Sarah Hepola on Sex, Blackouts, and Alternative Routes to Freedom

Sarah Hepola (Zan Keith)

I'm nearly a year behind on this, but I finally got around to watching I Am Chris Farley, the 2015 documentary about the late, insanely talented comedian whose appetites for food, booze and cocaine ended his life far too soon, at the age of 33.

It was sweet, but it wasn't terribly illuminating. It was no surprise, certainly, to learn his over-the-top persona belied a well of insecurity, an almost compulsive need to be liked, to make others happy, often at the expense of his own well-being. In reading a few reviews, though, I saw one sentiment popping up repeatedly: that it was tough to reconcile the fiercely loving friend and practicing Catholic with the addict who died alone on a linoleum floor after a three-day binge, from a combination of cocaine and morphine, following more than a dozen attempts at rehab.

For various reasons, some of which I try not to think about too hard, I've simply never found this difficult to reconcile. Suffice it to say, it makes sense that the relationship between people-pleasing personality types and alcoholism was fresh on my mind a few days later when I called up Sarah Hepola, the author of the 2015 New York Times best-selling memoir Blackout. (Full disclosure: Hepola was my boss at my first job out of grad school, an internship at Salon.com, where she was an editor until last year.)

The book is a brutally honest, hilarious and devastating anthropological dig into Hepola's blacked-out drunk years -- what led to them, from her first sip of beer at age 11 to the cool-girl-who-can-hang-with-the-guys persona of her 20s, and what finally led her out of them. (Among other things: nearly burning her house down, a series of semi-existential crises, and a lot of support from friends and AA.)

Blackout was published in paperback for the first time this week, so the writer's embarked on a mini book tour, including two stops in the Bay Area. She'll appear at Booksmith this Thursday, June 9, in conversation with Peggy Orenstein, and again on Saturday, June 11, with Anna Pulley and other very funny East Bay writers at Laurel Book Store in Oakland.

The author in her not-sober years.
The author in her not-sober years.

KQED Pop: The addiction-recovery memoir is, obviously, far from a new thing -- especially when you look at writers talking about how alcohol helped fuel their craft. I'm curious what made you want to write Blackout. What made you feel like your story had something new to add?

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Sarah Hepola: When I first started thinking about writing a book, I went to Barnes & Noble in Union Square [in New York], and I went to the addiction section and read everything I could find. I found this book about women and drinking, and the upshot was that women hide their drinking and there are no social rituals about drinking for women the way there are for men. And I just went, "Hmm, this book is not true of my experience." By 2010, when I quit, there was the boom in wine for the last 15 or 20 years that's been driven by women, the growth of girls' night, or girls' drinking book clubs, bachelorette parties. All of it was around drinking. And I thought, "I don't think this story's been told yet." We've all been living it, but it takes a while for the studies and the literature to catch up.

The other thing is I was reading a lot of books about addiction that would end when the character got sober. And I'd be thinking, "What next?" Okay, fine, I'm going to quit drinking, but my life's gonna be over? I needed to answer what was after that. That's the beginning of a story, not the end.

[Listen to Sarah Hepola talk about 'Blackout' on Fresh Air here.]


One of the things that stuck with me about Blackout is the way you talk about using alcohol to get out of your own head -- as a person who had always been the good girl, used to making everyone happy, that drinking provided a sort of way out.

It meant freedom. Absolutely. I've always been oppressed by my own self-consciousness, by meeting other people's expectations of me and adapting to them -- 'Okay, I have to be cool with these people, and good with these people.' It was different performances on different stages and all of that stuff is so exhausting. Alcohol was the release from that. So when you're young and someone says, 'You have a drinking problem,' you think, 'No, I've got a drinking solution.' [Laughs.]

But then, of course, if you keep using that solution, and you over-rely on that solution and you don't find other ways to fix it, it will stop being a solution and start being a problem. It shifts.

And that's where I was [in 2010]. I didn't want to quit, but I had to, so I quit -- which, great. Yay, me. Let's all cheer for the heroine, right? But I'm still the same lousy person, oppressed by self-consciousness, desperate to be liked, and loved by men, and what do you do with all that when you don't have alcohol? [Figuring that out] has pretty much been the last six years of my life.

So, you basically just summarized the internal monologue of most women I know, regardless of age or alcohol use. What have you learned in six years? Any tricks we can steal?

First of all, I think you have to try to care less. As you get older, you start realizing you have a finite amount of mental energy and, you know, maybe I need to stop worrying what strangers on the street think of my outfit. You realize you do have choices, and you start making choices toward actual agency. When I wasn't drinking the discomfort away, I started to problem-solve a little bit. If I was getting ready to go out and I was feeling like 'I hate going out,' I'd have to go, 'Okay, why am I uncomfortable? Right, I hate putting on clothes, because I'm overweight.' Whereas before it would just be 'Okay, I'm going to drink until I feel better.'

