A Path From 'Blackout' Drunkenness To Sobriety And Self-Acceptance
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.
There's a saying about drunks - that men wake up in jail cells, women wake up in strangers' beds. That incredibly broad, possibly sexist generalization actually rang true for writer Sarah Hepola during her drinking days, when she considered alcohol the fuel of all adventure. Many of those adventures ended with her in bed with a man she didn't know, not sure of how she got there. Her memoir, "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget," comes out next week in paperback. It's the story of how drinking fit in with and distorted her idea of being an empowered woman. Terry spoke with Sarah Hepola last July when her book was first published. She had just marked her fifth year of being sober. A warning for parents of young children - during the interview, Hepola will talk about the impact of drinking on her sex life and self image. But there is nothing explicit in the conversation.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Sarah Hepola, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from your book.
SARAH HEPOLA: Sure.
GROSS: You can set it up for us.
HEPOLA: There's not much setup needed. You know, I'm 33 at this point in my life, and I'm living in New York and I'm a freelance writer. And I am living the dream, as they say. And I'm talking a little bit about my life - my social life.
(Reading) I had a drinking problem, although I wouldn't have used the word problem - at least not without air quotes. One morning, I woke up in the living room of a cute British guy's apartment. The inflatable mattress was leaking, and my behind was scraping the ground in a plastic hammock. The last thing I remembered was walking my friend Lisa to the subway the night before. She held both my hands. Do not go home with that guy, she said. And I said, I promise - pinky swear. Then I went back into the bar, and he ordered us another round.
This was the kind of excitement I wanted from a single life in New York, the kind of excitement I was hoping to find when I left Texas at the age of 31 in a Honda loaded down with books and heartbreak. I understood the city was not the shimmering fantasia portrayed by charming Audrey Hepburn movies and Woody Allen valentines and four fancy ladies on HBO. But I wanted my own stories, and I understood drinking to be the gasoline of all adventure. The best evenings were the ones you might regret.
I had sex with some random British dude and woke up on a leaking air mattress, I texted my friend Stephanie. Congratulations, she texted back. Awesome, high-five, hell yeah - these were the responses I got from female friends when I told them about my drunken escapades. Most of my friends were married by this point. Sometimes they wondered aloud what being unattached in their 30s would be like - careening around the city at 2 a.m., tilting the wide brim of a martini glass toward the sky to catch whatever plunked into it.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. And that's Sarah Hepola reading from her new memoir, "Blackout." Why did you think that alcohol, that drinking was the gasoline of all adventure? Was that from novels that you read and memoirs, from watching movies, from watching other people, from your own experience? Where did that come from?
HEPOLA: Yeah, all of those things. But I think primarily it's because that's what it did in my life because I was a very shy little girl. I was really locked in my own body. I wanted to be a performer. And when I was really young, I was always dancing to show tunes and stuff, but I was so rocked by self-consciousness at a certain age. When I started drinking - and I drank at a pretty young age - it just unlocked me.
It was the way that I got off the couch. I sometimes feel like if I hadn't been a drinker, I would still be on the couch watching television underneath a blanket. And it was like alcohol pushed me out into the world. But yeah, I mean, of course it was also reinforced by movies, by television, by people I saw in life, you know, by older kids. It just seemed like when you added alcohol to an evening, amazing things happened.
GROSS: It also seems to me that you turned drinking - heavy drinking into what you perceived as kind of a statement of an empowerment - of, like, feminist empowerment because you could down as many drinks as a man...
HEPOLA: Yeah, well...
GROSS: ...And you could hold your liquor.
HEPOLA: Totally. Well, you know, when you're young, you're looking for ways that you stand out in the world. What is your power? It was hard for me to speak in class. I was short (laughter). There were different ways that I felt not powerful. But I could drink like guys.
It seems like a small thing, but to me it was huge, and I got so much admiration for it. And to be able to stand toe-to-toe with any man in the room, you know, it had this kind of Calamity Jane feel. For me, it felt like a path of power. And when I drank, I felt powerful. It lowered my inhibitions, and then I could speak. And I could speak with this kind of righteous fire that I never felt I had access to in a classroom, for instance. But I could be at parties and I could tell guys, you know, you're wrong, you're full of it, you know, the way that I wanted to. I was always thought those things, but I couldn't find access to them without drinking. And I liked that I was good at it, you know? And I was better at it than a lot of women frankly because I just was able to, as they say, hold my liquor.
