There’s been a glut of addiction memoirs released of late but none have made quite the impact of Sarah Hepola’s masterpiece, Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank to Forget. And there’s good reason for it: the Salon editor and journalist (The New York Times, The New Republic, The Guardian) has managed to bring an entirely fresh perspective to a glutted genre, infusing her tale with equal parts humor and tragedy, expertly weaving together the challenges faced by alcoholics with those of so-called regular human beings. In the first of a two-part interview, the bestselling author shares her thoughts on how alcoholism isn’t always a burning building but a “wrecking ball from inside,” the conveyer belt lifestyle of binge drinking and how sober people tend to come out of the woodwork once you’re one of them.
Anna: As an editor and avid reader, you’ve surely read every memoir out there about addiction and recovery. Did that overwhelm you as you were writing or make you more aware of pitfalls to avoid?
Sarah: Both. You know that sinking feeling when you have this great idea for a book, and someone else says, “Oh, that’s like such-and-such book?” It was like having that feeling, but for six months. I actually threw Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story across the room at one point, which might be the greatest compliment I could give her. But you have to educate yourself on the genre, especially one as robust as addiction memoirs, and you have to stare down the question that every writer has to confront at some point: What are you going to say that hasn’t been said before?
Anna: There’s a conception out there that if you’re an alcoholic, there’s no way you could be out there in the world, establishing an enviable career. (This conception was 100% accurate in my case, by the way.) What do you think are the specific challenges faced by high-functioning alcoholics?
Sarah: Denial is the biggest, because as long as your career is thriving you can point to your accomplishments and say, “But I couldn’t be an alcoholic!” That image of the low-bottom drunk is so pervasive in the popular imagination, so success in your career can be a convenient scrim for friends and family: She’s doing great at that job, she must be fine. And of course, a stressful job is a great excuse to indulge. If you had my job, you’d drink, too. Near the end, as I started to spin out, people couldn’t tell: Is it the job? Is it the stress? Is it New York? It wasn’t until I sobered up that my friends were like: Oooooh, it was the drinking.
I lucked out. My friends were so supportive. But sometimes the other challenge of remaining “functional” is that people around you won’t necessarily understand how bad it got for you. They’ll be like: You’re not an alcoholic, you’re fine! It’s no big deal, you’re over-reacting! People don’t understand that drinking can corrode you from within. They expect to see burning buildings, but sometimes, the wrecking ball hits you inside.
Anna: What perceptions, if any, do you hope to spread about alcoholism and recovery with Blackout?
Sarah: All the perceptions I wanted to challenge are perceptions I’d once had: That drinking is empowerment, that drinking is the only way to be intimate or artistic, that sober people are boring and drinkers are cool. “Coolness” comes from being transgressive, original, out of step with ordinary life—that’s sober people to me. Binge drinkers can be a little stuck on the conveyor belt.
The other important idea, which is related, is that your life isn’t over because you stop drinking. When I was stranded in relapse-land, unsure if I wanted to quit, a very wise sober person said to me, Your heart will grow in surprising ways. I held on to that, and it proved to be true. The same is true for your creative life, your romantic life, your friendships. You think the song is over, and you’ve just transposed it into another key.
Anna: In promoting the book, what are some of the major misconceptions you’ve noticed people have about alcoholism and/or recovery?
Sarah: Number one is that overblown portrait of alcoholism: That an alcoholic is hiding a bottle of liquor under her pillow, or sucking down hair spray and vanilla extract with shaking hands. I recently watched a bunch of movies on alcoholism, and every one of them has a scene where the character chugs from a giant liquor bottle in desperation. I’m sure I did that in college, trying to look tough, but in my adult years? Never. Nothing like that. People don’t understand that alcoholism can be a slow creep. It’s a shift that happens internally. You are no longer controlling the drinking. The drinking controls you.
Then the misconceptions about the recovery community: Where to begin? The pervasive misconceptions around AA—that it’s a cult, that it’s rigid and judgmental, or bad for women. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the idea that AA can and should work for everyone. That isn’t right, either. We’re having an interesting public debate about recovery, which is ultimately a good thing, and websites like yours have cropped up over the past few years to dispel some myths. The whole recovery community has been so secretive for so long, it’s no surprise the culture has no idea how many sober people are among them. When I was a drinker, I assumed everyone drank. When I quit, all these sober people came out of the woodwork, and it was like: Whoa, have these people been here all along? Yes. We are the people in your neighborhood.
Anna: I read that you said you wanted the book to appeal not just to those struggling with alcoholism but also to people out there who may not be even that interested in the topic. Did you work to show how the issues alcoholics suffer from aren’t so different than the issues non-alcoholics suffer from or did that come organically?
Sarah: I think that’s something that dawned on me as I was sobering up. My problem wasn’t drinking, per se, but the human stuff underneath: Self-consciousness, a craving for closeness, doubt about my own abilities, a raging ego and a weird shrinking insecurity. Human stuff. Maybe alcoholics have those attributes in higher doses, or maybe what separates us is the delusion that alcohol could fix them.
A lot of books and especially movies exoticize the alcoholic—this poor broken creature chugging the tequila bottle—and I wanted to emphasize the common strains. This book isn’t just about alcohol. This is about a person trying to find her voice, numb the necessary pain of being alive, dig out her talent from underneath a pile of fear and shame. I was thinking a lot about my friends, too, and writing a book they would want to read. They might not struggle with a drinking problem, but they struggle with this other stuff. Everyone does.
Look out for Part 2 of this interview next week…