In Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank to Forget (Grand Central, 2015), Sarah Hepola, personal essays editor at Salon.com, shares with rare vulnerability and wit how using alcohol spiraled her life downward. She also details how, slowly, she began to take control so that, in the end, she rediscovered the person alcohol buried. In this blog, I highlight key steps Sarah Hepola took toward sobriety in bold. I include page numbers of her book in parentheses.
At first Hepola resisted recovery. “I was sick of stupid AA meetings,” she writes. “For the past two years I had been in and out of the rooms, crashing one for a few months, then disappearing to drink for a while, then finding another place where I could be a newcomer again. (Getting sober might be hell, but it did give me the world’s best underground tour of New York churches.)” (140) But Sarah persisted, eventually finding a sponsor–who insisted on absolute honesty. “The point was: own your own feelings, skepticism, irrational rage. Stop pretending to be someone you aren’t, because otherwise you have to go into hiding whenever you can’t keep up the act” (162).
Sarah’s rediscovery of her self began slowly, like swearing off men “forever,” only to long for their call. A former drinking buddy had invited her to attend an AA meeting. At first debating the definition of “alcoholic,” she boiled AA down as “two or more drunks in a room, talking to each other” (141). Even though she could argue with the speakers—and win—she sobered up for a year and a half. But that had been over ten years earlier. Actively drinking again, she tearfully read Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story three times, all the time trying other means (health, moderation, self-help) to avoid the inevitable. “You want to stop drinking?” a friend said, “have a baby” (144).
Sarah’s Long Road Back
Quitting drinking brought misery. “I was in a black cloud. A storm cloud. Each day brought new misery into focus. New York. When did it get so unbearable? People. Why do they suck so bad?” (146). Daydreams of the future (of boyfriend with shaggy hair, a writing award, “a lather of love and admiration,” she realized, “all had one thing in common. I was someone else in them” (148). She casually reached out to other writers she knew had quit. Her agenda: “How did you do it? How can I do what you did?” (154) Through the humble stories of others in AA, she began “to realize that getting sober wasn’t some giant leap into sunlight. It was a series of small steps in the same direction” (155). Interspersed through her narrative are comments from her therapist, another support for eventual sobriety, along with references to her sponsor from whom she learned to be confronted and to find wisdom. Another step in her recovery process was the confrontive email she received from a loving friend. After having embarrassed herself with a group of friends, two days later, Sarah read, “I love you so much. But sometimes when you are drinking, you act irrationally. You were a little hostile on Friday, and it was extremely uncomfortable for the group” (159).
Self-reflection helped Hepola put her finger on the internal drive toward her drinking: “The demands of perfectionism are exhausting, and it’s hard to live with a tyrant. Especially the one in your own mind” (172). Allison, a former drinking friend whose sobriety also provided another step toward her own. Then her childhood friend Jennifer, who had also found sobriety, and she, talked and talked: “She would talk, and then I would talk, and then somehow, through this simple back-and-forth, we could start to hear the sound of our own voices” (172).
AA, a sponsor, a therapist, a book, friends and other writers who had blazed the trail to sobriety, self-reflection, a friend’s journey to sobriety, talking and talking with a sober childhood friend, and a loving confrontation from another friend all played a part in Sarah Hepola’s long road back to sobriety—and to sanity. How has Sarah Hepola’s story resonated with yours? Do you struggle with overcoming an addiction? What factors helped you? What more do you feel you need?
Next week we look at some hindrances to sobriety Hepola encountered, and the take-aways from her experience.