GROSS: But you get to so many paradoxes about your drinking. For example, you would often drink to the point of blackout and sometimes regain awareness in a hotel room with a guy you didn't know or in a bed in a home with a guy you didn't know or barely knew. Once, you regained awareness in a hotel room with a guy you didn't know, you left the room after having sex with him was over and you realized you didn't have your purse. You didn't remember his name. You didn't remember what room it was. You had no access to find him again - a really disempowering position to be in.
So during your drinking days, did you often think about that paradox of drinking to be empowered but drinking to the point where you became powerless?
HEPOLA: No, I never thought of it that way. You know, that's something that when after I quit drinking that became so clear to me, that I was always drinking for more power. But past a certain point, I was losing power. And then by the end I was powerless. But I didn't see any of that in the moment. And I want to say something. You know, you talked about my blacking out. And I've just noticed in talking about this book that a lot of people don't know what blackouts are. And so if I could just take a moment to...
GROSS: Please. I was - yeah, I was going to ask you to do that. I'm glad you're bringing it up.
HEPOLA: Well, I've just noticed that this is a word that a lot of us use, but we don't necessarily know what it means. So a blackout is very different from passing out, and a lot of people conflate the two. Passing out is when you drink so much that you fall asleep unconscious on the couch and you're snoring. But in a blackout, you remain interacting with the world. You know, basically, you drink so much that your long-term memory shuts down. So you're still walking and talking and interacting with people, but the recorder in your brain isn't going. And it can last for a few minutes. I can go in and out - that's something called a fragmentary blackout. And there's something called an en bloc blackout. It's a French word - B-L-O-C. And it's these large swaths of time that are just gone, and you don't have any memory of them. And these happened to me quite frequently, especially as I got older.
And what happens is that you can present during that time as having it together. Like, I performed in front of, like, 300 people once in a blackout, and I don't think they knew that I was in a blackout. And I didn't know I was in a blackout. But later, I had no memory of that event. You know, the experience that you described in the Paris hotel room, you know, where, like, all these things happen and I have no memory of them. I meet this guy. I guess I go back to his room. I - but all I know is I come out of this blackout. It's like your brain kind of gets punted back online.
And I'm in the middle of the most intimate act there is, which is sex, with this person. I don't know where he came from. It's the strangest thing that ever happened to me in my drinking life. You know, but your question was about, did I see the irony? I don't think I did. I think I learned that the hard way, which was with a mouthful of gravel, you know? Like, how many times did I fall down the stairs? And I thought that was funny.
GROSS: And you think you were actually more prone to blacking out because of your body. Tell us what it is about your body that makes you more susceptible to blacking out.
HEPOLA: Yeah, this was something I learned after I quit drinking because I struggled so much with blackouts. I didn't really know why they happened to me so frequently. And the truth is that even scientists - it's still a little bit of a murky science. They don't know why some people have blackouts and other people don't. It's true - some people will never have blackouts. But for me, I was particularly prone.
You know, the risk factors for blackout are you drink fast, you hold your liquor, you skip meals, you drink on an empty stomach, which is something that I was doing all the time because I was so self-conscious about my weight that I was always doing really silly things, like I'm just going to skip dinner and then I'll have my calories in liquor.
I mean, unfortunately, this is kind of a common thing that young women do. But the other thing part is that I was female. And I had no idea that women were more prone to blackouts than men are. But it's because women don't metabolize alcohol in the same way that men do. And so even a woman that's the same size as a guy, she'll get drunker faster. We also tend to be smaller. And as I told you earlier, I'm short - you know, I'm 5-foot-2. I have to tell you I've been talking about this book a lot, and people come up to me and they talk to me about their blackouts. And kind of, like, 7 out of 10 times when I look up, I'm looking at somebody that's pretty small (laughter).
GROSS: You raise a really interesting question in your book about what is the meaning of consent in a sexual relationship when the woman is in a blackout. And you write, (reading) in my life, alcohol often made the issue of consent very murky. And you almost describe a blackout as giving yourself a roofie. So...
