Alcohol-induced blackouts – seriously — they can’t remember what they did or said?
It is not uncommon for me to receive emails and blog post comments like these:
“My partner has physically attacked me and last Sunday shoved 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?” Chris
“How much of what was said or done during their blackout period is truth, surfacing from a deeper psychological place because there’s no filters now, or that when sober they could control verbally expressing it?” Pat
“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.” Ana
As with many of the topics on which I write, I can personally relate to what others share with me about their experiences with a loved one’s drinking behaviors – behaviors the loved one (or total stranger, for that matter) claims not to remember or is fuzzy on the details of what they do remember of the incident.
In my case, it was a loved one’s attempt to kill me by strangulation when a confrontation escalated. And while my loved one’s memory of the horrific moments leading up to, during, and following this attempt are very fuzzy, it was his only response to any and all of what happened next that is telling. Here’s what he said a week after the event (we hadn’t had any communication about the incident during that intervening week), “If you’d apologize for what you did to make me mad enough to do what I did then we can go back to normal.” Seriously — that was the extent of his side of the “conversation.” You can imagine what my side sounded like.
Sadly, I didn’t understand any of what I now know about how alcohol changes brain function, let alone the idea that a person really can’t remember what they said or did while under the influence. I believed, like so many others, that it was the real him coming out.
Understanding Alcohol-Induced Blackouts
Now don’t get me wrong, just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean blackouts should be tolerated or excused. NEVER! There is NO EXCUSE. But understanding blackouts for what they are — “amnesia, or memory loss, for all or part of a drinking episode” — can help those who are affected by them make better decisions for themselves. In other words — How are they going to talk about it?, What are they going to do about it?, How seriously should they take them?, What can they do to protect themselves from a next time?, etc.
To help with this understanding, I’m sharing the following copy and paste from the Preview of the peer-reviewed study, “Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: A Review of Recent Clinical Research with Practical Implications and Recommendations for Future Studies,” appearing in the May, 2016, issue of the Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research journal. It was written by and
comprehensive, systematic literature review” examining “all articles published between January 2010 through August 2015 that focused on vulnerabilities, consequences, and possible mechanisms for alcohol-induced blackouts.” To rent to read or purchase the full article, click here. Now, to quote from the Preview:
“ALCOHOL USE IS a pervasive problem with well-known deleterious effects on memory. Alcohol-induced memory impairments vary in severity, ranging from mild deficits to alcohol–induced blackouts (Heffernan, 2008; White, 2003). Alcohol-induced blackouts are de?ned as amnesia, or memory loss, for all or part of a drinking episode. During a blackout, a person is able to actively engage and respond to their environment; however, the brain is not creating memories for the events. Alcohol-induced blackouts are often confused with passing out from alcohol, but blacking out and passing out are very different states of consciousness. A person experiencing a blackout is conscious and interacting with his or her environment, whereas a person who has passed out from alcohol has lost consciousness and capacity to engage in voluntary behavior. Memory deficits during a blackout are primarily anterograde, meaning memory loss for events that occurred after alcohol consumption (White, 2003). It is important to note that short-term memory remains intact during an alcohol-induced blackout, and as such, an intoxicated person is able to engage in a variety of behaviors, including having detailed conversations and other more complex behaviors like driving a vehicle, but information about these behaviors is not transferred from short-term to long-term memory, which leads to memory deficits and memory loss for these events (White, 2003). There is no objective evidence that a person is in an alcohol-induced blackout (Pressman and Caudill, 2013), and thus, it can be di?cult or impossible to know whether a drinker is experiencing a blackout (Goodwin, 1995). This is similar to the fact that one cannot know whether another person has a headache; the experience is happening inside that person’s brain, with no clear observable indices.”
Wetherill, R. R. and Fromme, K. (2016), Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: A Review of Recent Clinical Research with Practical Implications and Recommendations for Future Studies. Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 40: 922–935. doi:10.1111/acer.13051
Another Key Take-Away…
…is you do not have to be an alcoholic (person with an alcohol use disorder) to experience a blackout. Weekend binge drinkers experience blackouts, as does the first time drinker who drinks far more than their liver can process and their brain can handle.
This fact points to the importance of understanding drinking patterns, what is considered “normal” or “moderate” drinking, and what it takes to change an unhealthy, blackout-producing drinking pattern. This information helps the person wanting to protect themselves from a blackout behavior or stop themselves for engaging in one.
I consider the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAAs) website, “Rethinking Drinking,” one of the best resources for this kind of information.