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 is not entirely out of the ordinary, in college, to engage in erratic, illogical and sometimes shameful behavior under the influence of alcohol. No one seemed to find it strange that I would forget so much, and so often. 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 the air?"
"Do you remember singing 'Like a Prayer' onstage at that karaoke bar?"
"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 almost never remembered anything other than occasional snippets filtered through a thick haze. 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 immediate surroundings for physical clues. Ketchup packets in the bottom of my bag. Photos of me as a tiny blur onstage, holding a microphone. A ticket stub in my pocket, a stamp on my hand. 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 (twice a week in college and four or five nights a week in the four years after college, before I got sober). 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 (or coma), while turning over full control of my body to my most impulsive and animalistic instincts.
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," like some people believe, 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.
The more you drink, the more you risk blacking out, though blood alcohol content is the crucial factor. So three glasses of wine on an empty stomach might black you out, but six glasses over the course of a three-course meal might not. Personally, I would usually opt for the six glasses and skip the meal entirely.
In a blackout, you can still process information. You're not a word-slurring zombie, or passed out in the corner (yet). But you're not making any new memories to hold on to tomorrow, or anytime in the future. So when I got wasted, I could still communicate with other people, move through the world semi-functionally, hail a cab or sing karaoke. I just wouldn't remember it the next day.
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, tucked under the covers beside me. 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. I was relieved that it wasn't.
My junior year of college I turned 21 and my roommates threw me a birthday party. I went to school in Montreal, where the drinking age is 18, so the alcohol milestone was arbitrary. But I mainly drank for arbitrary reasons -- celebration or loss, excitement or boredom. If I had a headache or heartache, I drank over the pain. If I did well on a paper, I toasted my success. Made it through another Tuesday? Bottoms up!
The morning after my birthday party, I woke up in all my clothes, and wondered if anyone had showed up to my party the night before. I played over possible scenarios in my head, ranging from benign to horrifying.
My roommate knocked on my door and dragged me to his room and pointed to his bed. Just inches above the bedspread dangled a mangled object that had once been a very elaborate, multi-tiered "Chinese" lantern from Ikea. The lamp was severely disfigured, the cord mutilated and stretched out.
"Do you remember this?" he asked, in that tone people always used with me -- accusatory, and slightly amused.
I shook my head. I didn't remember anything after downing two bottles of wine-one white, one red-on an empty stomach, before any of the guests showed up. I didn't remember stealing a pair of large shoes from my hallway and stomping around the city, yelling at strangers, falling down in the snow. 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, scouring the streets in party hats. My roommate's girlfriend, Julie, finally found me on the fourth floor of a neighbor's apartment building. She carried me back to the party where she lay me down on my roommate's bed. I didn't remember that either, or my girlfriend pounding the bed by my comatose head, shouting "I thought you had died!" and wailing like a character in a Spanish telenovela.
That's when I woke up, or so I was told. Then I stood up, took hold of my roommate's "Chinese" lantern, which had taken him hours to assemble, yelled "I'm Tarzan!" and swung myself off the bed and into a heap on the floor, and promptly fell back asleep.
All of this was recounted to me the next day by roommates and girlfriend and lingering overnight guests. 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 made a mess; 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.
May Wilkerson is the Senior Editor of Substance.com, where this post first appeared.