GROSS: ...Where - it sounds like there were times when you weren't even sure if you were giving your consent or not.
HEPOLA: Well, I want to back up and say - explain that one of the reasons why alcohol was so useful to me, I guess I would say, is that I had so much body consciousness and I had so much shyness in the world that I was always using alcohol as a way to put myself out there. And that was in creative situations but also in sexual situations. Like, when I got into college and it was like, you should go hit on a guy. Like, I didn't know how to do that. So how do you do that? You take some shots, you know? So I was always trying to be game. I was always trying to, like, put myself out there.
And what would happen was that a few times - and this didn't always happen. I didn't always blackout. But certainly on nights when I was really going for it, like, I didn't remember how it started. But I should explain to you I didn't wake up and think, oh, my gosh, did I give consent? I just woke up and was like, whoa, what happened?
HEPOLA: That's - I don't - I mean - and a lot of times I was kind of, like, playing this game of, like, oh, no, no, that's what I wanted. Like, that's - no, this worked out perfectly (laughter). You know, like, there's this funny thing where, like, you trip on the stairs and you -immediately your instinct is to be, like, oh, I meant to do that. I'm good. I'm good. I'm not hurting at all. And I think there was a lot of that in my life.
GROSS: Yeah, but you point out in your book that if you're in a blackout, the man you're with doesn't know you're in a blackout, and so he thinks that you're operating with full intentionality...
GROSS: ...And you're not even going to remember what happened. And it's questionable how much consciousness you have at that moment.
HEPOLA: I think this is a really important point. And this is something that - really when I started to think about this was when the conversation around campus sexual assault exploded about three or four years ago. And we'd been going through a national conversation, and a lot of the things we've talked about is alcohol and consent.
It was really striking to me, by the way, that I drank for 25 years and I don't remember anybody ever saying to me during those 25 years, were you too drunk to give consent? Like, I don't - I just - I don't remember that question ever being asked of me. It was like, yeah, hell yeah. You rocked it - or whatever. Like, there were always - these stories were always kind of spun as triumphs.
Then when this conversation about campus sexual assault came up and I was reading these stories about alcohol and consent, I started to think about how blackout plays out in that. It's a really gray area of consent. And I think it's something that all of us would do better to understand a little bit better, you know? And you've already put your finger on one of the most important things, which is the person that you're with doesn't necessarily know that you're in a blackout. Now having said that, there are a few red flags. One of them is that people in a blackout tend to repeat what they've already told you. You know, my friend calls this, getting caught in drunkard's loop, you know, where you are talking to somebody and you're like, do you not know you just said that 10 minutes ago? And it's really jarring. And it's because their long-term memory isn't working, so they don't remember that they said it. And the other thing that - I had a boyfriend that used to tell me, when you're in a blackout, your eyes go dead like a zombie. And he said I always had this creepy, unplugged look.
BIANCULLI: Sarah Hepola speaking to Terry Gross last July. Her memoir "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget" comes out in paperback. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with writer Sarah Hepola. Her memoir "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget" comes out next week in paperback.
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GROSS: So when you were in a blackout and came out of it not knowing what you'd done - when you were blacked out, what surprised you about what people told you you had done - that seemed really out of character or odd or, you know, maybe even shocking to you?
HEPOLA: Well, one of the things I was told, I would always take off my clothes. And that was really surprising to me even though, you know, if you were raised in a "Girls Gone Wild" era maybe that's not so strange. But see, that wasn't me. I was always so self-conscious and I didn't want people to see me. And so the idea that I would get so drunk that I would take off my clothes, often my pants for some reason, it was really surprising to me. It didn't seem like me at all.
And I've thought about that a few times, you know, I've heard several stories of other people having similar behaviors. Two things come to mind. You know, one of them is that sometimes like crazy people, or also people in dementia, they take off their clothes. And I wonder if there's some sort of like, animal self that's just kind of like - get these things off of me. Like, you go into this state where you just want, you know, freedom from the - I don't know, human clothes or something. The other thing is that I wonder if there's like a coiled spring effect that happens where I worry about something so much in my sober life and then when I drink away all my inhibitions, it comes roaring back so that the thing that I'm most self-conscious about is what I end up doing, which is really messed up and it almost seems like just a terrible set up. But yeah, that was one of the things I did. I also....
