RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sarah Hepola's new memoir is called "Blackout," and it starts off with one telling episode. She was in her early 30s, a freelance writer. She had just gotten a dream writing assignment in Paris. She was there in the city of light. She'd gone out to dinner with a friend who was living in Paris. They drank. They drank a lot. Then Sarah stumbled back to her hotel. Sarah Hepola joins us now to talk about her memoir. And, Sarah, I'm just going to start off by asking you to pick up story from there by reading from your book if you don't mind.
SARAH HEPOLA: Sure.
(Reading) I walk through the front door of my hotel into the bright squint of the lobby. My heels clickety clack across the white stone. It's that time of night when every floor has a banana peel, and if I'm not careful, I might find my face against the ground, my hands braced beside me, and I'll have to explain to the concierge how clumsy and hilarious I am. So I walk with a vigilance I hope doesn't show. I exchanged a few pleasantries with the concierge; a bit of theater to prove I'm not too drunk. And I'm proud of how steady my voice sounds. I don't want him to think I'm just another American girl wasted in Paris. The last thing I hear is my heals steady as a metronome echoing through the lobby, and then there's nothing.
MARTIN: Can you describe how that night ended?
MARTIN: I realize that's a big question.
HEPOLA: In chaos.
HEPOLA: So what happens next in that story - there's lost time, and I don't know how much time I lose. And when I come to, I'm having sex with somebody, and I don't know where he came from. And I'm in a terrible fog. I eventually sort of got sharp enough to figure out that I needed to get out of that hotel room. I was walking towards the elevator. I realized it was my hotel at that point. Halfway to the elevator, realized I didn't have my purse. And I went back to retrieve it from the guy's room, and I realized I didn't know what his room was. And it was this panic. You're standing in the middle of this hallway, and it's like I just left from a door. Which one is it? And all hotel doors look the same. I eventually went downstairs. I got the concierge to help me. When I went back up to my room, I thought the story was over. I thought I was safe. I got into bed. Another narrow escape. And then the concierge called me. I had left my leather jacket in the bar. And he came up. And there's an interaction with him that's, at the time, deeply shameful, and I don't really understand exactly how that happened. So it was a doozey of a night.
MARTIN: You started really young.
HEPOLA: Gosh. I did.
MARTIN: How old were you when you had - when you snuck that first sip of beer from the fridge?
HEPOLA: Oh, gosh. I first took a sip of alcohol around like 5, 6 or something. My dad gave me from some sips of alcohol from his beer. Then I started stealing these cans of Pearl Light that my mom left in the refrigerator. My mom is such a moderate drinker that she would actually not finish her beer in one sitting, which even to this day, I'm like, Mom, come on. Like, I still have that weird drinkers' pride of, like, how can you not finish your beer? But she would leave these cans of Pearl Light in the fridge, and I would steal these sips of them. And to me, it's a little bit innocent because I didn't understand completely. I just knew that that beer - I loved the taste of beer.
MARTIN: You loved the taste? It wasn't just the thrill of doing something wrong?
HEPOLA: No, no, no. I love the taste of beer. Like, when I got into high school and everybody was like, beers the grossest, I was like what is wrong with you guys?
MARTIN: You drank through high school and college. And then you chose a career as a writer where drinking was kind of what you did. It was part of the culture.
HEPOLA: It was kind of luck that I ended up at - the first job I had was at The Austin Chronicle, and drinking was - I don't know - it just was such a casual part of the culture.
MARTIN: You talk in the book about how one of your colleagues there actually got you this gag gift once - this hat that could hold beers on the sides of it.
HEPOLA: It's not only my colleague; it was the editor in chief at The Austin Chronicle. It was my top boss who had drawn me in a Secret Santa gift, and he just threw it on my desk, and he said so you can drink more at work.
MARTIN: Was there any part of you that was embarrassed in those moment or shamed at all?
HEPOLA: There's a story that I don't really dwell on too much in the book, but, you know, there was a Christmas party at the paper. And I went to it, and I had a blackout. And I woke up in somebody else's house, and I woke up in their dog bed. And I didn't know how I got there. And I woke up 'cause the dog was pushing me out of the bed. The dog was like nudging its little wet snout into my drunken face. And I was like, what am I doing here? And I was so mortified. I can't tell you how mortified I was. That was so embarrassing. And then there's this horrible, catalyzing moment where you realize it's also comedy gold. And so I went to the staff meeting that day, and I told everyone the story of waking up in the dog bed. They were roaring with laughter. That is the admiration and the attention that I have craved all my life. The truth is I wasn't that - I didn't feel like that interesting of a person. It felt to me like my colleagues knew so much more than I did. I was always so intimidated by them. They knew more about pop culture. They knew more about politics. What did I have? What were my stories? And suddenly, like, this drinking was giving me these stories. It was giving me attention and allowed me to be the performer that I wanted to be without the fear of judgment.
MARTIN: You, like a lot of alcoholics, you tried several times to quit. What finally worked? What changed?
HEPOLA: Well, yeah. I mean, people often ask me, you know, what made you quit because they want hear the one piece of information that maybe they could use, you know. The thing is that it wasn't one moment, you know. When that thing happened in Paris, I swore up and down I am never going to drink again. And I drank on the plane. And the next five years, it's just that. It's the same song on repeat. And I don't know exactly why that is, but I will tell you this, which is that I was 35 years old. And I starting to realize that none of this was funny. You know, you asked me earlier about weren't you embarrassed. Well, no, I thought it was funny because everybody else was laughing. I think people stopped laughing, and I think that was brutal for me. And, you know, my fear - I remember the night that I quit drinking for the last time, you know. And I I didn't think I was going to die. I was like, I'm going to be like this forever. I'm just going to be sitting in my apartment drinking my wine and my beer and my tequila by myself with a deadbolt on 'cause I'm afraid of what I'll do when I'm outside. Like, that's not a life. And I just thought, all right, I've got to try this again.
MARTIN: And how is life? Are you still - you had spent a few years in New York, but you went home, you went back to Texas. Are you happy?
HEPOLA: I am. I also have found all sorts of things that I didn't get rid of when I drank, like I'm still an anxious person.
HEPOLA: I'm still - I worry all the time. And I'm always reminded, like, that's why you drank. So they're all these challenges that I have, but I am so grateful that it doesn't feel like that chaos, you know, where it's just these things - it just feels like it's spiraling out of control. I was so scared when I quit drinking that my life would be over and that everything would be worse and that, you know, I would never have fun again. And I really just feel like it has been this extraordinary new path that I've gotten to take which is to deal with life on life's terms and to find a self-reliance in myself.
MARTIN: Sarah Hepola. Her new memoir is called "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget." She joined us from member station KERA in Dallas. Sarah, thank you so much.
HEPOLA: Thank you.
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