Missing Time: Facing Up To An Alcohol Blackout
When I was a child I used to about hear the concept of “missing time”- as applied to those who claimed to be alien abduction survivors. All kidding aside, in reality, most people who’ve went on a bender for any reason have experienced this phenomenon first hand – no need for alien intervention.
Heavy alcohol consumption impairs, and can totally defeat short-term memory. But people who are “blacked out” can be operating relatively normally. They can be walking around a party and talking, but they will never remember what they said or did. Or, they may remember little pieces, but never enough to put the whole night back together.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):
“Large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial (i.e., fragmentary) or complete (i.e., en bloc) blackouts, which are periods of memory loss for events that transpired while a person was drinking.
Mechanisms underlying alcohol–induced memory impairments include disruption of activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that plays a central role in the formation of new auotbiographical memories.”
And sometimes, people drive and do other crazy things during a blackout. I once knew a man who smashed his car into a highway sign after driving several miles seemingly unfettered. He didn’t remember driving, but woke up with a concussion, lucky to be alive.
And that’s where the horror begins…you wake up, sometimes in a start, and wonder what happened. You probably think about the last thing you remembered, but most often, that’s not even close to the full story. People will tell you that you did this or that, but you really have nothing else to go on.
A friend of mine used to say “If I don’t remember it, it didn’t happen.” Heavy drinkers are very stubborn and selfish in that way.
It’s a terrifying feeling. Did I do something stupid? Did I say something stupid? Did I put myself or someone else in danger? After all, there’s a reasonable chance that you engaged in risky behavior, such as drinking and driving, or having impromptu sexual encounters.
It’s really sad that binge drinkers continue to engage in this behavior, despite the real possibility of a blackout and the danger it attracts. It takes many of us a long time to learn.
While the casual user may wake up and go “I never want to do that again!” after time goes by, we tend to brush it off and just try to do better. But often, we cannot.
And an alcohol blackout tends to happen suddenly. Many times, there’s no subtle memory loss…it’s just gone. You were fine, relatively speaking, doing this or that, and BAM! You didn’t even know you were in blackout territory. It just…happened.
There’s no good way to tell someone how to avoid this. For most of us who have experienced this multiple times, we are probably diagnosable as an alcohol abuser or alcoholic. Moreover, drinking in moderation is no longer an option.
There are two main points I want to make here, and I think they are important. One to the person in an alcohol blackout, and one to those who have to witness and possibly interject in the situation.
When you are in an alcohol blackout, much of the time people are worried about you, and sometimes, they can’t stand you. And over time, the more blackouts they have to deal with, the less likely they are going to want to be around you. You have to get help, because otherwise it will never get any better.
Furthermore, how many times can expect a friend or relative to step in and try to stop this mess?
For those who are close to a blackout victim, I know it’s hard to deal with. The best thing you can do is try to sincerely help that person, and hopefully stop them from drinking more or hurting themselves.
Afterwards, you should talk to them compassionately about your concerns. If you hand down harsh judgments of their behavior, they are more likely to get defensive and upset.
Alcoholism isn’t just a moral flaw. And whether you believe it’s a disease or not, that doesn’t really matter. Alcoholism occurs because alcohol is an addictive substance, and some people have a biologically wired attraction, for a number of reasons. Others may be using it to self-medicate, in effort to avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings and memories.
If you truly care about the person engaging in this behavior, please show empathy and support. If you are abusing alcohol and blacking out on a regular basis, please be smart and seek help before you hurt yourself or someone else.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology