Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Writing to remember what she drank to forget

A 7-year-old girl creeps into the kitchen and quietly opens the refrigerator, her nightgown soaking up its cool glow. She reaches in for the half-empty can of Pearl Light, hoping her father doesn’t hear over the television in the living room. She takes two long, secretive sips. The dizzying effect of the booze spins her young mind in circles as she twirls through the house, bumping into furniture on her own private adventure.

Six years later, while visiting her cousin in Michigan, the same girl has a few drinks at a party. An 18-year-old crush kisses her after weeks of flirting.

“No way you’re 13,” he kept telling her.

He takes her to a vacant apartment, sparsely furnished with chairs and a bean bag. She thought they came to talk, but soon they were naked and it was clear he wanted sex. She didn’t outright resist, but it felt “like a bowling ball stuck up your nostrils.”

Afterwards, he kissed her, “Which made me feel good. Because that made me feel like he didn’t regret anything.”

Sarah Hepola has spent a lifetime going over what happened in that empty apartment, and processing the factors and influences that led her to that moment. These are just two of the many poignant, heart-breaking and hilarious anecdotes in the East Dallas author’s memoir, “Blackout.”

Hepola’s memoir pivots between heart wrenchingly vulnerable and laugh-out-loud funny. It details her introduction and addiction to alcohol while growing up with a feeling she didn’t belong in Highland Park.

In college at UT Austin, Hepola’s drinking was encouraged. It allowed her to keep up with the boys chug for chug. “Under the cover of night and Keystone tall boys, I was full of righteous fire and brimstone. How I loved the taste of conviction in my mouth,” she writes.

Following college, Hepola worked for the alt-weekly Austin Chronicle and eventually made her way to New York, where she wrote and edited personal essays for Salon. She fell into debt and hit the bottle harder, even as her career prospects improved.

On assignment in Paris, a luxurious French meal was washed down with too much cognac. She exchanges pleasantries with the concierge on her way back to her room, and then everything goes black. Her next memory is being on top of a man she has never seen before, feeling like she has been dropped into another person’s life.

“It seems unfair that he should know me, and I don’t know him,” she writes.

Reflecting on her memoir and life, she says, “A drinking problem is not a problem; missing your deadlines is the problem. I was serious about my work, got things done and got promoted everywhere I went. I gave everything I had to those publications.”

“Blackout” touches upon the inherent tension and contradictions that exist with alcohol abuse.

“I thought it always made me funnier and smarter, but actually it made me slower and stupider,” she says. “I wanted to be running with the boys in order to look cool and tough, but it actually turned me into an infant.”

She highlights this point in her book, writing, “Booze had pushed me into that tight corner of dread and fear. But I knew one day, I would have to open the door. I would have to answer the only question that really matters to the woman who has found herself in the ditch of her own life. How do I get out of here?”

The freedom and confidence Hepola felt while drinking turned into self-criticism. Her road to recovery was not a straight line, but she eventually found sobriety. “Quitting is often an accumulation. Not caused by a single act but a thousand. Drops fill the bucket, until one day the bucket tips,” she writes.

One of her last bouts was a wedding in a Tribeca loft. After binging on red and white wine, she woke up in her apartment, again unsure of how she got there or what had happened the night before. As she took a bath the next morning, depression set in.

“It was not a wish for suicide,” she writes candidly. “It was an airless sensation that I was already dead. The lifeblood had drained out of me.”

She called her mother and told her she was going to stop drinking. And she did.

She moved back to Dallas.

Dallas is the last place Hepola thought she would end up. But this best-selling author now lives in Lakewood, where she finally feels comfortable in her own skin.

“I always thought I would move back to Austin. It was a slacker’s paradise. A lot of what worked about it, the ease, affordability and speed, has shifted, and it felt like Brooklyn. It is competitive, with high rent, everybody fighting for a space,” she says. “Dallas is the perfect place to write a book because it is nurturing.”

The transition wasn’t always smooth. “The only thing I knew how to do in Dallas was eat and drink,” she says.

Avoiding the drinking scene made her “exceedingly boring,” she says. “I didn’t leave the house for six months.”

Hepola found an unexpected way to fill the martini-shaped void.

“I am crazy about vintage shopping, old estate sales. I go to Dolly Python on Haskell. It is the most amazing trove of eccentricity and mixed eras,” she says. “I am well acquainted with NorthPark Center. It is my Walden Pond. I go to walk around, and it is the best place to people watch.”

Hepola also has developed her own East Dallas haunts, like coffee shops Houndstooth and Mudsmith, where she was first recognized as a famous author (which she loved).

“Dallas didn’t have personality when I left, but now I think it has a great one. I enjoy White Rock Lake, all the people, everyone was out, wildflowers and everyone in a good mood. I feel like this city can do it right sometimes,” she says.

These days, Hepola has speaking engagements around the country, usually at colleges, where she tells her story. She navigates her own struggles with blacking out, binge drinking and hook-up culture.

“Let’s think about why you are drinking so much, is it working? Is that what I want?” she asks. “A lot of people belly flop into that lifestyle, and don’t reflect on what they are doing.”

Hepola has other book ideas bouncing around her head, though exactly what they will be about is still up in the air. “I am interested in travel, especially in women traveling alone. There are no women who write road memoirs,” she says. “I used to hate car travel, because it made me feel like an outsider in Highland Park, where everyone flies for travel. I didn’t even want to get a license, as I was scared to drive and kill someone. I didn’t have a car until 22, but somewhere around 25 got a travel bug.”

Hepola isn’t sure what is next, but currently blogs, speaks and writes freelance articles for everyone from Texas Monthly to the New York Times.

“This is my story,” she says. “I don’t give advice because I don’t take advice well. I didn’t want to prescribe, but simply say, ‘This is what happened to me.’ If it useful to you, great. It was useful to me. It would be hypocritical of me to say anything when I had my history. When I first moved back, Dallas was a great place to be drunk. Now, it is a great place to be sober.”

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