I have had many a morning where you wake up with no recollection of what the heck you did the night before. How you got home, who you insulted, why are there bruises on your arms, and why are your friends and family pissed off with you…….again. What exactly did I do! But you can’t remember, you will never remember. Of course your friends will remember………when you meet them again and all the stories come a flooding, with great embarrassment.
Yes, the old black out, I have had a few down through the years. From ruining parties, to getting into fights, to waking up in an unusual places, to having interesting conversations with people I can never remember, or what was talked. Anything can happen when I’m blacked out. The lights are on, but no one is at home!
The next morning, you then play the part of detective. Winding back time, trying to figure out where you were and who you were with. First stop is usually to check the wallet, and see if I have spent all my money or do I have anything at all left. Usually I blow all my money. Do I have my mobile? I have lost a few. Are my clothes dirty? Indicating I was rolling around the ground as per usual! Funny thing is, no matter how wasted I am, and no matter where I am, I always manage to find my way back home, to my bed. I always make it back in the end!
So what is a black out then?
A blackout is caused by the intake of any alcohol or drug in which short term and long term memory creation is weakened, therefore causing a complete inability to recall the past. It is a period of amnesia where you can’t recall what the hell you did while you were on the beer all night
In fact, it’s not really that you can’t remember it’s that the night wasn’t processed as a memory in the first place. The memories were not even created, so no matter how hard you try you will NEVER remember! A gap of time is missing, like you were transported to another planet yet you can’t remember anything…it is time travel for drunks…….
Who gets blackouts?
People who drink. People who drink large quantities of alcohol. But more importantly people who drink large quantities of alcohol in a short space of time, and college students!
Basically people who “binge drink”, which the last time I looked was defined as 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more standard drinks for men, within a time period of two hours. A quiet night for myself, but there you go!
We are not just talking about alcoholics or heavy drinkers here, it can also happen to social drinkers, people who like a few drinks with the mates at the end of a tough week at work. It is important to note not everyone gets blackouts, about 50% of drinkers do, and there are also many alcoholics who claim to have never experienced blackouts. Remember, it is not how much you drink, but how fast you drink, and how quickly the blood alcohol content rises.
It also affects women more, and no I am not sexist! They have smaller bodies that have less enzymes that break down the alcohol. Women are also more likely to drink beverages with higher alcohol concentrations, like wine and mixed drinks rather than beer. You know, all those bloody martinis and fruit flavoured vodkas.
How does it work then?
A blackout is a loss of memory caused by excessive alcohol intake or drug use over a very short period of time. These substances sometimes blocks short-term memory from forming in the brain and thus the ability of the brain to form long-term memories.
It increases the drinker’s blood alcohol content (BAC) which shuts down the hippocampus region of the brain, the region critical in the formation of memories.
The loss of memory can be “fragmentary” or “en bloc”. Fragmentary blackouts cause the drinker to not recall moments for small periods of time, whereas en bloc refers to over larger periods.
Fragmentary blackouts, the more common of the two, are sometimes referred to as “brownouts”, where people can typically recall bits and pieces of forgotten events once they’re reminded of them. For example, you might not remember it in the moment, but when a friend reminds you that yes you did try and hit on that girl, then you remember. Filling in “the gaps” so to speak.
People experiencing en bloc blackouts are unable to recall any details at all, not a zilch, nothing, from events that occurred while they were intoxicated, despite all efforts by the drinkers or friends to rejig the memory. It is as if the process of transferring information from short–term to long–term storage has been completely road blocked.
Interestingly, people appear able to keep information active in short–term memory for at least a few seconds. As a result, they can appear functional, can hold a conversation, and at least appear that bit “normal”. But the key is that the information regarding these events is simply not transferred into long–term storage. If a person experiencing a blackout is asked what happened to them just 10 minutes ago, they will have no idea. That’s the first sign. That’s why you tend to hear drunks repeating the same thing again, and again, and again, ad infinitum. They also probably have a glazed over look, but then that’s alcohol for you!
