I remember reading an excerpt of this very early on in my sobriety. It may well have been on a blog but it was brilliantly written, good and scary. It was called ‘My drinking years, everyone has blackouts don’t they?‘ and reading it made me squirm in uncomfortable recognition. I had blackouts and brownouts and had done things with other people that I had no recollection of the next day. I’d spooked myself enough that I had learned to put myself to bed before things got too out of hand, before the line was crossed and it had fared me pretty well but was not always reliable ……. a bit like me when I drank.
I’m in Paris for work, which is exactly as great as it sounds. I eat dinner at a fancy restaurant and drink cognac — the booze of kings and rap stars. Somewhere near midnight, I tumble into a cab with my friend, and the night starts to stutter and skip. How did we get back so fast?
I walk through the front door of my hotel, alone. It’s that time of night when every floor has a banana peel and, if I’m not careful, I might find my face against the ground, my hands braced beside me. I exchange a few pleasantries with the concierge, a bit of theatre to prove I’m not too drunk. The last thing I hear is my heels, steady as a metronome, echoing through the lobby. And then there is nothing.
This happens to me sometimes. A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn’t notice. They’d simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.
It’s possible you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re a moderate drinker who baby-sips two glasses of wine and leaves every party at a reasonable hour. Maybe you are one of those lucky people who can slurp your whisky all afternoon and never disappear. But if you’re like me, you know the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.
I don’t know how much time I lose in this darkness. Or what takes place. When the curtain lifts again, this is what I see: there is a bed, and I’m on it. The lights are low. Sheets are wrapped around my ankles, soft and cool against my skin. I’m on top of a guy I’ve never seen before, and we’re having sex.
Hold on. Can this be right? I’m having sex with a man, and I’ve never seen him before. It’s as if the universe dropped me into someone else’s body. But I seem to be enjoying it. I’m making all the right sounds.
I collapse beside him and weave my legs through his. I wonder if I should be worried right now, but I’m not scared. I don’t mean to suggest I’m brave. I mean to suggest you could break a piece of plywood over my head, and I would smile, nod, and keep going.
The guy isn’t bad-looking. “You really know how to wear a guy out,” he says. It seems unfair that he should know me and I don’t know him, but I’m unsure of the etiquette.
“I should go,” I tell him.
He gives an annoyed laugh. “You just said you wanted to stay.”
So I stay with the stranger in the shadows of a room I do not recognise, looking out on to a city that is not my home. As I lie in the crook of his arm, I have so many questions. But one is louder than the others. In literature, it’s the question that launches grand journeys, because heroes are often dropped into deep, dark jungles and forced to machete their way out. But for the blackout drinker, it’s the question that launches another shitty Saturday. How did I get here?
When the curtains opened up in my mind that night in Paris, and I was in the middle of having sex with a man I didn’t even remember meeting, the strange part is how calm I remained. I was still wrapped in the soothing vapours of the cognac, no clue where I was, but not particularly concerned: I’ll figure this out.
I was pretty sure I was in my hotel. I recognised the swirly brown carpet, the brushed-steel light fixtures. The panic started when I noticed the time. It was almost 2am. “Shit, my flight leaves in a few hours,” I said.
Actually, the flight wasn’t until 11am, but I understood there was not nearly enough time between then and now. The awfulness of my circumstances began to dawn on me.
As I left, the click of the lock’s tongue in the groove brought me such relief. The sound of a narrow escape. I was on my way to the elevator when I realised I did not have my bag: my passport, my money, my driving licence, my room card. I did not have my way back home. I turned around and stared at the line of doorways behind me. Shit. They all look the same. Which one?
I don’t know how long I sat in that hallway – 10 minutes, 10 years. When I finally stood up, I had a plan. “Bonjour,” I said to the concierge.
“Good evening,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“I left my bag in someone’s room,” I said.
“Not a problem,” he said, and began tapping on the computer. “What room was it?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Not a problem,” he said. More tapping. “What was the guest’s name?”
A tear slipped down my cheek, and I watched it splat. “I don’t know.”
He nodded, his mouth an expressionless line. But I could see the pity in his eyes. He felt sorry for me. And somehow this pebble of sympathy was enough to shatter my fragile reserve. I crumpled into tears. “Don’t cry,” he said. He took my hand. His fingers were dry and cold, and they swallowed mine. “It’s going to be OK,” he said.
And I believed him, because I needed to.
“Is it possible this gentleman is the one you were talking to at the bar tonight?” the concierge asked.
And there it was, finally. My first clue. Of course, I’d gone to the hotel bar.
“Yes,” I pretended. “That is definitely the guy. So you saw me with him tonight?”
He smiled. “Of course.”
He handed me a new key to my room. He told me he would figure out the guy’s name, but that he might need an hour or two. “I don’t want you to worry any more,” he said. “Go rest.”
“Hey, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Jackson,” he said.
“I’m Sarah,” I told him, and I took his hand with both of mine. “Jackson, you’re the hero of my story tonight.”
“Not a problem,” he said, and flashed a smile.
As I headed towards the elevator, I felt like a new woman. I had a chance to restore order, to correct the insanity of the night. Jackson would find the guy’s name. I would meet the guy downstairs, suffer the indignity of small talk, then take my stuff and bolt.
No, better yet, Jackson would knock on the guy’s door and retrieve the purse himself. I didn’t care how it happened, just that it happened. It was all going to be OK.
I walked back into my room. And there, to the left of the entrance, on an otherwise unremarkable shelf, was my bag. I had lost so many things in my time: scarves, hats, gloves. But what amazed me was how many things I did not lose, even when my eyes had receded into my skull. I never lost my phone. I never lost my keys. Part of this was simple survival: you could not be a woman alone in the world without some part of you remaining vigilant. How did my bag get to my room? I have no idea, only that even in my blackout state, I made sure my treasure was tucked away safe: a woman locking up her diamond ring before she leaps into the ocean.
I called the front desk. “You’re never going to believe this,” I told Jackson. “My bag is in my room.”
“I told you this would work out,” he said.
“And you were right.”
I changed into my pyjamas and curled into a foetal position under the covers. Maybe I should have been relieved, but I had the haunted shivers of a woman who felt the bullet whizz past her face. Now that my crisis was resolved, I could start beating myself up for the ways I had failed. Such a wretched place to be. Alone in the dark, with your own misery.
The phone rang. “I found a leather jacket in the bar,” Jackson said. “Do you think it’s yours?”
And here comes the part of the story I wish I didn’t remember.
Jackson stands in my doorway. He’s so tall. He must be 6ft 2in. My leather jacket is draped over his arm like a fresh towel. I stand there with my hand on the door and wonder how much to tip him.
“Can I come in?” he asks, and there is not an ounce of me that wants him inside my room, but he was so helpful to me earlier, and I can’t scheme quickly enough to rebuff him.
I step back from the door and give him entry. I’m still thinking about the tip. Would €5 be enough? Would €100?
He closes the door and walks to my bed. It’s not far from the entryway, but each step breaches a great chasm. “You broke my heart when you cried earlier tonight,” he says, sitting down on the mattress. He’s only a few feet from me, and I remain with my back pressed against the wall.
“I know, I’m sorry about that,” I say, and I think: who is manning the desk right now? Are we going to get in trouble?
He leans forward on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees. “I was thinking, a beautiful woman like you should not be crying,” he says, and puts out his hand for me to take. I’m not sure what to do, but I walk over to him, as if on autopilot, and let my hand hang limply against his fingertips.
“You are very beautiful,” he says.
“Jackson, I’m really tired,” I say. “It’s been a really long day.”
I think: if I tell him to go, he’ll probably stand up politely and walk out of the room without saying more than a few words. So why don’t I? Do I feel I owe him something?
He pulls me towards him, and we kiss. The kiss is neither bad nor good. I consider it a necessary penance. I can’t explain it. How little I care. All I keep thinking is: it will be easier this way.
We lie in the bed, and I let him run his hands along me. He kisses my nose, now wet with tears he doesn’t ask about; but he never asks for more.
At 4am, I push Jackson out the door. I climb into my bed and cry huge howling sobs. Real drunks wait and watch for the moment they hit bottom. As I lay in my hotel bed, covers pulled up to my neck, I felt the gratitude of a woman who knows, finally, she is done.
But I drank on the flight home. And I drank for five more years.
A life is bookended by forgetting, as though memory forms the tunnel that leads into and out of a human body. I’m friends with a married couple who have a two-year-old. She is all grunt and grab, a pint-size party animal in a polka-dot romper, and we laugh at how much she reminds us of our drunken selves. Any hint of music becomes a need to dance. Spinning in a circle. Slapping her toddler belly. One eye squinted, as though this balances her somehow.
I recognise this as the freedom drinking helped me to recapture. A magnificent place where no one’s judgment mattered, my needs were met, and my emotions could explode in a tantrum. And when I was finally spent, someone would scoop me up in their arms and place me safely in my crib again.
I wonder sometimes if anything could have prevented me from becoming an alcoholic, or if drinking was simply my fate. But I’ve come to think of being an alcoholic as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Those low years startled me awake. I stopped despairing for what I didn’t get and I began cherishing what I did.
Nobody remembers a life completely. We are all forgetting, all the time. But isn’t it some basic human instinct to hold on to as much as we can? If you are lucky, you will wake up, and remember this. I did.
This is an edited extract from Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget, by Sarah Hepola. If you’re reading this and are worried about your drinking and having blackouts maybe it’s’ time to look at your relationship with alcohol? Best thing I ever did 🙂