GROSS: Wait, let me stop you. Do you mean like you were so...
GROSS: ...Self-conscious about your body and maybe being overweight that when...
GROSS: ...You loosened your inhibitions, it's like here it is?
HEPOLA: Yeah, yeah, totally. It was almost like maybe this uninhibited part of me felt true freedom because I was going around hiding all the time. So it was - yeah, it was just like look at me because maybe that's what my true self wanted, was to be seen. But I was so loaded down by my fear of rejection, my fear of judgment.
The other thing that I would do, I would be aggressive. I would pour beer on people's heads, which, you know, that was funny for a little while. I sometimes would say things that were kind of nasty and mean to friends of mine that I really liked. And again, I don't know exactly what that was about. You know, you have that whole idea of, like, in in vino veritas, that idea that when you drink, the truth comes out. Well, that may be true for, like, the first three drinks. But like, after 11 or 15, I'm not sure that's truth anymore. I think they felt like a version of a truth.
GROSS: When you drank, your theater was sex. Why is it through sex that you so much wanted to express yourself and to drink so that you could freely express yourself? I mean, you are also a writer. So you were also writing, but I think the more performative part was the sexual part.
HEPOLA: It's true. I wanted to be this sexually empowered young woman, especially when I got to college and I saw that I was such - I think in some ways, like, a love addict. Like, I was really really warped by, like, the romantic comedy world, you know? Like, I just had this idea that you would love somebody forever and you'd always be together. And, you know, I just loved - my high school boyfriend was, like, this - was my best friend. And when I got to college, I was really heartbroken when we parted. And it was so hard for me. I was so lovesick all the time. And I think I got this idea that that was embarrassing, that you shouldn't think like that and that it was a stronger way to be in the world to just kind of have sex with people and not care about it.
GROSS: So when you were becoming more uninhibited as a result of drinking a lot, and you were modeling what you thought was sexy - you were trying to be sexy and trying to, you know, have one night stands and have men be, like, thrilled and satisfied with what....
HEPOLA: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: What you did in bed. What were you modeling yourself on? Like, what was your idea of sexy? I'm not asking you to get graphic, but what did your idea of sexy come from? Did it come from, you know, porn websites? Did it come from romantic comedies? It's always interesting to me what people think of as being sexy.
HEPOLA: I know, me too. I never saw porn. I hadn't - I wasn't exposed to that. That's not really my generation so much. You know that scene in "Top Gun," where they're, like, silhouette-lit and there's, like, Venetian blinds behind them and Kelly McGillis kind of, like, pops her head up and her hair swishes behind her? They're having sex on this - I think it's, like, a hotel bed, but I don't know. It just always seemed kind of, like, beautiful lighting and, like, arched backs and, like, hair tossed around gamely. I think it came from '80s movies and Kim Basinger movies, you know? Like, Mickey Rourke movies? I was a child of the '80s, and I watched all those movies, all those adult movies. And I know - and this always makes me cringe so much - but it's like I know that for me, sex was so much about I wanted to look beautiful. And also I learned that if you got wild that guys liked that. So then it just became so detached from, like, what is my pleasure, what feels good to me? It's just really funny to me that that was never the question. Like, the question was never, like, what do I like? The question was, like, how do I look good? How do I get more love in this world? Which I think is honestly probably at the root of, like, all my behaviors when I was growing up. You know, it's, like, how will people like me more? How will I get more love? And I had this idea that if you held yourself a certain way or you behaved a certain way like that, that was what it should look like.
BIANCULLI: Sarah Hepola, speaking to Terry Gross last July. Hepola's memoir, "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget," comes out next week in paperback. Hepola is a writer based in Dallas and is also an occasional contributor to FRESH AIR. We'll continue their conversation after a short break, and we'll hear the history of a '60s pop group, Herman's Hermits. A new compilation of their songs has just been released. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2015 interview with Sarah Hepola. Her memoir, called, "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget," comes out next week in paperback. It's about the period when she thought alcohol made her powerful and fueled all her adventures which included a lot of one-night stands.
