Sex and alcohol. For Texas-based writer Sarah Hepola, they went together like peanut butter and jam, and for decades. It was a union wrought by an early and traumatic sexual experience and, as such, separating intimacy from the lubricant that is alcohol proved tricky—though maybe not as difficult as separating her writing life from her drinking life.
“I had written lots of stories about drinking a lot and everybody thought it was funny and that was part of what I considered to be my brand—that I drank a lot,” says the Salon.com editor.
Brand or not, Hepola finally chose to stop drinking in her mid-30s after spending nearly 25 years of her life getting drunk to the point of blacking out. She recounts her struggles with alcohol, intimacy, body image and more in her upcoming memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (June 23; Grand Central, $29).
We talked to Hepola about how drinking saved her (for a time), why she used to hate “boring sober people,” and how slow and agonizing change is.
Was it hard to let go of the romantic notion of your drinking? How did you strike a balance between the clichés of “cool drinking chick” vs. “boring sober person”?
Oh my god, yeah. That polarity that you described, that there are two people in the world, cool drinking chicks and boring sober people, that was entirely how I understood the world. I have a piece coming out in Cosmopolitan about how I hated women who didn’t drink. I really didn’t like them. I thought, What’s wrong with you? To me, drinking was coolness. It was how I knew how to be close to people, it was how I knew how to open up; I didn’t want to have anything to do with you if you didn’t drink, and therefore when I quit drinking I didn’t want anything to do with myself.
You had this romantic ideal about drinking, but what was the reality for you?
When you’re in the drinking life, you’re like, “This is amazing and everyone is the best ever and drinking saves us!” You have these hyperbolic notions about what the drinking life is and then when you get out it’s like, “Oh, god, that was the worst. That was the darkest.” I can remember early in sobriety meeting this other sober woman and she said, “Drinking saved me.” And I was like, “Me too.” I loved that she could be honest about what it had done for her and how it turned on her because the unfortunate thing is that nothing outside us can save us.
How did drinking save you?
I really got hit with the shyness stick around sixth or seventh grade. I had an extreme self-consciousness and I just couldn’t talk. So I just shut up and never said anything and I tried to be invisible, but I was raging to be loved.
When I first got drunk at that party that I describe in the book, I was almost 12. When I first took those drinks I really remembered that as like a religious experience. It was an opening up, it was like a divine light shining on me: You can speak now.
How did alcohol connect to your sexuality?
I don’t think I understood the connection between alcohol and sex until I started dating in sobriety at 37 or 38. When I did that I realized I have zero tolerance for dealing with the opposite sex—I can’t tolerate them touching me! This is the same person who in the opening of the book is having anesthetized sex with a person she doesn’t even know!
One of the things I realized is that I’ve had extreme self-consciousness about my body as long as I can remember and it got worse and worse after puberty, and I learned to use alcohol as a way to let that go. It made me feel comfortable in my own skin.
There are two significant sexual episodes in the book. The book begins with the first one, an escapade with a stranger in Paris that really haunts you, and then towards the end of the book you recount another, your first sexual experience, which was with an 18-year-old boy when you were 13, which is technically statutory rape. Do you see them as connected in any way?
Here’s the connection: from a young age I knew that alcohol kind of greased the wheels for me in terms of anxiety and nervousness and fear around men. Another major thing in there is the “I need to please him,” and my pleasure is not important… I very much support the idea that women should be able to go after casual sex just the way that men should, but I’m not certain that my pursuit of it was what I wanted. I think it was something I was trying to prove. I think I was trying to prove my desirability and I think what I was trying to get out of it was “Wow, I think I really blew his mind.”
But now I feel so much more in control of asking for what I want and so much more in touch with what it is that I want, and I don’t think you have to be sober to do that but I think that it is an act of maturity.
It’s such a minefield, talking about sex and alcohol and the issues of consent the combination raises. You make a personal connection to those issues in the book. You write “my consent battle was in me,” and you suggest that you used alcohol to make you comfortable enough to have sex.
I think there’s a line in the book where I say, “I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care and woke up a person that cared enormously,” and I didn’t really understand what was happening, which sounds kind of crazy but is also one of the unfortunate tragedies of the human experience, which is that we don’t always know our own story as it’s happening. We don’t always see ourselves clearly.
I drank because I thought it made me powerful and it took about 25 years of evidence to accumulate before I could finally admit that drinking the way that I was drinking was not power. I think this conversation around sex and alcohol and consent, well, I’ve found it many things. I’ve found it kind of galling sometimes, sometimes it makes me crazy, but at the bottom of it I find it really fascinating and important because it’s the question of who we want to be in the world and what we want for ourselves. What do you want? Which is what feminism is really about, it’s about [saying] you get the opportunity to make the life for yourself that you want, nobody tells you who you are.