‘I was shy so I started drinking at 11...and was an alcoholic by 20’
Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30
Staggering into her Brooklyn apartment at 2am one night eight years ago, Sarah Hepola threw a pan of pasta on the hob, turned up the heat, flopped on to her sofa and passed out.
When she awoke, it was to the smell of smoke and the sound of her landlord's son banging at the door brandishing a fire extinguisher. "Your smoke alarm has been going off for half an hour," the boy said as he thrust open Hepola's windows and eyed the empty wine bottles.
The next day her landlord asked her to move out - yet another consequence of the drunken blackouts that had by then been happening with increasing regularity for a decade.
Hours would vanish, and waking up in a stranger's bed - or, once, a stranger's dog's bed - with mystery bruises and receipts for bars she had no recollection of visiting was the norm.
"My first blackout was when I got drunk at 11 and there were a handful more before college," Hepola, now 40, says. "Then I lost count. Between my 20s and 35, when I gave up booze for good, I'd guess 100 in total. 200? Maybe more.
"I couldn't drink like normal people. My craving was so ferocious I couldn't control it."
An editor at the news website Salon, Hepola published her memoir, Blackout, this week. Wry, dark and funny, it charts her destructive relationship with alcohol - from sipping her father's beer at the age of seven, to binging at college and drinking her way through her career.
"I couldn't drink like normal people," she says. "My craving was so ferocious I couldn't control it. But I thought heavy drinking was what was expected of my 20s, and that I'd calm down when I hit 30. It wasn't until I was 35 that I realised I was going to have to be the one that stops it."
At 5ft 2in, with bright-blue eyes, fair skin and blonde hair, thanks to her Scandinavian heritage, Hepola is now five years sober and back to full health. Her case may be extreme, but heavy drinking among women isn't unusual.
According to a report issued by Britain's Office for National Statistics report released in February, women aged between 35 and 44 drink more than any other female age group, followed by those aged 45-54.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who start drinking at a younger age are likely to drink more frequently, and in greater quantities, in adulthood.
But of course, the young Hepola had no idea that stealing the odd sip of her dad's beer might contribute to a problem in later life.
"I knew that drinking was off limits to children, but I don't think I understood why," she says. "To me, beer tasted good and felt good. I was pleasure seeking."
Born in Philadelphia, Hepola moved with her mother, father and older brother to Dallas, Texas, when she was three.
Hepola's southern twang is distinct and she considers each question carefully before answering.
Years of therapy have given her impressive clarity and stark honesty when describing her darkest moments.
"I'm told I was an outgoing, happy child but, at five, I became incredibly shy and sensitive," Hepola says.
"I cried at fireworks that didn't explode because I felt sorry for them."
She was breastfed until she was four. "My mother said it was my choice because I was so desperate for emotional nurturing. That was the first drinking problem I had," she says, laughing.
The first time Hepola got drunk was two weeks before her 12th birthday.
She tagged along to a party with her 16-year-old cousin Kimberley and an older crowd, where she drank bottle after bottle of beer, feeling cooler and more powerful with each sip.
"It was like that moment where the hero in the comic finds their superpower," she says. "Suddenly I could talk to boys."
The next morning, Kimberley quizzed her on the night's escapades. "Do you remember when you took your trousers off? Do you remember crying and saying everyone loved me more than you?"
She didn't, and the memories never surfaced. Spooked, Hepola swore she'd never drink again. But when she started high school - and she and her friends discovered parties, sleepovers and began dipping into their parents' drinks cabinets - her resolve faded.
University only provided more opportunities to drink, and the blackouts became more frequent. Once, during a road trip with the college football team, she became so intoxicated she mooned a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in broad daylight. When, the following morning, embarrassed friends told her what had happened, she remembered nothing and tried to laugh it off.
Over four years at college she prided herself on being the cool girl who could drink any man under the table, and drank far more than any of her boyfriends. She had various boyfriends in high school and throughout most of college, but they couldn't compete with alcohol.
After she graduated in 1997 she began working as a journalist in Austin.
"I covered film, music and arts," she says. "Interviews were held in bars - it was a predominantly male office and everyone drank." The drinking continued and she didn't have a relationship for seven years.
It is now widely understood that educated women are more likely to become heavy drinkers. A report last month from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 'Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use', is the latest to show that around the world, women who went to university are significantly more likely to drink, mainly because they were ingrained in the heavy-drinking culture of college, but that's not the only reason.
"My therapist said: 'I can't help you unless you stop drinking.' And I wasn't ready to give up drinking, so I gave up my therapist."
