When the Past Haunts You
"Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget" by Sarah Hepola is the first sobriety memoir I picked up since I went alcohol free. I was yearning to read a story of that I could identify with and that had a happy ending.
Sarah lets you into her world of reckless drinking, risky sexual encounters, and nights that required detective work to put together the next morning. Her recounted experiences are a little too close for comfort and were uncomfortable for me to read.
I felt on the one hand embarrassed for her and scared of what might have happened to her (this must be the mom in me coming out). On the other hand, I have my share of embarrassing stories and experiences I'd much rather forget. I have worked hard to keep unflattering stories hidden from others. I've buried what I've considered failings, flaws, and weaknesses under years of denial and outward-facing perfectionism. They come to me as random, unwelcome memories in the middle of the night, as I'm settling down to sleep, or in any time of quiet reflection. A flush of shame will rise within me and I do my best to lull it back to sleep. In the past, a glass or two of Chardonnay would help (or at least I thought so, until more and more anxiety showed up in my life).
I have such admiration for Sarah Hepola's bravery in writing this book and presenting her unvarnished journey. I'm thankful this book came to me when it did.
"[A] certain group of women have made booze a very public and very integral part of their culture. Young, educated, and drunk: That was life on the ground for me."
Even though I am no longer drinking or living out the lifestyle of a young professional woman in Manhattan before the days of iPhones and Facebook, I still carry some scars from those days. Both from regrets after drinking and for the hurts and self-doubt that drove me to drink so much in the first place. I was in my 20s, working with other young professionals in the city. We met for happy hour regularly, and those evenings turned into all night affairs. Socializing revolved around drinking, and drinking to excess. I relied on drinking to make me fun and get me out of my introvert shell. I wanted to have it all in the age of Sex & The City. It felt powerful and liberating to stay out late, drink too much, philosophize after a long day at the office... to eat, drink, & be merry was the goal. We felt safe in our own tribe and reenforced our own idea of normal. I was supposed to be living it up and enjoying it, right?
"I felt nothing of spending most evenings in a bar, because that's what my friends were doing. I thought nothing of mandating wine bottles for any difficult conversations--for any conversation at all--because that's what I saw in movies and television. Glasses of white wine had become shorthand for honest communication."
After living through 9/11 in the city, the alcohol became even more of a solitary activity. I wanted to numb the depression that was growing and the unprocessed trauma of running from our workplace that morning. I didn't know how to name or work through those emotions. It was easier to turn them off.
It is only now that I am starting to look back honestly at those days and to the work required to embrace that younger version of myself, love her, and forgive her. It is not easy work, but necessary, I think, to living a full and true life. I forgive myself for being human. I continually go back to the words of Pema for help with this practice:
There is a simple practice we can do to cultivate forgiveness. First, we acknowledge what we feel- shame, revenge, embarrassment, remorse. Then we forgive ourselves for being human. Then, in the spirit of not wallowing in the pain, we let go and make a fresh start. We don't have to carry the burden with us anymore. We can acknowledge, forgive, and start anew. If we practice this way, little by little we'll learn to abide with the feelings of regret for having hurt ourselves and others. (from The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron)
I left behind the days of happy hours and late nights long ago, but kept the white wine as a friend and companion for a long time. I continued to use alcohol to ease my social anxiety, to numb stress, and to hide from unpleasant feelings. I'm learning, bit by bit, how to unearth those memories and find healing. I want a life that I don't have to hide from. I love Sarah's realization in the book:
"I drank away nervousness, I drank away boredom, and I needed to build a new tolerance. Yes to discomfort, yes to frustration, yes to failure, because it meant I was getting stronger. I refused to be the person who only played games she could win."
In the end, I did find what I was looking for in Blackout. Even if her stories made be squirm a bit, they served to shine a light on some dark corners of my own life that I'd rather forget. There is no reason to dwell in that darkness, but it is time to sweep out the cobwebs and live without shame. The book also gave me the happy ending and hope I was looking for. Sarah finds recovery and a life she doesn't have to hide from.