range from mildly embarrassing to burned my fucking life down and have some serious problems to fix the next day. In short the nights I’ve blacked out and continued to go around being conscious and interacting with the world around me are truly the most dangerous situations I’ve ever been in. Nobody knows you’re in a black out state, you don’t know you are and even worse you are not in control of your behaviour. So you wake up the next morning firstly in physical agony, then it all starts to come back like a horrible nightmare half remembered and the more you try to remember the more it slips through your fingers. Similarly to a nightmare you are the observer, things happened you KNOW they happened and all you can do is remember, you witness yourself do and say things that make the pit of your stomach churn. Kinda makes me wish that pass out and black out were the exact same thing like I thought they were, huh!

Why didn’t I know the difference?

Why did the concept of being so drunk I would wake up not remembering my actions for a huge portion of my night escape my grasp as a real and defined drinking issue? I’d simply say ‘wow I can hardly remember anything from last night I must have drank loads. I’d never say I ‘blacked out’ in fact if I was going to say I blacked out it was usually in reference to passing out and maybe not remembering the bit where I got into bed.

Black Outs, Some Statistics:

  • A blood alcohol level of between 0.2-0.3 percent is enough to induce total blackout
  • This is around 15 standard drinks in the UK over a period of four hours(whatever the F that means because what is even standard, 15 glasses of wine, double vodkas, shots?! no idea)
  • It’s believed that the hippocampus is momentarily impaired.
  • This shuts down brain circuits that are central to forming episodic memory.
  • They are more common in women and people with a lower body weight.
  • There have been studies that suggest there is a genetic predisposition to blacking out as well as a neurological predisposition (Those with lower impulse control when sober seem to be more susceptible).

Now the psychologist in me (not a real psychologist but have a psychology degree so there’s that) wants to ask: who the fuck is controlling me when I’m blacked out if it isn’t me? I mean real me doesn’t lose her phone and money then walk the streets for hours crying because she doesn’t know how to get back home, real me doesn’t throw drinks at people on purpose, start fights or break things <insert further insanely risky activities here> but its not even that sober or real me wouldn’t do those things, drunk me never did those things either. On the nights where I could barely stand or string a sentence together BUT remember the next day I still had the self awareness to not do really dangerous things. But I can blackout and not even seem that bad until I do something totally wild, totally out of character or just plain dangerous.

I look back on my blackouts like I was possessed by something unreal, it’s the only way so far I’ve been able to accept that I’ve done some of the things that I’ve done, a coping strategy for many many nights of risky behaviour. I never damaged a relationship or friendship over them but I deeply hurt my integrity and self esteem every time I woke up fully dressed, personal effects missing, checking for injuries and frantically texting friends (if I hadn’t lost my phone too) to ask what exactly happened last night but deep down kind of not even wanting to know.

On the bright side (another pun intended) a solid 99% of my blackouts occurred in my early 20’s before becoming a mother. Pregnancy, breastfeeding and the general responsibilities of motherhood in many ways rapidly clipped my alcohol consumption and stopped me pouring the rest of my 20’s down the drain. Not to mention it only would have taken one blackout for something truly awful to have happened to me, so I can be grateful for that. Parenting and my newfound drinking habits are another story, for another time.

So on that note I’m going to go ahead and forgive myself. I’ve held on to the memories of a lot of my blackouts (Weird concept considering I can’t actually remember) but I got the jist of most of them eventually and they’ve always left me cringing hard or feeling disgusted with myself. I’m now just going to be grateful that they eventually taught me the lessons I needed to learn and brought me to the place I am now.

I did a little reading on blackouts and my new ‘must buy’ audio-book is going to have to be: ‘blackout: Remembering the things I drank to forget’ by Sarah Hepola.

I do a lot of ‘listening’ I have two kids under 5 so blogging is the first time I’ve even looked at the written word not in the form of ‘The Gruffalo’ in quite a while. Often when I’m going about my daily tasks I can either leave my phone on loud speaker or pop a headphone in and just absorb a little world and a little knowledge. In 36 days sober I have consumed as many audio-books and podcasts as my hectic life allows to learn as much as I can and keep myself on a truly positive, happy and very sober road.

Day 37 tomorrow, let’s go!

Level 100

‘Staying Vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection’

Brené Brown

I’m really doing this, its happening. My brain told me about 50 times already that I really can’t write a blog (and that was just in the time it took me to sign up to create a blog), waste of time, no one will read it, you aren’t special! Damn it. It’s tough, I’m writing one, boring or not, special or not.