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GROSS: So there was some point in your life where a lot of your women friends were getting married and then having children. And, you know, a lot of women, even women who have been heavy drinkers, just, like, stop drinking when they get pregnant because they don't want to endanger the baby that they're carrying. And then after they give birth, they don't want to drink because of breastfeeding. And by then, like, your habits have changed. So, like, who knows what direction you're going to go in, but I'm wondering how once you started having women friends who were getting married and having children, and not only not partying, but also not drinking, how did that change your relationship to drinking and your self-image about drinking?
HEPOLA: Yeah. Well, I want to start by saying I always thought that was going to happen to me, which is why I never really worried about my drinking as much. Like, in my late 20s, I just thought well, there's going to be a time when I get married and then I have a kid, and these things are going to kind of intervene and it'll just kind of take care of itself because I think I saw that happening around me - that a lot of people were calming down as we got into our mid-30s. What happens when you drink a lot, like I do - did - you surround yourself by other heavy drinkers and what becomes normal is what's around you. You know, as long as everybody's drinking as much as you do, you don't necessarily have to look at your behavior. But then as people got older, the behaviors changed. I was getting - it was getting lonelier on the party bus, you know? Like, there weren't as many people around me. But, you know, one thing happened in the last 10 to 15, 20 years, I don't know, is that a lot of my married friends and even friends who had kids - it became very important for them to still be cool and to still prove that they could hang. So sometimes even my mother friends would still go out and get drunk with me because it was like they wanted to show me that they hadn't lost it. They hadn't - you know, they weren't just homebodies who sat around watching Netflix. They could still go out and party. But, you know, one of the things that happened to me is that I started to get the message from some of my friends in various ways that what I was doing wasn't necessarily cool anymore and that it wasn't funny. And for them, it wasn't like they were mean about it. It wasn't like they were saying, you're not cool anymore. It was more like my friends were really worried about me, and I was somebody who prided herself on being very independent. I mean, here I am, this single woman - all of you guys got married - but I'm still out here in the big city alone, you know? I'm an independent woman. And all my friends are starting to give me this message that I'm not OK and that I'm not necessarily taking such good care of myself. That really hurt. It really wounded my pride.
GROSS: Well, you also write that, you know, this whole thing of, like, women and empowerment and how women try to be so supportive of each other, you say we become such reliable yes-women that any negative feedback is viewed as a betrayal. And I think you're implying there that it would've been difficult for your women friends to give you negative feedback and difficult for you to accept it.
HEPOLA: It's really hard too because also, my friends know that I'm really hard on myself. Nobody - nobody is a harsher critic than I am, except maybe online commenters.
HEPOLA: But - but, you know, every morning when I would wake up, I'd just take that hammer to my face. And so my friends were always rushing to my side. And they were like, you were fine, you're OK, you're beautiful, you're not fat. It's OK, someone's going to love you. You know, like, they do this thing of, like, lifting you up in the world. And that's what I relied on them for. And what was really hard was when they had to say you weren't fine. That's really hard for them, and that's really hard for me because we've just - the needle has just skipped off the record. Like, that's not the call and response, (laughter). You're supposed to tell me I'm fine and I'm OK and I'm loved, and now you're telling me I'm not. It's hard. It's really hard to be the person on either end of that conversation.
GROSS: So how old were you when you stopped drinking five years ago?
HEPOLA: I was 35, almost 36.
GROSS: And when you stopped drinking, you gave yourself a year to not worry about overeating because you figured you - you know, what you really needed to do was to stop drinking. And you wrote about how you went on a food binge for a while and you put on a lot of weight, like, around 50 pounds. And it...
HEPOLA: Well, wait - can I just say...
HEPOLA: I was actually - I didn't put on 50 pounds after I quit drinking. I just didn't lose weight. I realized after I quit drinking that I was 50 pounds overweight.
GROSS: I see. Thank you for correcting me. So you write something I really like. You write that, (reading) I felt like a failure to both sides of the body wars. To women for whom appearance was everything, I was a source of pity. To women for whom diets were evil, I was a sellout.
So is this how you reconciled it in your head, what you were just saying?
