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!

2 thoughts on “Blacking Out-The Canary down the Coalmine of Addiction

  1. Wow this is brilliant, and once again I can relate to so much of it. 36 days who-hoo!!! By the way I was reading This Naked Mind last night, I’m at about 17% on my kindle (good idea to listen via podcast, I sure remember the Gruffalo days!). At first I was damned annoyed by the book (Naked Mind not Gruffalo lol), because I felt like “yes I know all this already, these are the exact conclusions I’ve come to just through journalling and my own researching continuously!” In other words I was jealous. :)) Next I felt so grateful to Annie Grace for having written and published it. She explains it so clearly and this is stuff the world needs to know.


    1. Naked mind hit me right between the eyes because I was toying with stopping drinking ‘for a bit’ when I started reading or trying to moderate. I finished it with completely different perspective and it kind of lead me down the (wonderful) sober rabbit hole! Hope you are doing well ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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