Have you ever woken up in a strange place, head pounding, confusion flooding your mind, and anxiety taking over your body? Your first instinct is to reach for your purse or your phone. You check for your clothes; do I have everything on? Then you survey your surroundings and wonder what the hell happened. I’ve lived that exact situation one too many times. There’s no greater anxiety that not knowing what happened for an extended period of time. Blackouts were a significant part of my drinking patterns and boy, were they scary. But they didn’t stop me from drinking. In fact, blackouts encouraged me to drink more because I wanted to immediately forget the shame, guilt, remorse, and sheer terror I felt waking up and not knowing what I had done.
If you’re like me, you may surround yourself with people who drink like you do. I had many friends tell me blacking out is normal. But the truth is, it’s not normal. It can even be dangerous.
What is Blacking Out?
Alcohol can produce impairments in memory after only a few drinks. As the amount of alcohol and rate at which it is consumed increases, so does memory impairment. When large quantities of alcohol are consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, a blackout can occur. A blackout is an interval of time when an intoxicated person can’t remember key details of events, or even entire events. It is literally a period of amnesia during which the brain is incapable of forming new memories.
There are two different types of blackouts: en bloc blackouts and fragmentary blackouts. People who experience an en bloc blackout cannot recall any details whatsoever from events of the night, no matter how hard they try. The transferring of information form short-term to long-term memory storage has been blocked. En bloc memory loss has a distinct onset and it’s typically unclear when these blackout periods end because people usually fall asleep before they are over. Also interesting is the fact that people experiencing en bloc blackouts can still keep information active in short-term memory for a few seconds, enough so that they carry on conversations, drive cars, or engage in sexual behavior, even while in a blackout. Fragmentary blackouts involve partial blocking of forming memories while a person is under the influence of alcohol. People who experienced fragmentary blackouts become aware of pieces of events they’ve forgotten only when they are reminded of them. Interestingly, these reminders trigger at least some recall of the events that were originally missing from the memory. Research says that fragmentary blackouts, also referred to as “brownouts” are more common than en bloc blackouts.
Blackouts are more common among social drinkers than previously thought. Technically, it’s a consequence of acute intoxication. People who binge drink are normally at a greater risk of experiencing a blackout. Many recovering alcoholics have reported having blackouts, showing that blackouts are an indicator of alcoholism.
The Dangers of Blacking Out
Can blackouts actually be dangerous? Blackouts occur when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is much higher than the legal limit. The estimated range for blackouts begins at .14% to .20%. As your BAC limit rises, drinkers report different experiences including excitement, extroversion, as well as fatigue, depression, and confusion. Blackouts have a direct affect on the hippocampus area of the brain and disable it from functioning properly. This explains the inability to create memories. A young adult’s brain is not finished developing until the age of 25. This puts them at an increased risk for making danger decisions that can affect their brain as they do not fully grasp the realistic dangers of their behavior. People who use drugs at a young age even often suffer from mental health problems, like depression, personality disorders, or suicidal thoughts, later in life.
Currently there is no evidence that directly links blackouts to brain damage, however brain damage can occur from heavy alcohol consumption, a factor that often goes hand-in-hand with blackouts. Studies have shown improvement in brain function with as little as a year of abstinence from alcohol when brain damage from excessive alcohol was present. The immediate physical repercussions of a blackout can include sickness and hangovers that can include feelings such as nausea, headaches, anxiety, tremors, and fatigue.
The emotional dangers of blackouts can reach even further. There’s nothing scarier than not remembering what you did for an extended period of time. You can operate a car in a blackout. Did you know that 31% of traffic deaths are caused by alcohol? That’s about 30 people in the U.S. killed every day in car accidents that involve alcohol. You can engage in sexual activity during a blackout and not remember. You can say and do hurtful things. You can injure yourself or others. You are not in control of what you are doing during a blackout. These are dangerous consequences that you cannot grasp if you are in a blackout.
The shame, guilt, remorse, and terror you can carry with you after a blackout can break you down, emotionally and spiritually. It’s what kept me drinking for such a long time. After each blackout I experienced, my self-worth was completely void. I didn’t think I was worthy enough for anything, except more drinking to forget how horrible I felt. Luckily, I don’t have to live that way today. I know that blackouts are not only unhealthy, they’re dangerous, and for me they were a sign of a deeper pain I had to address. The healing began once I gave sobriety a chance.