Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Memory Loss

On the very many occasions when I would, usually on a hungover Sunday morning, ask myself Am I an Alcoholic? one of the pieces of evidence of 'normality' that I would cling to like a life raft was this: I never had a blackout.

I was terrified by the idea of a blackout; the fact that you could walk, talk, dance, have sex - all seemingly consciously - yet have no recall of any of it, even when prompted.

Imagine the humiliation of having to call friends to find out what happened between, say, being at a restaurant and waking up in a stranger's bed.

Sarah Hepola, in her wonderful memoir - Blackout - describes it lyrically:

If you're like me, you know the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings came with trap doors....

....A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn't notice. They'd simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.

The cause of blackouts is that, at a certain blood-alcohol content - around 0.3%, the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for making long term memories) shuts down.

Your short term memory still functions, but it can only retain detail for around two minutes, which is why people in a blackout often repeat themselves, like a talking goldfish.

The scary thing is that as those memories have never been stored, they can never be recalled, so even when your friends tell you what you did the night before, it doesn't help you to remember.

(This was central to the plot of the bestseller 'Girl on the Train' by Paula Hawkins. If you haven't read it, then do. A great page turner about an alcoholic - what's not to like?)

I was thinking about all of this in light of my post yesterday on the documentary 'Drinking to Oblivion,' where I'd concluded that there is no black and white to alcoholism, just ever darkening shades of grey.

That's when it struck me that I may not have had blackouts, but I'd definitely, and with increasing frequency, had memory 'issues'.

Because a blackout requires a certain level of blood saturation, you are most likely to have one if you drink strong alcohol, particularly quickly, and on an empty stomach.

(Women, with their lower body weights and higher fat ratios, are more at risk than men).

I only drank wine. Buckets of it, admittedly, but sipped over long periods, and I'd usually eat at some point. That's probably how I avoided the problem.

But, at a lower level of blood saturation (around 0.2%) you can experience 'fragmentary blackouts,' sometimes called 'brownouts.'

These are more like a light flickering on and off in your brain - you remember many details, but not all of them.

And that was me. Not often, but occasionally.

For example, I would go to a party and stay until 4am, and yet the period of time between, say, 1am and 4am would be a bit of a blur. I'd think back over all the people I talked to and conversations I'd had and I'd remember a fair bit, but only about one hour's worth.

Where did all the time go? I'd ask myself.

I thought maybe it was just the fact that time seemed to speed up when you were 'having fun.' But it never happens to me now.... (And I am still having fun, honestly!)

The other sign that I was heading down that slippery slope towards rock bottom was 'handbag panic.'

Several times over the last year or two of my love affair with booze, I would wake up, as per usual, at 3am, sweating alcohol and hating myself.

I would, after a bit of rummaging around in the memory banks, be able to remember how I got home, but I'd have a total panic about what I did with my handbag.

I have a beautiful Chanel clutch which Mr SM bought me on my fortieth birthday, and I would hyperventilate with fear that I'd left it at the party, or in a taxi.

At this point I would roam the house and my bedroom, using the torch on my iPhone, so as not to wake anyone, until I located the bag (which I always did). Then I'd toss and turn until past dawn.

It's only now I realise that those were 'brownouts.' My memory was flicking on and off, so I would get fragments of conversations, of a taxi journey, and so on, but some details (like where I put my bag) just disappeared through the trapdoor.

You see, it's really not black and white - just shades of grey (or brown).

And now I never lose time, or handbags, or my mind. Hurrah for that.

Love SM x


  1. God yes, the handbag searches at 3 in the morning.

    The other one for me was waking with a start and thinking 'Shit. Did I pay the babysitter?'

  2. Handbag panic! I've had those so many times! Were we separated at birth? Annie x

  3. Another corker SM,,been there, done that...sheer panic...but the worst for me was not remembering ranting at my 18yr old,,still don't know what I said or why...but I know I did damage...cannot undo the past, but can make sure I don't ever do that again...doesn't mean I won't get cross with a teeenager tho..xx my twins are my prime motivation they deserve the next 18 years with a loving mum who is present all the time..x

  4. Ha yes I would always somehow remember to put my handbag on the floor next to the bed so when panic struck I could just stretch down and feel it. Not funny really as it shows how often it happened when I went out. Of course later on drinking at home mostly it was other things like did I let the dog back in!

  5. I've woken up in the middle of the night, everyone's safe in bed, my purse is where I left it, except ... the front door is wide open! How could I have missed that? I would somehow forget the importance of locking the doors at night. It's scary how that sense of self-servation slips away.

  6. OMG, handbag panic! Yes, a million times yes... It's silly to say, but I kind of thought I was the only person who had that problem. For me, it didn't just stop at the handbag either. As soon as I found my purse, I was going thru it looking for: phone, keys, wallet, ID, credit cards... Seeing if I'd lost anything from the night before.

