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Why You Cannot Remember What You Did While You Were Drunk

Alcoholic blackout doesn't mean passing out. It means wiping out memory.

© Atholpady | Dreamstime Royalty Free
Source: © Atholpady | Dreamstime Royalty Free

By all accounts, the party last night was a great success. The music blared, the alcohol flowed, and the laughter rolled on well into the wee hours. So why can't Marissa remember when she left the party or how she ended up in this stranger's bed? And why can't Jeff remember how he ended up in jail?

Marissa's "stranger" hands her a cup of coffee and chuckles as he regales her with stories about how she took her pants off and danced on a coffee table, then threw her arms around him and suggested they leave together. She texts a few friends and they all confirm that she did those things, which they found worrisome but also hilarious.

Jeff is mortified to hear that he took a swing at a highway patrolman who pulled him over for weaving in and out of traffic at high speed. He was arrested for driving while intoxicated, but he has no memory of any of this. The last thing he remembers is laughing with his friends at the party—all of whom insist he became belligerent when they tried to take his car keys away.

What Marissa and Jeff experienced was alcoholic blackout. Most people think that term means drinking until you pass out. It doesn't. When in an alcoholic blackout, a person can walk, talk, and interact with other people. But they don't form memories of what they are doing or experiencing. They can't.

When the body's alcohol level rises too high too fast, memory functions are impaired. The hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial for transferring information from short-term to long-term memory, is impaired at a cellular level. The resulting amnesia can be en bloc (can't remember anything) or fragmentary (bits and pieces something can be retrieved with proper cuing).

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, females are at particular risk for blackouts. This is because females tend to weigh less than males and have less water in their bodies to dilute alcohol levels. They also have less of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase in the gut that breaks down a small percentage of alcohol before it even gets into the body. Females also are more likely to skip meals to save calories when they drink, so there is less food in the stomach to help absorb the alcohol. As a result, more alcohol reaches the brain, where it plays havoc with sensory and memory functions.

In her best-selling memoir aptly entitled Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, editor Sarah Hepola describes her own experiences with alcoholic blackout. With equal parts laugh-out-loud humor and sobering enlightenment, she talks about her life as a young swinging single in New York City, living the life. According to Hepola, alcohol was "the gasoline of all adventure," "part of her birthright as a strong, enlightened 21st-century woman." Drinking made her feel free, empowered, and interesting to other people.

Until she realized drinking actually wasn't empowering her. It was taking her power away. She wasn't in control of her choices or her life when she was drunk. As blackouts became more and more frequent, she was no longer even the author of her own life. Even the act of drinking was a denial of herself. As long as she believed she wasn't interesting enough or cool enough unless she drank, the more the act of drinking stifled any opportunity to find others who would accept her for herself. She was hiding behind that beer in her hand.

As Terry Gross put it during her entertaining and informative interview of Hepola, it is a truism that when acting out, men wake up in jail and women wake up in strangers' beds. And, with the help of her friends, Hepola began to realize how much she didn't like these "romantic" adventures.

So the next time you find yourself wondering why you can't remember what you did last night, think hard about whether you might be succumbing to alcoholic blackouts.

Copyright August 12, 2015 Dr. Denise Cummins