In college and throughout my early twenties, my friends and peers would often regale me with stories of things I had done during blackouts. It's not entirely out of the ordinary, in college, to engage in irrational behavior under the influence of alcohol. No one seemed to find it strange that I would forget so much. I was just another run-of-the-mill college student with a nightly case of amnesia.
"Do you remember getting up on the counter at McDonald's and tossing
ketchup packets up in to the air?"
"Do you remember walking home with a traffic cone on your head?"
No, but that is hilarious!
"Do you remember swinging from my hanging lamp while pretending to be Tarzan?"
I never did that.
"Yes, you did."
I was a blackout drinker from the first time I ever got drunk at 16, and my blackouts would cut broad swathes of time right out of my memory, ranging from an hour to an entire night.
After waking up the next day, I would search my surroundings for physical clues. Ketchup packets in the bottom of my bag. A photo; a ticket stub in my pocket. Mostly I relied on other people's stories to fill the empty spaces in my memory. No matter how intently I focused, or how long I waited, these black holes remained, dark and unforgiving.
I once approximated that I blacked out an average of three and a half nights a week during my drinking career. If I lost an average of two hours a night, that's about seven hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Over 10 years of boozing, from age 16 to 26, I must have accrued over 3,600 hours-or 151 days-of forgotten time. That's five months--enough time to pen a novel or hike the Appalachian Trail. What I did, essentially, was take a very long intermittent nap, while turning over full control of my body to my most impulsive instincts.
Blackout drinking is a common symptom of alcoholism or substance misuse, I have learned. But not everyone who is an alcoholic blacks out, and not every blackout drinker is an alcoholic.
A blackout is also known as alcohol-related amnesia, though it's not so much that you forget what happened the night before. The memory doesn't go missing--it just never gets made in the first place. Alcohol doesn't actually "kill" brain cells, but it stomps all over receptors in your brain--specifically the prefrontal cortex, which controls rational thinking, and the temporal cortex, which houses the hippocampus, where short-term (one minute or less) memories are processed into long-term memories.
This meant my life was often full of surprises. Freshman year I once woke up in my dorm room in bed with a traffic cone. I sensed its presence before I saw what it was, so I lay there, frozen for an hour or more, waiting for it to wake up and leave. I just assumed it was a person-woman, man, friend or stranger.
My junior year of college, I turned 21 and my roommates threw me a birthday party. The morning after, I woke up in all my clothes, and wondered if anyone had showed up to my party. My roommate knocked on my door and dragged me to his room and pointed to his bed. Above it dangled a mutilated object that had once been a very elaborate, multi-tiered "Chinese" lantern from Ikea. "Do you remember this?" he asked, in that tone people always used with me-accusatory, and slightly amused.
No. I didn't remember anything after downing two bottles of wine before any of the guests showed up. I didn't remember passing out in an elevator after riding it to the top floor. I didn't remember my guests mobilizing a search party in my neighborhood. A party guest finally found me on the fourth floor of a neighboring apartment building and carried me back to the party where she lay me down on my roommate's bed.
I didn't remember waking up, grabbing hold of my roommate's "Chinese" lantern, which had taken him hours to assemble, yelling "I'm Tarzan!" and swing myself into a heap on the floor.
All of this was recounted to me the next day. The story, as my exploits often were, was loud and funny and colorful. But the underlying narrative was always the same: You got drunk; you ran away; you kissed somebody; you stole something; you put something on your head; you broke stuff; you made someone cry.
This eventually stopped when I quit drinking at 26. Since the drinking stopped, I find that I break things less often. I have never run away while out with friends: If I want to leave, I usually say goodbye first and then walk--not sprint--home. I don't steal, and rarely wear inanimate objects as hats--especially those intended for traffic safety. But whatever it is I do, I remember all of it. My narratives are my own to be retold.
But the past I can't recover. All I have to remember my 21st birthday is a bizarre collage of moments, recollected and pinned together by other people-this and my roommate's Ikea lamp. He gave it to me as a birthday gift, misshapen and deformed. But not broken, which struck me as somewhat of a miracle.
This is an abbreviated version of a post by May Wilkerson, the Senior Editor at Substance.com. Read the full version of this article here.
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