Blackouts – Are They Real or Just an Excuse?

Blackouts – Are They Real or Just an Excuse?

Alcohol-induced blackouts – how can they possibly not know what they did?

What is it about drinking that results in a blackout - not remembering what was said or done the night before?

What is it about drinking that results in a blackout – not remembering what was said or done the night before?

How many times have you found yourself uttering incredulous gasps, “What do you mean you don’t remember?” or engaging in an argument with someone you care about because of something they said or did while they were drunk? Have you ever had them just stare at you, stone faced, as if to challenge your recollection and/or flip it around to somehow being “your fault,” something you’d simply dreamed up or were blowing all out of proportion?

Surprisingly, perhaps, your loved one might incapable of remembering their behaviors while intoxicated – even if they were fully “there,” (meaning not passed out but still standing, talking, doing ‘stuff’). This is because they’ve likely experienced an alcohol-induced blackout.

Aaron M. White, Ph.D, wrote in his publication, “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts and the Brain,” published on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s website, “Alcohol interferes with the ability to form new long-term memories…. Large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial (fragmentary) or complete (en bloc) blackouts. Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers – including college drinkers — than previously assumed, and have been found to encompass events ranging from conversations to intercourse.” [emphasis added]

People who experience “fragmentary blackouts” while intoxicated often don’t remember all of what they said or did until they are reminded of their behaviors. People who experience “en bloc” blackouts are unable to recall any details whatsoever – even if prodded and taken through a sequence of events, blow-by-blow, they just don’t remember.

So how is it they have enough mental capability to talk or drive or get into a fight or vandalize a building or have unprotected sex but then not remember it the next day?

Several factors contribute to blackouts, but two of the key contributors are gulping drinks and drinking on an empty stomach. Each of these contributes to a rapid rise in BAC (blood alcohol content), and it’s the rapid rise in BAC that gets in the way of the brain’s ability “to transfer information from short-term to long-term storage.” According to extensive research on this phenomenon, the brain can capture information in short-term memory while intoxicated (at least for a few seconds, anyway), which is why the person can carry on a conversation or drive (albeit erratically], but the information relevant to these events does not transfer to long-term memory storage.

Blackouts Are Not to Be Excused

Having said all this, please know that I’m not trying to excuse a person’s drinking behaviors by labeling it a blackout, as in, “Oh well, they can’t remember, so it’s not their fault.” Absolutely not! In fact, blackouts are a prime example of the drinking behaviors that cause secondhand drinking (the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others).

Rather, I’m sharing this information because understanding alcohol-induced blackouts may help you avoid the useless arguments about what a person does or doesn’t remember, and it may help the person whose drinking resulted in an alcohol-induced blackout accept that, in fact, “I really could have done that!”

Lastly, this information points to the importance of avoiding binge drinking (in order to avoid a rapid rise in BAC). Binge drinking is defined as 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more standard drinks for men.

Check out my article, “Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol, Reduce Secondhand Drinking,” and visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking, for more on drinking patterns, standard drinks, standard drinks/cocktail or container, and tips for cutting down should you be experiencing blackouts.

To read Aaron M. White, Ph.D.’s article, “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain,” click here.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

15 Responses to Blackouts – Are They Real or Just an Excuse?

  1. This was eye-opening for me, Lisa. My son who is in recovery was never a drinker, so he never experienced blackouts. And when I drank, I never had a blackout, either. On the other hand, my father was an alcoholic for most of his life, and he would talk about blacking out. I guess I just never knew exactly what he was talking about. (And, at the time, I didn’t care.) Also, secondhand drinking is such a real thing. My whole family suffered for many years because of my dad’s alcoholism. It’s a family disease, for sure.

    • I agree, Dean, it’s such a family disease! Learning about the science of blackouts was hugely helpful for me. I could never understand how they could do the things they did while drinking and then claim not to remember the next day. But as I said in the post, it’s not an excuse and hopefully those who experience blackouts will do everything they can to change their drinking patterns so they do not occur.

  2. Dave Cooke says:

    Lisa, thanks for reminding us that, while these blackouts may actually occur, no one needs to be excused for their behaviors regardless of whether they remember or not. The convenience or reality of not remembering our actions from drinking doesn’t relieve anyone of responsibility for the outcomes of those activities. Too often we compensate for these behaviors because they had “too much to drink” as if that justifies the actions. Nothing really makes these actions acceptable even if they didn’t know they did it.

    • I couldn’t AGREE more, Dave!!! And, as you know, there are so many excuses for all sorts of drinking behaviors, “he hadn’t eaten,” “she had cocktails – normally, she just drinks wine”… But as I remind people, we would never excuse the behaviors (driving while impaired, saying mean, inappropriate things at the dinner table) if they had six glasses of water instead of six glasses of wine.

  3. Great information here, Lisa Binge drinking can be such an issue for some young people, but seems to be a continual problem at some college campuses. With the added danger of black outs, they are really putting their lives at risk. So much negative behavior can occur when binge drinking is an issue. With the holidays soon upon us, this is an important reminder to be aware of drinking behaviors that can cause harm.

    • And often people who binge drink forget that even though they may not engage in behaviors harmful to others, they are still vulnerable to the harm of another’s drinking behaviors – for example, they might “think” it’s okay to drive with someone else whose been drinking because their own “thinking” is completely gone due to alcohol’s interruption of normal brain function, which puts them in grave danger, even though they’re not the driver. I appreciate your comment, Cathy!

  4. I always enjoy reading what you have to say, Lisa. Kind of fits how my mind works – lots of explanation/reason, yet emotion plays, as well. I’ve never wondered if blackouts are the real deal, ’cause I’ve experienced them (as I remember?). Very disturbing, and I’m thankful I never hurt anyone in the midst. I’m with you – as much as blackouts are real, no excuses allowed! I mean, heck – it’s not as though they occur arbitrarily. Nope, they’re generated by inappropriate decision-making and behavior.

    As always, thank you, Lisa…
    Bill

  5. […] Blackouts – Are They Real or Just an Excuse? […]

  6. Chris says:

    Hi All,
    My partner has physically attacked me and last Sunday showed me down the stair case and then stood on top of me and continued to punch and kick me. My only grace is that I’m ok, God to thank for that. But the next day, he asked me what happened. Why was I not talking to him, and the likes. I’m so confused. Is it really true or possible that he did not know what he was doing at the time and not remember any of it? I don’t know. But all I know is, I could have been killed from his actions. I’m having him move out of my apartment, which he refuses to go. So now I have to get the police involved. All so crazy. Please shed some light on his behavior at the time and next day. Thank you.

    • It is true they might not remember what they have done, HOWEVER that does not mean you have to tolerate the behaviors your partner exhibits when drinking. You are right, you could have been seriously hurt. This quote, “As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does the magnitude of the memory impairments. Large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial (i.e., fragmentary) or complete (i.e., en bloc) blackouts, which are periods of memory loss for events that transpired while a person was drinking,” is taken from this resource: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm.

    • Ana says:

      I am sorry this happened to you. Something similar happened to me this past weekend, but luckily it was all verbal and not physical. My boyfriend doesn’t have memory of it either and says he doesn’t mean any of the things he said. At the time I was sure that I would force him to move out, but he has agreed to never drink again. I just don’t understand how a person can change into a completely different person just by drinking. I wish I could be sure that he doesn’t mean any of things he said.

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