HEPOLA: Yeah. I mean, I don't - that came about because also, I was going - I went on this old-fashion diet, you know? Like, I went on this diet. And you read all the time, like, diets don't work. Diets are destined to fail. Well, that may be true as a way of life. But the truth is, is that for somebody who had been binge eating and binge drinking for, like, decades at that point, I had an awful lot of extra weight hanging around on my body. I had not been eating in a healthy way, and I had a lot of weight that wanted to come off of me, and I needed some help. And I remember going into that diet center, and I would be more embarrassed than I was when I went into AA meetings. You know, I was more embarrassed by my food problem and also by wanting to do something about the food problem, you know, that I wasn't in acceptance, for instance. I was more embarrassed by that than I was about having a drinking problem, which, in some ways, like, having a drinking problem was kind of, like, edgy or cool...
HEPOLA: ...But having a food problem...
HEPOLA: ...Just felt lame, you know? It was just, like - and also, it was stereotypically female. And it was something that I had been struggling with all my life, and I didn't want it to be true about me. I still don't. I don't like it necessarily that I have these binge patterns of behavior that - you know, that make me kind of a female cliche in some ways. But I can either - here, you know, I can either acknowledge that I do that and do something about it or I can just pretend it doesn't matter and I - 'cause I was drinking my way into comfort, and so when I took away that crutch then it became so much more important to me - I have to find comfort in my own body. I can't drink my way out of this.
GROSS: Is it still really hard to not drink?
HEPOLA: It's not, and I'm so shocked by that, by the way, because I was the kind of drunk who - I just didn't think I would ever get through a day without just physically craving alcohol. And my mouth used to water when I would smell alcohol. But I know that something clicked for me when I realized that alcohol didn't make me better. It made me worse. And then when I finally saw that, I didn't want it anymore because it was doing the opposite of what I always thought it was doing. I was drinking to be funnier and faster and better and stronger and braver. But I was getting those things in truth, in real life. I was getting them through sobriety. And I was pulling the rug out from underneath me when I was drinking. So when I finally saw that - and that was kind of my light bulb moment - was like, oh, my gosh. This is - alcohol doesn't fix me. See, when I thought alcohol fixed me then I crave it all the time 'cause I want to be those things again. It doesn't mean that I don't, like, sometimes smell beer or wine or something and have kind of a, like, oof (ph), you know? Like, you have a little moment. But I don't crave it on a day-to-day basis.
BIANCULLI: Sarah Hepola, speaking to Terry Gross last July. Her memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget," comes out next week in paperback. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with author Sarah Hepola. Her memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget," comes out next week in paperback. When Terry spoke with Sarah Hepola last July, Sarah was the personal essays editor for the Salon website.
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GROSS: Now, we talked about how when you were drinking, one of your main stages was sex and that it loosened your inhibitions. You wanted to really express yourself sexually and be desired by men, please men. When you stopped drinking, were you still interested in sex? Did sex have a different meaning to you? And did it have a different appeal? Did it have an equal amount of appeal?
HEPOLA: Oh, my gosh. When I stopped drinking, I actually thought I was never going to have sex again because it just didn't make any sense to me - like, how would that happen? 'Cause, you know, I only knew one way which was that you get drunk. And then you've just taken away my one, you know - like that's all the game I have, you know (laughter)? Like, that's my one method. And so if I don't have that, what am I going to do? And I think this was really something that was very surprising to me in sobriety was just how freaked out I was by other humans because I was somebody that was surrounded by humans all the time. So it doesn't really make sense. And I loved closeness, and I loved intimacy. And I'm a very, like - I think by nature, I'm a very touchy person. My mother was like this, you know, she's quick with hugs and touches, and I was always like that. And then when I got sober, I was - it's almost like I had some, I don't know, like turtle skin or something. Like, everything was really supersensitive, and I did not want to be around men at all. I was so scared of them. And by the way, I did not start dating until two years into sobriety so, like, I took my time. And when I started dating, I was petrified. And I remember feeling that way when I was, like, 10 or 11 and people would tell stories about boys grabbing their hands during the movies and stuff like - I just didn't know how to be touched anymore. I think it was when I first realized, like, how much was at stake when two human bodies are touching because for all these decades, I've been drinking myself to the other place where it's no big deal and it doesn't matter. You know, I open my book with a scene of me having sex with this guy that I don't even know. And I didn't - like, at that time, I really didn't care. I was just so numb. And I think I wanted - I was really startled by how much numbness I had been living inside.
