“I cannot, for the life of me, recall anything.”
This is how Jerome A.C. recalls that “one time I went out drinking with friends,” when, sometime during the drinking session, he remembers a point when he ceased remembering anything.
“Not,” he says, “a single thing.”
What happened to Jerome A.C. is – surprisingly – not uncommon, especially among drinkers. And it’s called a blackout – scientifically accepted as a phenomenon caused by the intake of alcohol, in which long term memory creation is impaired or there is a complete inability to recall the past.
Said to be similar to anterograde amnesia (where a person literally does not remember what occurred in recent past) – though not similar to passing out, denoting the complete loss of consciousness – blacking out was first brought to the limelight in the 1940s by E. M. Jellinek, who, after surveying members of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), came to believe that blackouts are indicative of alcoholism. Understandably, there are arguments against this [e.g. Melchior C.L. and Ritzmann RF; Neurosteroids block the memory-impairing effects of ethanol in mice; Pharmacol Biochem Behav.; January 1996, 53 (1 ):51-6], but it is accepted that there are links between general alcohol consumption and memory creation (e.g. Parker, ES, et al; Alcohol and memory: Storage and state dependency; Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 15:691-702, 1976; as well as Acheson, S., et al; Impairment of semantic and figural memory by acute ethanol: Age-dependent effects; Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 22:1437-1442, 1998).
There are, by the way, two types of blackouts – en bloc blackout, or the “inability to later recall any memories from the intoxicated period, even when prompted”; and the fragmentary blackout, “characterized by the ability to recall certain events from an intoxicated period, yet be unaware that other memories are missing until reminded of the existence of these ‘gaps’ in memory” (Goodwin, D.W, Crane, J.B. and Guze, S.B.; Alcoholic “blackouts”: A review and clinical study of 100 alcoholics; American Journal of Psychiatry, 126:191-198, 1969).
It is worth noting that some alcohol users are more predisposed to experience blackouts than others – e.g. genetic predisposition (ditto alcoholism) or prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Wisegeek.com best expresses the worries with blackouts. Aside from an occurrence possibly reflecting “an unhealthy relationship with alcohol which needs to be addressed,” the interference with the function of the brain (albeit temporary) can put people at serious risks. E.g. “women may find themselves taken advantage of and be unable to remember the event; or someone may get into a fight and wake up confused about the injuries sustained; or a blackout drinker may make a promise to do something or meet up with someone during the period of blackout and then fail to follow through, which can strain friendships.”
One time, Jerome A.C. – while vacationing in White Beach in Puerto Galera – was approached by a guy while he was having lunch with friends. “He asked how I was, after ‘What happened last night’ were his words,” Jerome A.C. says. “I looked at him – maybe weirdly, because after a pause, he just said: ‘You don’t remember, do you?’ I shook my head, and he left.”
Jerome A.C. adds: “Until now, I do not know what supposedly happened between us, me and that guy – if anything happened at all.”
DEAL WITH IT
For Jack Trimpey (in Alcoholic Blackouts), having blackouts does not connote alcoholism – “It simply means that your drinking days are over. The disease concept of addiction is highly controversial, with very few physicians and scientists convinced that addiction is, or is caused by, an inherited or acquired disease. Moreover, people who believe they have addictive disease tend to continue drinking, but using disease as an excuse or justification. It is more productive to view drinking as great stupidity, or as immoral conduct, rather than as a condition causing one to drink so much that blackouts occur. One can do little about a mysterious disease, but we can all deal effectively with our own stupidity.”
Jerome A.C. isn’t going as far as “completely giving up drinking alcohol,” he says, believing “I have yet to reach a point (in my drinking) that something THAT drastic needs to be done.”
He is first to admit, though, that “the blackout sessions – for simply happening – is not something to take for granted.” Among others, he remembers “waking up by the beach, beside fishermen, one morning, without recollections of how I got there; being told I (gave oral sex to) dozens after dozens of guys, thereby making me paranoid looking at faces the next day in case this guy or that guy may have been one of those I’ve (fellated) the night before; or faintly recalling going skinny dipping – though with a person, or maybe persons, I could not remember who.” All seemingly harmless, “except that my lack of recollection of the specifics means I could have exposed myself to danger – Did I practice safer sex? Did I go swimming in the middle of the night, and drunk at that? Did I pick some fight somewhere, with someone who could have seriously hurt me?”
Asked if those who had blackouts should stop drinking altogether, Trimpey states that “if you would seriously ask this question after having just one alcoholic blackout, your question itself is proof positive that you have a serious drinking problem. You are in the grip of an addiction that is distorting your ability to reason about your use of alcohol. Any further use of alcohol, ever, places you at high risk of having future blackouts and suffering progressively worse patterns of horror and personal distress related to alcohol,” he says. Thus, “to prevent worsening problems, it will be necessary for you to quit drinking altogether, for life.”
Jerome A.C. thinks this is too harsh, as he thinks that here, therefore, is where moderation in alcohol consumption comes in.
“You drink to have fun – this is what I realize now,” Jerome A.C. says. “If you’re too pissed to even remember having fun, then there’s no use drinking, is there?”