“When addiction lives in you, it sprouts many vines,” Sarah Hepola writes in her absorbing memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.
I pulled a highlighter over this line. And the next. I kept reading until the book contained more fluorescent yellow than it did black-and-white.
Hepola’s prose is dazzling, though most obvious is her aptitude for storytelling. She’s currently an editor for the personal essay section of Salon.com; she is also six years sober.
Through her writing Hepola describes her lifelong relationship with alcohol, which began at the tender age of seven as she took sips from half-empty beers in the family refrigerator. This trick continued well into her adolescence, and evolved from a sneaky childhood habit into a full-fledged affair of compulsion.
At the top of the bestseller list upon its release in summer 2015, Hepola’s book has made an impact of refreshing honesty on the sub-genre of addiction memoirs. Hers is indeed a self-portrait, an astute portrayal of the inner dialogue that was thought to be lost in the shadow of those eponymous blackouts.
As Hepola attempts to reclaim the memories that her addiction had once stolen away, she begins a conversation with her former self. Her humor, though dark, is a driving force of the narrative, coupled with a powerful insightfulness.
Blackout is written in two parts: pre- and post-sobriety. The first, spanning from childhood to mid-thirties, examines family dynamics, relationships, and the many ways in which alcoholism affected Hepola’s interactions with the world around her.
The blackouts in this period of Hepola’s life were frequent; she admits to losing count. She recounts a particularly haunting situation that took place on a writing assignment in Paris, wherein Hepola found herself in a stranger’s bed with no recollection of the preceding events.
She wrote of her thoughts afterward, “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 plane ride home. And I drank for five more years.”
Hepola leaves no stone unturned in her investigation of past experiences, and offers readers a behind-the-scenes tour of her tumultuous journey toward sobriety. While she reflects upon less-than-graceful moments with a great sense of humor, she makes no attempt to hide the shame, guilt, and ongoing battle with perfectionism that she has associated with her addiction.
In its second act, the memoir finds its roots as a tale of resilience, a descriptor that is appropriately given to Hepola by a friend.
After lamenting that she is not “tough,” her friend responds, “You’re something better. You’re resilient.”
It is this message that carries us into Hepola’s life in recovery. She does not sugarcoat her foray into “the great unknown” of sobriety; her writing is raw. She details her experiences in dating sober, working sober, and living sober.
As I worked toward the end of the book, I discovered one of my favorite passages, which epitomizes the nature of Hepola’s reflection.
She wrote, “A woman I know told me a story once, about how she’d always been the girl in the front row at live shows. Pushing her way to the place where the spotlight burned tracers in her eyes and the speakers rattled her insides.
When she quit drinking, she missed that full-throttle part of herself, but then she realized: Sobriety is full-throttle. No earplugs. No safe distance. Everything at its highest volume. All complications of the world, vibrating your sternum.”
It is a thought that resonated long after I closed the book—sobriety is full-throttle.
So too, is Hepola’s writing, an enduring reminder of resilience on the page.
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