The brain can capture information in short-term memory while intoxicated, but not hold it, and as for long term memories, forget it. It’s not just your memory that is impaired, but your overall judgment, decision-making, and control over your emotions which could lead an individual to make potentially hazardous and very unpredictable choices during blackouts. And that’s when the fun begins… sex or groping, drink-driving, vandalism, fighting, buying unwanted shite over the net, sending badly worded and timed emails, and other irresponsible and dangerous activities, i.e. questionable behaviour that you’d likely regret if you could remember.
How not to get blackouts!
Don’t drink! But seriously, most blackouts are caused by the rapid consumption of a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, so if you can pace yourself that will lower the chances of having a blackout.
Doing shots or downing beer gets the alcohol into your bloodstream quickly, so relax, you have all night. Remember it’s not how much you drink, but how fast that you drink…
Mixing drinks also might not be a good idea, and not just alcohol, adding some recreational drugs is also a one stop route to memory loss.
Food. Drinking on an empty stomach will cause your blood alcohol level to rise quickly. Have some food to line your stomach and slow down the blood alcohol content rising
If you are worried, have a glass of water, it slows down the blood alcohol content. Ok, you might look like a wally, but you also might be the last man standing….
It might also not be a good idea to go out if you are tired. Tiredness and exhaustion means you are halfway to conking out…..
Furthermore, if you often have blackouts, you might want to lay off the sauce for a while, as weirdly studies have shown that there is a tendency for people to revert back to blackout states once they start experiencing them. Some users of alcohol, particularly those with a history of blackouts, are predisposed to experiencing blackouts more frequently than others. So if you have had this type of amnesia in the past then you are more likely to have it happen again in the future.
Should I be worried?
This amnesia caused by alcohol and other substances can lead to all sorts of problems and unhappy feelings. You may feel troubled because you can’t recall your actions the night before. Humiliation or embarrassment can happen or distress if something more serious happened. Paranoia can set in if you are finding it difficult to get all the clues. What I usually did was stay in bed all day, avoid all human contact, and hopefully any trouble would blow over by Monday, and by then you will be refreshed!
Questions might arise. Why do I go mad and do stupid stuff when I am drunk, as when I’m sober I’m not such a bad person? Are these actions really part of my inner character that I have unleashed over a few shots, am I really such a cunt? I do know people say that when you are drunk that’s when your true character comes out. I disagree, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think it’s more that you are just out of your mind and your judgment is altered. It also might be something that’s lurking in everyone rather than just one person, our animal instincts……
So should you worry about blackouts then? If you tend to get them regularly then yes, probably you might need to change your drinking habits, slow the fuck down, eat some food between beers, relax…….
Otherwise, they can happen now and again if you are a social drinker, downing shots with the gang, etc. on a special occasions. It’s better to be with friends who can always at least guide you on the right path…..I guess!
But I suppose the best thing is, if you really can’t remember then what’s the problem. As long as you haven’t killed anyone or done something criminally insane then brush it aside, as they say ignorance is bliss.
The 3,000-mile drunken jaunt
I will leave you with a fun story that was featured on the BBC a few years ago about an English man called Jeremy Clay who, in 1878, drank himself all the way from London town to Ohio in the good old US of A, without even noticing.
Waking up at a hospital, nursing the mother and father of all hangovers, he was worried. He had no clue to where he was. A nurse gave him the answer, “Cleveland, Ohio”!
The story began seven weeks earlier when in the accompaniment of some friends, the teetotaller tried a few whiskeys. And as you know, one drink led to another and before you know it he was on a boat to America.
The Dubliners had a song “Seven Drunken Nights”, but this was more like seven drunken weeks and 3,000 miles across the ocean.
So intoxicated was he, that he ended up in hospital where he had to detox for three weeks.
The story emerged much later. He was put on the boat by his mischievous friends with a ticket to Cleveland. The lesson to be learned is, be careful what you drink never trust your friends
“What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain”, By Aaron M. White, Ph.D.
Aaron M. White, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. July 2004
“Victorian strangeness: The 3,000-mile drunken escapade”, By Magazine Monitor. A collection of cultural artifacts April 2014 Top of Form