Blackouts from alcohol and how to avoid them
In this article from 2015, Club Soda member Claire shares her experience of alcoholic blackouts. This article was updated in 2021.
I talk about my relationship with alcohol a lot. It’s my job. I run projects with young people about it. I meet people, and when asked what I do, end up talking about alcohol. I’m at a party, and it more often than not comes up. I talk about those moments I regret and feel shame, I talk about how I quit and how I started again. And how I learn to moderate and if it’s possible at all. I talk about what feelings I drank on. I talk about society and culture and health and happiness. I talk about tips to make it through a night sober. I talk about the fun nights out when I drank water and danced more than I ever did. I talk about great alternative drinks to alcohol.
What I never did, was talk about the things I couldn’t remember. But blacking out was something I had done for as long as I had been drinking. I chose to live by the mantra “If I couldn’t remember, it didn’t happen”. But my stomach would flip with dread when waking up the morning after. With my eyes creaking open, head throbbing, I worked through my checklist:
- What hurt?
- What didn’t I remember?
- Who was I with?
- What did I do? Say? Text? Call?
- What had I lost?
- How did I get home?
It’s hard to sit here and write this article. Until a few weeks ago, blackouts are not something that I wished to open up about. It’s in those moments that I most violently self loathed. I’d give up on myself so entirely, it didn’t matter if I was hurt, if I was in danger, if I died.
In the last few years of learning to self-love, I have purposefully managed to skirt around the topic of blacking out. I know that opening up this pandora’s box of suffocated emotions is going to cause upheaval.
However, a few weeks ago an article appeared in The Guardian, “Everyone has blackouts, don’t they?” As I sat and read Sarah Hepola’s story, I felt winded with emotion, reading a story that has been mine, that could have been mine if I continued to drink the way I did. I ordered her book and read it in a few days, hungry to connect.
Recently, I sat with a 24-year-old guy and talked about blacking out. On a Saturday. At 10 am. As we sat there swapping stories, when a few years ago I would be waking up to those familiar fears, thoughts and shame, I braced myself for the worst. What happened was an honest conversation with another person who knew exactly how I felt.
What is blacking out?
“I always thought blacking out was passing out,” says Club Soda co-founder Laura. “So I was okay, I never did that. But it seems I did have blackouts. I don’t remember falling into a taxi and breaking my leg. That is a blackout. I had lots of them.”
So what is happening when you have a blackout?
- Alcohol induced blackouts take place when the alcohol in your bloodstream peaks too high and too rapidly, exposing the brain to a sudden spike in blood alcohol content.
- These large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial or complete blackouts, which are periods of memory loss for events that happened.
- It basically screws the workings of your hippocampus, a brain region that plays a central role in the formation of new autobiographical memories. It does not stop you remembering the bits before you got pissed.
- This can happen to anyone drinking on a night out – whether they normally drink very little or drink heavily regularly. But if you get blackouts often it also means you are drinking quickly and heavily often too – you need to take some action to control your drinking.
- There are two types of blackouts: “en bloc” when you remember nothing, and “fragmentary” when you remember some things. So if you find your drinking buddy is repeating themselves often in the evening or starting a rant and then forgetting what it is half way through, they are suffering a blackout. They literally have made no memory of what they said or did.
How to prevent a blackout?
If you are going to drink, here are eight top tips for prevent blackouts:
- Eat. Eating a meal before a night out causes the valve between the stomach and the intestine to close for several hours, slowing the intake of alcohol into the bloodstream and prevents BAC spikes.
- Hydrate. If you’re less thirsty, you’re less likely to drink as quickly. Load up on the water before a big night out.
- Pace yourself. Slow down. Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Hydrate with water! Research shows that people try to match sipping patterns with the people around them.
- Drink weaker drinks. Ask at the bar about their low ABV beers, and other alcohol-free drinks. Go from doubles to singles. Avoid shots – there’s nothing moderate about them. One Club Soda member buys one pint and a pint of lemonade that he spends the evening topping up. He’s constantly got a fresh drink in his hand, but finishes the night with just one beer!
- Rest. Do not underestimate the importance of sleep. Going out on a lack of sleep often leads to blackouts.
- Don’t mix booze and drugs. This one is nothing new, but most people ignore the recommendation to not drink while on medication. Educate yourself about interactions and take the warnings seriously.
- Avoid drinking games. Or playing catch up. It means drinking fast and a lot in a short space of time.
- Get support. When out, tell a buddy that you’re going out and concerned. Get them to check in with you or tell a mate who you’re with what’s going on. Give yourself a time to bow out gracefully.
If your blackouts are too much to handle and starting to have a negative impact on your life, it’s time to rethink your relationship with alcohol. Club Soda’s courses are a good first step, including our free course How to Change Your Drinking.