Author Sarah Hepola talks women and drinking habits, and why we hide it
I'm 33, but when my best friend calls to tell me about the wild, drunken hookup she had the night before, I revert to a teenager and celebrate her irresponsibility. Let's face it: we all do.
In new memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, longtime editor Sarah Hepola comes clean about her own addiction issues and the way alcohol can ruin our relationships. Her story touched me on a personal level, as I've fallen victim to the infamous "blackout drunk" myself. I've laughed with girlfriends the morning after about the crazy shit we pulled the night before. Then, I've felt sick and guilty. How about you?
Hepola was kind enough to come clean in Blackout, and she did so for SheKnows as well. Read on for some honest, self-effacing answers that might leave you questioning your own decision to drink.
SheKnows: Women congratulate each other on drunken adventures and idolize characters like Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw. (I'm guilty; I laughed when my friend sent an embarrassing picture of herself passed out on New Year's... and we're 33.) Why do we celebrate reckless behavior?
Sarah Hepola: Because it feels like freedom. As women, we get told too often how to behave. There's something deliciously liberating about giving the finger to all that noise. I was not an outwardly rebellious young woman. I bought my clothes at Banana Republic. I was an honors student. But alcohol gave me access to a rebellious spirit. My female friends and I would be drunk, peeing in alleyways, and it was like: Yessssss. It's like taking off your heels at the end of a night.
SK: College: everyone had a drinking problem. I agree. So why is it "cool" in college but not in our upper 20s?
SH: Your tribe was different than mine, because we still thought it was cool in our upper 20s and onward. For me, the dividing line came in my mid-30s, when people had kids and long-term marriages. You start to see your friends branching off onto two paths — one that leads toward more responsibility, and one that leads toward less. I was on the latter path. The question I get asked more often is: Why do we continue to think it's cool for so long? Your question suggests that maybe for women younger than me, it isn't.
SK: How much of alcoholism is DNA-based? How much is based on society's influence?
SH: There's a saying in addiction literature: "Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger." I can go all day long riffing on theories about why I developed an alcohol problem, but the biggest clue is when I'm a little girl who absolutely adores the taste of beer and will chase after it when no one is looking. That's the work of DNA, right there.
SK: "Men leave women who drink too much," yet this doesn't seem to be the case when a husband drinks too much. Why?
SH: We should mention that's something an alcohol therapist told me once, not a statistically proven theory, but I suspect she's right. Men leave women who drink too much because it's tiresome and draining to love an addict; they are full of wish and empty promises. Women stay with men who drink too much for a multiplicity of reasons: They may not think they can take care of themselves, or they may retain a fantasy that they can change their partner or may feel a guilty need to soothe and nurture him.
Men generally don't have this burden. When I was 31, I was burned up about this: That's not fair! Someone should take care of me! Well, no. I needed to take care of myself. I have, a few times over the years, thanked that former boyfriend for finding the courage to break up with me. He did something I could not, and it allowed both of us to move on.
SK: Why do women hide their drinking habits?
SH: The same reason we wear Spanx: To mask our imperfections. But to be clear, I didn't hide my drinking habits — I waved my drinking habits in people's faces, because I thought drinking made me cool and transgressive. I hid how much it hurt me. I think this is human nature. You put up the photos on Facebook that make you look sexy and glamorous. You don't put up the pictures of you crying in bed the next morning, or walking out of the bar with blood trickling down your leg.
Then again, going back to your first question about your friend passed out on New Year's — sometimes we do post those ridiculous things, and it's funny, because it's unexpected. The harder thing is to admit when it's not funny. When you're in real pain. Real pain is something most people try to hide. Ask someone in a bad marriage.
SK: As women, we feel the need "to always be on," entertaining the masses. How can we break the habit?
SH: I wish I knew. I have such a low tolerance for people being disappointed in me. I'm always trying to win them over. Why am I like this? My parents never asked me to win their love. It was freely given. In fact, I am much less "on" with them, which means I'm more irritable, snappish, and after I spend extended periods of time at home, I often wonder why I wasn't kinder. I don't think being a jerk is the answer to anything. But I do find that sometimes I lose my voice in this scramble to make everyone like me, and I am constantly trying to breathe and build better boundaries.
Years ago, I used to work with the great Heather Havrilesky, who wrote about TV for Salon, and she would often say, "Admit that you're difficult. Stop trying to pretend that you're cool and down with everything and own up to all your messy human-ness as a woman." I've always remembered that. Heather writes the "Ask Polly" advice column for The Cut now, and whenever she writes on that topic, I'm always leaning in to hear more.
SK: "Every female was hoarding some secret misery." Are we taught to hide our feelings? How do we express ourselves, as women, without coming off as weak or bitchy?
SH: I think all humans are taught to hide their feelings, but honestly, this is such a feelings-dominated age. Half the people I know have therapists, and Oprah is one of the most prominent human beings on the planet. That said, we still lie to each other all the time about how we feel; maybe we don't even know how we feel. And yes, there is a terror among us that if we do lay it out there, we'll be seen unfavorably. Again, I have such a low tolerance for people disliking me. I'm working on this (with my therapist). The powerful people I admire learn to care a little bit less about how they are viewed and just conduct themselves with integrity, kindness and strength.
SK: Why is alcohol the glue for every occasion, whether it's a wedding, funeral or spa day?
SH: I was talking recently to an alcohol researcher named Sharon Wilsnack at the University of North Dakota, who has been studying women's drinking for more than 40 years. She was telling me that in her early studies in the '70s (one of the earliest studies done on why women drink), she found that while the men were drinking to feel powerful, the women were drinking to feel affectionate and close. I drank for both reasons, and it shows you how versatile booze can be — it can make you hard and soft at once. So we use it in these social settings because it revs us up, but it also calms us down. It soothes our grief, and it amplifies our joy. Also, who wants to do the Macarena sober?
SK: Advice for women who think they might have a drinking problem?
SH: I'm not much of an advice person. I rarely take other people's advice, so I mostly don't give it. What really helped me was reading other people's stories, because I felt less alone, and I started to see how my drinking problem lined up with other people's drinking problem. Also, one of the things that kept me drinking so long was that I just couldn't conceive of a life without alcohol. I was so, so scared. But for me, life has been so much better on this side. It was hard for a while, but a reckless drinking problem is much harder in the long run. It's exhausting and demoralizing to try to keep the plates spinning on an active addiction.