Saturday, 11 November 2017

Blackout! - Grapevine Story From 1962


Some of our weirdest case histories involve a loss of memory which is still a mystery to science

ONE of the experiences which we share, and which normal drinkers can seldom understand, is the "blackout." Normal drinkers, if for some reason they try to see how much they can hold, can pass out but that is another thing entirely. The blackout, in its purest form, is a loss of memory of "what happened last night"--while we were behaving either normally to all appearances or were merely "high." Being a chronic victim of blackouts myself during my drinking years, I have been collecting incidents which happened to friends of mine and which I have heard recounted at open meetings.

Here are a few:

Gail "came to" while walking on lower Broadway in Manhattan. She bought a paper to find out where she was and the date. She was wearing a completely strange outfit. There was money in her pocketbook, but no papers except a receipt for a bill paid at a Colorado ski lodge. She had been blacked out for two months, during which time she had traveled from San Francisco to New York, with a stop-over in Colorado.

Kathleen made six trips back to the Old Country and does not remember a single departure, crossing or arrival. She always blacked out before sailing, came to after arrival.

Joe, a Wisconsin farmer, rushed to the window each morning and sure enough, the stake truck was always parked in its garage. But every time he was drunk and blacked out, instead of using the regular lane he drove the truck carefully through the orchard, never scratching a tree.

Kay went back to visit a night club at which she had once been a featured dancer. It was now four years and many drunks later. She awoke the next day in a strange house and learned from her hostess that she had done an extraordinarily good dance number while in a blackout. No one had any idea she was drunk.

Bob went on leave from a Veteran's Hospital in his wheelchair. He came to halfway across the U.S.A., being interviewed on a radio show.


There are a few alcoholics who have never had blackouts but most of us have had just the same sort of experiences though probably not quite as dramatic. But dramatic or not they are frightening. And our distress the next day isn't helped any by ignorant people who refuse to believe that a person can function apparently normally and not remember anything that happened. They often feel that we are simply cooking up an alibi in a cowardly attempt to evade responsibility for wild behavior.

I started to drink at twelve years of age, coincidental with getting my first job, a position at a resort hotel. At fifteen I graduated from high school. The morning after, I woke up to find that I had spent the night on the steps of a church in the central green of the little town where I was brought up. I had to ask my classmates three questions: Did I show up at the graduation? They assured me that I had. Did I deliver the speech that I was supposed to make? They said that I had. Did I make all kinds of a fool of myself? The answer was "Why nobody knew that you were drunk!" This was my first blackout, more than twenty years before AA came into existence.


At twenty-two I was night manager of a large theatrical club. On one occasion we were having a big affair for a V.I.P. I had been nipping prohibition liquor through the evening and I remember taking a drink around 11 P.M. The next thing I knew, I woke up in bed at home. It was 3 P.M. the next day. I went to work at 6 P.M. not knowing what kind of a mess I might be walking into, only to find that no one had the slightest suspicion that I had drunk too much. I had performed all my duties meticulously, including checking out several cashiers, balancing accounts and making up bank deposits of several thousand dollars. The affair had broken up at 3 A.M. and I had left about 6 after saying good night to the house detective and night clerk.

Beginning about 1930 my blackouts had become more or less chronic. From that time on I could rarely get beyond the sixth drink and still be able the next morning to recall where and with whom I had been, what I had done and what I had said. The "said" part is one of the most tormenting for many of us have the experience of being accosted the next day, either in person or over the telephone, and reminded of promises made the night before while we were apparently functioning quite normally. We promise partnerships, loans and the use of "political influence." We buy and sell cars, order merchandise, bestow gifts on strangers, invite assorted "characters" home for the week end. And, one of the most upsetting of all, at office parties we outline to the Big Boss some brilliant plans for the future which the next day have completely evaporated, yet the boss expects us to carry them through.

One morning I inspected a new car of mine, with less than a thousand miles on the speedometer, and found that the entire left side had been so badly smeared that the car required new front and rear bumpers, new left front and rear fenders and a new running board.

One day a lady executive of the restaurant chain I was associated with for fourteen years came into the branch I was operating and thanked me for driving her and her husband home from a big employee blowout held the night before. I knew her pretty well. I looked at her blankly and said, "I drove you home last night?"

"Sure you did. Don't you remember doing eighty miles an hour on Rockaway Boulevard?"

One of the most dangerous things about the whole deal is that for a long time we tend to consider blackouts a normal phenomenon associated with "gracious living." Actually, they are one of the earliest symptoms of alcoholism.

After I got into AA I began studying the case histories of other members of the Fellowship and comparing them with my own, especially in the blackout department. My blackout champion to date is a former professional boxer who had an entire year he could not account for!

I have asked an AA physician to give me a medical opinion on the cause of blackouts. He wrote as follows:

"An alcoholic blackout is purely and simply a problem of progressive anesthesia in a person who has a high tolerance to the anesthetic agent, alcohol. Physiologically, the alcoholic apparently builds up a tolerance to alcohol over the course of years so that at any given time he is able to tolerate more alcohol than he could in past years. Therefore, his body learns to tolerate large doses of it. He by-passes the nausea and vomiting stage and lingers on his feet long enough for the frontal lobes to be anesthetized. The frontal lobes are where consciousness is located as we understand it. Thus, he is 'blacked out.' Some very complicated pharmacological and physiological mechanisms go on in a blackout, but it is primarily a partial anesthesia in a person with a high tolerance for a toxic substance."

Some of these mechanisms are complicated indeed--puzzling. Toward the end of my drinking career I started having blackouts when I was cold, stone sober!. I have another AA friend who did the same--it was the final shock which caused him to realize that his life had become unmanageable when he found himself having a conference with the editor of a famous magazine, and he could not remember how he got into the office, what he was doing there or what was the article they were discussing. He was not drunk; it happened the day after a real wing-ding. And when he left the office it happened again--he found himself walking down the street with no recollection of how he got there. If alcohol had anesthetized the frontal lobes of his brain, why did it suddenly stop anesthetizing them and why did it suddenly start again? And stop again, when he "came to"?

I would not presume to contradict my learned medical friend, but I think that in us alkies something happens a little differently--I think a blackout of this kind occurs at the moment when we seem to come to. I think something suddenly wipes out a portion of the memory. The theories of what memory is and how it works are constantly changing anyhow. Maybe some day we will know how the human mind remembers and, consequently, what can cause it to stop remembering--in sections.

But of one thing I am assured--I will not have any more blackouts as long as I stick with the Fellowship, stay away from the first drink a day at a time, do not get exhausted, get plenty of sleep, get plenty of protein in my diet, and plenty of vitamins--and let God run the world.

-- M. L.

Chicago, Illinois

From the April 1962 AA Grapevine magazine

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