I think it's a very female problem, too: I would tell everyone what they wanted to hear. And then it would be, 'Okay, how am I gonna get out of this?' You can say no. I think my AA sponsor was the first person to tell me that. And it's so simple, but it's so hard. I would shake sometimes doing it. Learning not to get myself into situations that I had to drink away was big. And so was asking for what I wanted and needed.  For example, let's say I have a relationship with a guy, and he doesn't text me back. Instead of building a story in my head about why, you can ask "Is there something going on?" And for a lot of my life, that didn't seem like a possible option. I am repeatedly struck by the fact that I am 41 years old and learning skills I wish I'd learned when I was 16.

The impact of sobriety on your dating and sex life definitely jumped out at me in the last third of the book. And it's interesting, because that's an area of life where I think even people who would never consider themselves to be problem drinkers are incredibly accustomed to using alcohol to self-medicate anxiety. It's acceptable, for some reason, in that context. 

Yeah. I spoke with a friend who's a 27-year-old sex writer about this, and she does not have a drinking problem. She said "I don't think I could [date] without it." She writes about sex for a living! That's telling us something. That doesn't mean we all have to get sober -- believe me, I'm not interested in what other people are drinking. But why is it that we feel we need to drink in order to be sexual, almost to a crippling degree? I've had to completely recalibrate the way I do business, rethink my stance on casual sex. There's a lot of emotional vulnerability that comes with being sober. I think if I want physical closeness with someone, unfortunately, it has to be someone I really feel comfortable with, and not a lot of people jump through that hoop. I keep my door locked now. The door was open for a long time. [Laughs.] The door didn't even have a lock.

Why does that almost feel like a thing you're not supposed to admit -- that sex involves feelings for you?

Right! Because feelings are seen as weak; we see it as too traditionally feminine. You're basically calling bullshit on the party, and nobody wants to call bullshit. It's been hard for me: Am I a prude? But you really do have to stop worrying what everyone thinks of you. I'd be on a date with a guy and think "If I could just get drunk I could have sex with him," where, without drinking, I didn't even want to touch him. And I realized there was a really well-worn path there: if I felt natural reluctance or fear, bulldoze it until you're in fuck-it-ville. I lived in fuck-it-ville for a lot of years, and people who live there, more power to 'em. But it's been an interesting social experiment not to.

Blackout by Sarah Hepola
Blackout by Sarah Hepola

I'm curious about your take on Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, and how she handles the women-and-alcohol-and-casual-sex thing, since that film came out at almost exactly the same time as your book last year.

I like Amy Schumer so much, and it actually kind of creeps me out how many things we seem to have in common. It's really weird that my book, which starts with me coming out of a blackout in a Paris hotel room, came out during the same summer as Amy Schumer's movie, where she's coming out of a blackout in Staten Island -- but of course she's playing it for laughs.

I think both my book and that movie are reflecting, in our own ways, a cultural shift that has happened in the last 20 years, which is that it's seen as a position of power for women to drink and have sex like men. And I think that is both a position of power and a terrible handicap at times. One of the inspirations for my book -- I was reading Chelsea Handler's book, My Horizontal Life, about sleeping with the wrong people, and that was also all played for laughs. I had just come out of that, and I didn't think it was that funny anymore.

During my drinking years I would tell those stories at parties and I always made people laugh, but I was curious: what was the emotional reality of those stories? If you didn't tell those stories at parties for a laugh, what would the real versions be? I mean, you could do that with Facebook, too: What's the real story here? Often, it'd be a lot of grisly shit. You hit some really raw places coming into sobriety. There's all this scar tissue around your sex life in a way I didn't see before.

It's funny, because in that movie, even though the ending (with Amy Schumer's character getting sober to work on her relationship) was clearly supposed to be good for her, part of me had this knee-jerk thing, like: Wait, why does she have to throw away her bong? For a guy?

I think a lot of people felt that way, and it makes sense: There's a certain disappointment among women that they are not allowed the freedom of being badly behaved. Bad behavior is power, that's cool, that's transgressive. My question is, why do we think being a jerk is aspirational? I did not experience the Amy Schumer character who says cruel things to her friends, who's rude and detached, as "Yeah, she's so awesome." Who wants to stand in line to be a dick?

But I also get it. I really do understand that women have felt shoehorned into positions of nurturer and good girl and people-pleaser, these things that have got you and I looking to alcohol. There is this real longing to see freedom from that. And that's a big conversation, but one thing I know is that I, as an adult person, am tired of that freedom coming through alcohol. That's a narrative cliche, but it's true: There's got to be another way that women free themselves aside from taking shots.

Sarah Hepola will appear at Booksmith this Thursday, June 9 at 7:30pm, in conversation with Peggy Orenstein, and Saturday, June 11, with Anna Pulley at Laurel Book Store in Oakland. Read her award-winning piece for Texas Monthly on campus sexual assault here. She's also just begun a five-part series for Jezebel, "Ask a Former Drunk."

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