The loudest voice in my head says ‘don’t do it! the blogging community will reject you, you dont know enough about it all, you can’t write and eventually everyone in the blogging community will laugh at you and you’ll be in so much pain when the crushing and complete rejection comes at you’. WOW thanks brain that’s super nice to hear. Thankfully these days I’ve very slowly (and somewhat painfully) been forced to actually address this utter nonsense I’ve been telling myself even if it’s simply acknowledging it. Sometimes it hurts me so fast and so deep that I actually have to shout FUCK OFF, in my head obviously, I try not to swear too often out loud for no apparent reason, it freaks the kids and the cat out. Note to self: log into mindfulness app later.

‘Quit That’ app tells me its been precisely 34 days since I drank any alcohol, thats 34 days ‘sober’ I use air quotes because it feels weird, it feels like I don’t even need to class myself as sober and from what I’ve been reading and listening to as I’ve thrown myself into the sobersphere it seems a common problem, to not really feel connected to the term sober, maybe because it’s been so demonised. Stone Cold Sober-because I burned my life down and ruined alcohol for myself (little bit from column A, little from column B); because I’m different and can’t be trusted with alcohol the way everyone else can. I hate that vibe, but whatever I still want to quantify it and give myself a shiny for all the milestones I’m going to reach on this journey.

I don’t see quitting alcohol as the end of one thing and the start of another but more of a messy squiggly journey, I don’t have one defining moment ‘rock bottom’ but I obviously have had a moment where I did decide I was never going to drink again, it’s a decision I think I’ve wanted to make since age 6, weird that it took 24 years to realise that but ok. So this is the middle-ish, I’ve recognised that my drinking career was all squiggly but a little while ago in the past and everything is still squiggly but it’s happening right now and I’m learning new stuff every day, getting strength, confidence and just extra every day, I thought I’d maybe reach some kind of zen state where I absolutely will not need to know or learn any more about sober living, mindfulness, yoga, parenting, growth mindset, gratitude etc. Like the knowledge just reaches capacity and boom your done! lessons learned enjoy your life. BUT, mind fudging blown because all that stuff IS enjoying your life, shit! Ive been trying to get to the ‘end’ like level up, reach level 100 and its done you’ve got your best life, then what?! In my mind maybe I thought quitting drinking was level 100. I’m actually secretly thrilled and free’d to realise that there is no level 100!! I’m feeling excited about this because I’ve given myself permission to just be happy, right now today and stop doing some of the things I thought I had to do to get to level 100.

So I’ve read all that back about a billion times now and I still don’t think it’s any clearer as to who I am and what I’m doing her.

Here I am 34 days sober, hitting 30 years old, going forward sober but looking back to heal. I feel weird, I feel like all through my 20’s I’ve been looking for the answers and somehow in the last 12 months I’ve drunkenly stumbled into sobriety and exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve started this blog I guess, in a really long winded round-a-bout kinda way, because I want to scream to everyone and no-one that I DID IT!! I got sober when no one thought I needed to, I found the right answers for me and I keep finding out more shit every day and it’s blowing my mind.

I’ve got some stuff I need to say, so I’m going to say it (fuck you self-loathing she-serpent). Which reminds me of Clare Pooley’s ‘wine witch’ (read sober diaries, amazing!). Well my one of those looks like a cross between when Jafar from Aladdin turns into a snake and Penelope Python from ‘There’s a snake in my school’ possibly obscure references and not quite as succinct as ‘Wine Witch’ but my brain wants what it wants and that’s to put a slightly ludicrous edge on a painful internal struggle between me doing what I want to do and me doing what addiction wants me to do. Not just Addiction of course though, she jumps up when I decide to create blogs, talk to mums down the school, meet anyone new that I might either want or need to make a deeper social connection to aaaand those times where I’m also about to eat way too much food in a really tiny space of time for no reason other than feeling my feelings too much and listening to the self-loathing she serpent for too long.

So that’s it (probably) I’ve got some stuff I want to hash out. Some info I want to share and a whole host of stories ranging from funny to tragic to embarrassing, some relatable shit like social anxiety, binge eating, addiction, healing and maybe most importantly just spreading those hope seeds wherever they fall that you’re not alone, I’m not alone and we can do it!

and hey if the fact that I decided to publish a blog on a Friday night isn’t pretty much the opposite to stealth falling asleep after half a box of wine having pissed my partner off I don’t know what is, so I can be pretty fucking proud of that.

Podcast listens this week: Bubble Hour, This Naked Mind, Where Should We Begin
Audio book listens this week: American Gods, Alcohol Explained, Out of Your Mind.