"As more women have gone into professions, they have gone into more industries that have a drinking culture," OECD economist Mark Pearson explains.
The 2010 General Lifestyle Survey also found that UK female managerial and professional workers typically drink 1.6 units more a week than the average woman. Pearson cites finance as an example of a sector with an alcohol-fuelled culture, but as Hepola's story shows, the creative industries can be just as bad.
As well as increasingly common blackouts when she drank excessively, Hepola's health suffered.
She gained three-and-a-half stone and developed stomach ulcers. In the book, she talks about a boyfriend named Lindsay who she met in her late 20s and moved to Dallas to live with. They both drank, but ultimately her erratic behaviour scared him off. For him, she writes, it "was no longer cute, or funny, or endearing. It was pathetic".
But although her health and relationships suffered, remarkably, her career went from strength to strength.
"I was always nice, which meant I got away with a lot," she says. "If I came in late or missed a deadline, I'd blame it on being hungover and apologise. They always let me off, but never thought there was a problem."
Alcohol brought out a confident side to her writing as well as her personality. "Maybe I could have progressed further if I hadn't drunk so much, but I took my career seriously," she says. "Being a drinker and being a writer were the two core identities to me."
As she puts it in her memoir: "Books about alcoholism often talk about the 'hidden drinking' of women. That's been the line for decades… because 'society looks down on women who drink'. I looked up to women who drink."
Her relationship with Lindsay ended when she was 31, and Hepola decided to move to New York as a freelance writer. It was that post-Sex and the City time, when gaggles of women wore high heels and talked about sex over cosmopolitans. But for Hepola, that lifestyle came at a cost. As her social life surged, so did her debts: she owed $40,000 (€36,000) in taxes and racked up $10,000 (€9,000) on credit cards, with nothing to show for it but bar receipts.
In 2008 she was offered a job at Salon. "I was writing stories about drinking too much and being reckless, but my editor loved my honesty," Hepola says.
With career highs came personal lows: her increased drinking - and with it an often obnoxious attitude - made her friends uncomfortable. Invitations to weekend brunches dried up. Some friends simply couldn't be around her; others tried to intervene and Hepola would distance herself from them.
It helped that her parents were far away. "I played down the drinking to my folks," she says. "But they knew I had a problem." (She partly attributes her drinking to genetics, as her mother is of Irish heritage and her father Finnish: "Two very intense drinking cultures.")
Hepola's health continued to suffer: she developed anxiety issues, had panic attacks and was prescribed antidepressants.
"There was a swirling mess of things that happened around me. It wasn't until I quit drinking that all those problems went away."
Eventually, her mother got her into therapy.
"My therapist said, 'I can't help you unless you stop drinking.' And I wasn't ready to give up drinking, so I gave up my therapist."
She began drinking alone at home, too frightened to go out in case she passed out. In her book she explains what happens to the brain in a blackout: when blood reaches a certain alcohol content it shuts down the hippocampus - the part responsible for memory function. Memories simply don't form- which is why, as a neuroscientist told her, "a blackout is like early Alzheimer's".
Hepola knew by her mid-20s that she was an alcoholic, albeit a functioning one. She had a series of light-bulb moments, generally after a blackout, where she would realise something had to change. But then she would feel OK again and forget how serious the problem was.
There was no identifiable "rock bottom", no one moment when she definitively decided she had to give up, but as she became increasingly ill, isolated and depressed, she tried many times. Then one night, she lay in the bath and felt "not a wish for suicide… I was already dead". She got out, called her mother and told her she was going to quit. "And this time I did."
Hepola is keen that her book should not be seen as being about yet another career woman who succumbed to the perils of drinking. "Not all women who drink have a problem," she maintains.
But society's attitude to alcohol appears to be changing. Overall, the number of women who drink is falling, and research by Netmums has found that 43pc of women want to drink less. Many are choosing to follow the "semi-sober" trend, not giving up entirely but drastically cutting back.
Exactly one year after getting sober, Hepola moved back to Dallas. She was 36 and craving peace, quiet and less temptation. She now lives debt-free in an apartment in a leafy neighbourhood close to family and friends. Still single, she is toying with the idea of joining Tinder.
"It's tricky to explain why you're not drinking on a first date," she says. "I'm 40 now so I don't know if children are going to happen, but I do love kids. Maybe I'll marry into a family and take on step-kids; that would be great.
"My life is good, so it's easy not to drink," she continues. "Inevitably, there will be a day when my life sucks again and then it will be very tempting. But it would be like going back to an abusive relationship."
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola is out now (£12.99, Two Roads).