  7. Yep. Done the handbag panic, your description is so good. Also recently woke to discover we'd not only left the doors unlocked, but the front door ajar. Horrific. Red xx

  8. Yes! Brown outs for me. It was devastating to constantly have to act as if I clearly remembered tv show plotlines and things Id said to my husband. All thanks to vodka and fast drinking. So glad that's done.

  9. Handbag panic, kids Tech panic and even, I'm ashamed to say, kids panic. Once you check all are there, takes at least an hour for the panic to subside into remorse and guilt. Ad nauseum day after day.
    To circle back to the previous post and one comment also recently, if there can be shades of black/brown for memory loss. Shades of grey for the alcoholic spectrum, that just shows to anyone who doesn't believe they have an issue with alcohol that it is possible. It's all just shades of.....xx

  10. Yes, this is me. I would frequently think I was "fine" sitting at home with wine until I got up from the table and started moving around. For some reason that's when brown-outs or black-outs would start. I got to the point where every morning I would ask myself...did I tuck my son in to bed last night or let him fend for himself. Apparently, according to hubby, I was always "fine" and "of course I did". But I couldn't remember.......made me cry and get real. I've had missing purse episodes before too but normally don't drink much when I'm out, it was always at home. Twice did leave purses in hotel bars and lordy knows how but got it back both times intact, phone and all. Reading all this really sinks in about the changes I need to make. So glad I found this universe of others struggling with the same.

  11. I had blackouts. And thankfully nothing really horrible happened, and according to my husband, I never looked or acted very drunk. But there are gaps in my life that I will never get back. Very very scary. At the end, I almost never remembered getting to bed, and it was happening with less wine. I am extremely lucky that I avoided permanent brain or health damage. I can only say that if anyone reading this has started to experience this, to stop drinking. Right now. xx

  12. I had black outs. Times my husband would tell me about that I absolutely could not remember.
    These were the scary last months of drinking. When I acted erratically and was mean. Honestly, mean and bitter and so very disappointed with myself.

    That's what changed for me. I realized I was hurting someone other than myself. That my behaviour was not an individual path of self destruction, but one that would take my kids down with me, especially my daughter, who loved me so much and wanted me to stop drinking wine.

    Sometimes I am sad about those days, the things I may have missed, the unhappy mother I was, but I am completely honest about how I was suffering and am now willing to do whatever it takes to remain healthy.

    And from that I have become peaceful, zen mom. Who is always there. Who believes in love.

    Maybe I needed the awful to find the good.

    1. Thank you for reminding me of yet another thing to add to my list of why I am quitting drinking. Similar issue..there were times where I was nasty to my husband, didn't mean a thing I said, didn't remember.....but he did. Stinks. Glad he is forgiving.

    2. For me one of the great benefits of not drinking is the "inner calm". People drink to ease anxiety but it's just self perpetuating. Sounds like you are a very nice person!

  13. Ugh. brownouts...I have experienced them for decades. The only true blackout I had was from my 30th birthday. 100 people gathered to celebrate me, and yet I have absolutely zero memory of the entire evening. Awful. I remember waking up the next day so terrified as to what I had done. It took me another 15 years to stop drinking. Thank you for this post today, reminding me again why I cannot drink. xoxo

    1. Apparently I have blacked out on a couple of my other blackouts : my brother's wedding, my best friends wedding...ugh...and a few others I don't even want to think about...ugh...

  14. I had blackouts. Not all the time, but sometimes. They are not pleasant. Knowing that I never have to have another one again is such a relief. A x

  15. I've never had a blackout either, but I have definitely had brownouts. Nights where you remember you caught a taxi home, but don't know if you paid by cash or card. I used to tell myself that I didn't remember the smaller details as they were not worth remembering. I do almost all my drinking at home, I often don't remember what happened at the end of a movie, but I remember taking my makeup off and going to bed. I hate alcohol, I hate that I'm addicted to it, I hate how it takes memories from us, moments of our lives, time from our families. I'm so happy for you that you have broken away from it and I will continue on myself until I rid myself of this crap.

  16. This is my first post... Thanks SM as this is the topic I needed to put the spark back in my sobriety. Your blog has been part of my routine for the last 9 months. Brown out were nightly and as someone else said, I said some very mean things to my husband. Drinking like this is a horrible way to live.

    1. Hi HopeandJoy, love your blog name! I've been reading this blog for months as well and it really motivated me. I'm now on Day 5 and this time I feel so much more prepared....and supported. Good luck to you. See what you think of my recent post on my blog. May not apply to all, not sure. We definitely don't want to be mean to our hubbies. It's like beefs we have just well up and blow out of proportion under alcohol, hmm? It's much nicer to deal with conflict with a clear head where we think of consequences AND think about their side of things...which I don't...when I drink.. HD