When she was only five or six, Sarah Hepola started stealing sips from her mother’s unfinished cans of beer. When she was 11, she drank herself into her first stupor and blackout at a party. For the next 25 years, Hepola relied on the romance and magic alcohol seemed to offer—until her self-styled Bridget Jonesy tale just wasn’t funny anymore.
And so Hepola admitted she was one of 5.9 million adult women who have needed alcohol treatment, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. After four years of sobriety, the Salon.com editor revisits her long-term relationship “for anyone who needs it” in her memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. Here, Hepola shares a few lessons she learned in sobriety.
It’s not how much you drink so much as how you feel.
Just because you drink a lot doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic, and some problem drinkers never black out. But if you feel guilt, shame, and misery when you drink, and you try every day to moderate and you can’t, then you have a problem.
If you think a friend has a drinking problem, be honest.
As long as people were laughing with me, I wasn’t going to look at the emotional consequences of my drinking. But when I was 25, my closest friend told me she couldn’t watch me drink anymore. It was devastating. I thought that was a betrayal instead of an expression of her unconditional love. I didn’t stop drinking, but she helped me see my drinking wasn’t like others’—and that it didn’t only affect me. Someone was honestly saying that it hurt them, too.
Change is good.
Someone said to me, “In order to stop, you have to be out of ideas and the substance has to stop working.” I was full of ideas about how I was going to fix my problem so I didn’t have to stop, but I had to exhaust every single one of them until I was left with one option: quitting. You can hold on to bad behaviors for a really long time because change is scary, but I was so fed up that I was willing to change. You hit a point where staying in one place becomes scarier than moving on.
The world does not revolve around you—and that’s a good thing.
When I was drinking, I was needy. I constantly took from people, and I didn’t like that about myself. I’ve since become self-reliant. It’s an unsexy word, but it’s a pretty extraordinary phenomenon. So is a kind of selflessness. Addicts are trying to find a way out of their own minds, and it felt good to be available for people when they had problems.
Yes, there is life after alcohol.
In early sobriety I wanted a book that would teach me that life and creativity went on after drinking, and that’s the book I ended up writing. I wanted to comfort the person who already knew she was an addict. But I don’t have a delusion or fantasy that my book will stop people from drinking. You can never directly give someone your knowledge. They have to find it for themselves.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.