I was far more scared to fail — to have written a lousy book that people ignored — than I was embarrassed about people knowing that, say, I had sex with some random guy in Paris.
Sarah Hepola’s book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget was released four years ago, in the summer of 2015. It quickly became one of the best-known and most well-received memoirs about addiction.
In Blackout, Hepola recounts her long-term love affair with drinking and the lifestyle that comes with it, and then describes how her relationship with booze transformed into something complicated and dark. Literally dark, as in frequent blackouts where she didn’t remember what she did the night before, or sometimes who the person in bed next to her was. This behavior had disastrous results: “I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care,” she writes, “but I woke up a person who cared enormously.”
The Fix recently caught up with Sarah to discuss life, recovery, and what it’s like to share your most intimate moments with the world.
While I am sure that you were thrilled to have a book deal for Blackout, did you have any trepidation before the book was released about having all of your dark secrets out in the open? Was there ever a feeling of ”Oh my God, what have I done?”
I crashed my car twice in the months before the book came out. Once I was pulling out of a tricky underground garage, and the second time I was in a middle lane I mistook for a turning lane, and I just smashed into an SUV. I really shouldn’t have been driving.
The anxiety is weird. On one hand, maybe no one will read the book. Great! But wait, then nobody reads your book. Your surest route to comfort is your surest route to failure. I was far more scared to fail — to have written a lousy book, that people ignored — than I was embarrassed about people knowing that, say, I had sex with some random guy in Paris. My dark secrets were an exposure I could control, in the sense that I got to say what was included in that book. But to expose your secrets and discover no one cares? That is sad, like someone yawning in the middle of your striptease.
I was also deeply worried the book would have a negative effect on family and friends. That my parents would be judged harshly, or one of my friends would feel mistreated. I volunteered for that kind of scrutiny, I cashed the check, but those people never asked for a spotlight. They only made the mistake of loving me. I think in nearly every case, those relationships were made stronger for the experience, but I worried myself sick over it, which probably tells you something about me, or my deficiencies as a writer, or my overdeveloped sense of responsibility for other people’s happiness. But the short answer to your question is that I didn’t sleep well for months.
What was it like for you when your book first hit and became hugely successful and your whole scene was out there for all to see?
I think it was about 4 p.m. on a Wednesday when my editor called and told me the book was on the New York Times bestseller list. Some part of me had been waiting for that call since I was a little girl, and afterward I walked around in a daze, like: I’m going to be a New York Times bestseller for the rest of my life. No matter what crap I put out after this, no matter how I fail, they can’t take that away from me. The next day, I was like: But why is it in LAST place on the list? Can we nudge that up a bit? So I’d say I felt astonished, and still hungry.
As for how it felt to have my “whole scene” out there, I don’t know. I’d been writing candid first-person essays for a while, so disclosure was a comfortable position for me, but the book took it to another level. On one hand, I was deeply gratified to hear people connect with the material. On the other hand, it can be a cold and drafty feeling when strangers behave as though they already know you, or you know them. It’s made dating weird. I use the dating apps, and I try not to let potential romantic interests know my last name before we meet, but it doesn’t always work out. To this day, I’m never sure what the person across the table knows about me when I sit down. Usually it’s nothing, though, because it turns out most people don’t read books, or care much about them.
Your book has been inspirational to a lot of folks. Do you have a lot of people who are in recovery or considering recovery contact you and talk about how you’ve inspired them?
Yes, and it’s one of the coolest parts. The emails are often quite personal about their drinking problems, or blackouts, or the struggles they’re having, and you’d think I’d get tired of those emails, but I devour each one. I read them in line at airports and in grocery lines and sitting in my driveway at home, because I’m so riveted by the story I can’t be bothered to turn off the engine and walk inside. I just sit in my parked car with my seat belt fastened, scrolling and scrolling like wow, huh, you don’t say, that’s wild.
I’ve always loved people’s stories, especially their darkest ones, and I think the emails have been an antidote to the lonely disconnect I felt when someone knew about me, but I didn’t know them. Every once in a while someone asks if I can call, or help them get sober, and I decided before the book came out I wouldn’t do that. In fact, I knew I wouldn’t respond to most emails. I didn’t have time. But most people just want to just say their piece, and move along. I do occasionally get late-night emails that will say things like, “I’ve never told anyone this, and please don’t write me back.” A couple have said, “I need to tell someone this before I die.” It’s a very strange perch to sit on, to be the recipient of these little confessionals. Mostly secret drinking problems, some affairs, risky sex, that kind of thing. I do have to wonder how many people are drunk when they write me. But many — the majority, by far — are sober people who want to say, “hey this was cool” or “hey, this meant something to me.” I never get tired of it. I’ve heard from a fair number of people who stopped drinking after they read the book, and a few send me updates on their birthday. “I have one year.” “I have two years.” That’s incredibly special.