GROSS: So you've just written a very personal book about your drinking, drinking to the point of blackout, having sex with people who you didn't even know and, you know, kind of re-emerging into the world after a blackout and strangers' beds and stuff - very, very personal book, very revealing book, very well-written book. You also edit personal essays for Salon magazine. So you're guiding other people as they expose very personal, intimate stories about their lives. And I'm just interested in how, as an editor and as a writer, you handle that balance between wanting to get to the core truths and to expose things, to share them hoping that they have value for other people - that these experiences have value for other people - but at the same time finding where that wall is between, you know, the value of sharing things and the necessity for some amount of privacy, and also the instinct to protect yourself and to protect the people who you edit from exposure that they might regret or that you might regret. It's a very big question. So I'm sorry I haven't focused it better for you, but...
HEPOLA: No, it's OK. I'll try to take it, you know, I mean, I'll - it's something I think about all the time, which is, how much exposure is too much exposure? I know that I - when I feel like somebody's telling me a story that they don't normally tell or that they haven't told anyone else, like, any story that begins with kind of like, I've never told anyone this before - like, I'm in, you know, like...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
HEPOLA: ...I totally want to hear what's going to happen next. But I also know that too much exposure becomes kind of deadening in its own way. I think you can make the same analogy for kind of, like, sex in a film. Like, how much sex is too much sex? At some point, there's too much skin and skin becomes not something that's unusual. It becomes something that's kind of monotonous. So how do you make those moments matter? I also think the thing about protecting yourself - what I've found in working with people that are telling stories about their own lives is that the bigger question is really about protecting people around you and the people that you bring into your own story.
GROSS: So as you were getting sober, you decided you wanted to move out of New York City back to Dallas where your family was, where you grew up. This was the place you really wanted to get away from when you were young.
GROSS: Why did sobriety come along with the idea that you wanted to return home?
HEPOLA: Well, it was sort of a surprise to me. You know, the last few years of my drinking life, I didn't know what was wrong. I just - I knew I was a mess. And it was, like, do I need a new job? Do I need a new boyfriend? Do I need a new city? What do I need? I just - nothing was quite clear to me. But when I got sober, what happened was that things became a lot more clear to me. I didn't necessarily need a new job, but I did not like New York. And I think that was really surprising to me because I grew up as this kid in Dallas, Texas, kind of reaching for the greatness of New York. That's the greatest city on Earth, right? And everybody should be there.
I didn't regret moving to New York, but six years after I'd moved there, I realized that it didn't suit me in the way that I needed. I needed to feel comfortable again. And I would go back to Dallas, which is this city that is not necessarily cool. And it certainly wasn't cool when I was growing up in it. I have this line in my book, you know, I grew up in Dallas wondering why? Why did this happen to me (laughter). And I always wanted to get out of there - let's get out of this place. And I would go back, and I would feel the beauty of home. And you feel safe and feel loved. Part of that had to do with my family - closeness to my family again. Part of it had to do, I think, with just returning to the soil where I had grown. There was something really meaningful about it.
Dallas had changed in the years since I left. It had become an easier place to live, a better place for a creative person like me. It was cheaper. And I think there was some part of it, too, that was kind of like accepting myself. You know, drinking, in a lot of ways, was this constant failure of self-acceptance - I want to be more or different than I am. Whatever I am, I don't like it. Let me change the answer. I think sobriety, and then later moving back to Dallas, was a way to say, this is who I am. This is OK. I know it's not the choice that a lot of other people would make, and people continue to say, why do you live in that city? And that's OK. It's just the choice that I wanted to make and it's been really good for me.
GROSS: Sarah Hepola, thank you so much for talking with us.
HEPOLA: It was my pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Sarah Hepola, speaking to Terry Gross last July. Hepola's new memoir, "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget," comes out next week in paperback. She also is an occasional contributor to FRESH AIR. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward on a new collection of old music by Herman's Hermits. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.