Where are you at with your recovery now?
I was five years sober when Blackout came out, and my recovery felt so strong. I mean, jeez, why wouldn’t it? I gave up drinking, and I got the life I always wanted — I’d written a book, the book did well, I was traveling the country, people were cheering, cash and prizes, what’s not to love? I wondered how my recovery would hold up after the excitement went away and life threw me challenges, and — well, recovery got harder. I’ve had some tough years.
I don’t struggle with a craving for alcohol, because whatever was wired in me got disconnected. I’m better without booze, and I know it. But I struggle with a craving … for what, exactly? For more. For a love relationship that I have never managed to maintain, for a family I never put together in all the years of slipping off bar stools, for a connection I found in alcohol — temporarily and ultimately at a cost that was too steep — but that can be hard to make when you are a quiet writer who works from home and lives with a rotating cast of over-loved tabbies. Twelve-steppers would tell you I need a stronger connection to my higher power, and who knows? Twelve-steppers have often been right, in my experience.
The book I’m working on now, which has taken a long, long time, is an attempt to make sense of the frustration I’ve felt over the last few years as I edged into my forties as a single woman. Those can be confusing years for a woman who hasn’t had kids yet, if she wanted them—which I always did—because the window is closing on your fertility, and it’s like: Should I give up, or never give up? I also think that’s a challenging stretch in your sobriety. I’ve heard years six to ten referred to as “the desert years.” I just got nine years last May, so maybe I’m almost out of my little Sahara.
I’ve never regretted my decision to quit drinking. What I regret is not quitting sooner. But you know what they say: It takes what it takes. For me it took until the age of thirty-five.
Since you started your recovery in 2010, what changes have you noticed in the drinking scene, and in the social scene in general?
Well, I’m pretty checked out on “the drinking scene,” though everyone seemed jazzed about the Aperol spritz for a while. What took me by surprise was the growth of the non-drinking scene. Sober bars and sober parties and the “sober curious.” I’m curious to see where the recovery movement goes in the 21st century, because it’s becoming less tied to the spiritual solution of 12-step programs and more tied with health and wellness and lifestyle brands. Is that good? Bad? I have my suspicions, but we’ll see.
I’m certainly glad to see sobriety losing its stigma. I’m thrilled to be living in the golden age of seltzers. My refrigerator is filled with La Croix and Bubbly and Waterloo and my current favorite, Spindrift. I like that bartenders who used to be dicks about making a virgin cocktail treat it more like a challenge now. Do you like ginger? Do you like pineapple? That’s nice. Not long ago I went to this amazing restaurant in Oklahoma City called Nonesuch that had non-alcoholic pairings with their dinner that were arguably more interesting than the alcoholic ones. Incredible. I commend the creativity that went into that, but I’m also glad business owners are realizing the money they’ve been leaving on the table. Suckers like me will pay a LOT for pretty drinks with no booze in them.
A big change is that young people are drinking less. Fashions change. I suspect we’ll reach a place where the kind of drinking that defined my era — drink-till-you-puke binge drinking — will seem old-fashioned. We’re in an era of pot and pills and whatever behavioral addiction we are all currently acquiring through our phones. I did an event with Chelsea Handler not long ago, the famously vodka-swilling Chelsea Handler, and she’s a pot evangelist. She’s starting her own line, and she’s working on a strain that doesn’t give you the munchies. I’m not into marijuana, but whoa. That sounds like a growth industry. I’m watching mom friends put away the Chardonnay and pick up the one-hitters.
What projects are you working on now?
The new book is another memoir. It pivots around questions I started asking as I edged into my forties, which also happens to be the years since Blackout came out: Why did I never get married? Why did I never have kids? Is singlehood something that happened to me, or did I choose it? Is my solitude a curse, or a gift? Something I should change, or accept? In a way it’s me working through what was underneath my drinking all along, which was loneliness.
The book dips back into my past choices, and examines deep relationships — with men, with my family, with my writing, with my own body — to try to understand how my story has unfolded, at the same time it’s tracking a larger cultural story about women’s rising place in the world, along with shifting attitudes toward marriage, love and sex, parenthood, etc. I sold the book last summer to Whitney Frick at the Dial Press, which is part of Random House, and she’s been so insightful and patient with me because it’s shifted a bit as I’ve been working on it, as books often do. My hope is that we can push it into world in 2020, but that depends on me making my fast-approaching deadline (yikes), and whatever the fates have in store for the news cycle and the general mood with regard to the presidential election. Let me say this: I was stuck for a long time. But I’m writing as fast as I can.