Register Monday | December 5 | 2022

Totally Trashed

Why Do We Feel the Need to Drink Till We Drop?

There are horror stories about boozing to oblivion. They involve waking up with a bloody weapon in your hand or marrying the wrong person in Vegas-and having no idea what or how it happened. True, these tales may sound like freaky things that happen to some other sucker, but I'd say they affect us more than we'd think. "I blacked out" is an excuse I've heard a lot over the years (albeit not as an plea against murder charges), and I know a number of people who have a nasty habit of drinking far too much and then have no recollection of what happened. I am not too worried about the somewhat "charismatic" behavior of drunken friends after a few cocktails, but I am disturbed if they miss out entirely on the night we spent together.

I am not sure how the law figures such things, but I usually hold people accountable for their actions (table dancing and close talking are forgivable, while drunk driving is not). When you see a person's eyes glaze over in a drunken stupor, you are losing the essence of that person. In fact, that person loses him- or herself-the voice changes, the person stumbles and he or she doesn't register basic things that are going on all around. This change of personality is pretty creepy in itself, but who is it that's in front of you when a person gets to this level of intoxication? What is left over when the conscious self has taken a hiatus?

When you see a person's eyes glaze over in a drunken stupor, you are losing the essence of that person.

Dr. Donal Sweeney recently wrote a book about the phenomenon of blacking out. His theory doesn't posit that a person simply does not remember what happened after imbibing too much but that the memories are actually never formed. Sweeney cites just how serious the repercussions can be-and mentions the case of an airline pilot who flew passengers cross-country while in a blacked-out state. Again, this is an extreme example, but Sweeney also suggests that the blackout may not necessarily be linked to advanced alcoholism-social drinkers can also be affected. What I know of blacking out is that my friends become cartoon versions of themselves. I have a friend who is fond of the phrase "he was blind last night," and that seems to be a good description. A person who is extremely drunk has glazed-over eyes that don't seem to focus, and whatever they do see doesn't seem to register in the memory bank. It feels like being with the zombie version of the person you know and like.

I personally have never had a blackout. I can always recall what I've said or done when drunk. I feel confident that my rational-and perhaps more exuberant-self is making decisions. Those who suffer from the "What Happened Last Night?" syndrome tell me that it all starts with one big night out, when they have way too much to drink. After that first blackout, it seems the dark periods come on fast and furious-as if some kind of brain damage has been done (which is quite possible, I'd think). I have known too many girls who wake up and wonder how they got those bruises and guys who have no clue how they got home or where their pants are.

Sitting around with a bunch of friends, we started to talk about this scary phenomenon. I told my "hostel in Amsterdam" story. Backpacking in 1998, I woke up in the middle of the night to a girl's surprised screams. Someone flicked on the light to our room and we all saw a guy (not someone she knew) peeing on her and her bunk bed. He was sleepwalking-or in some kind of drunken stupor that resembled sleepwalking-and when he was finished, he just stumbled back to his bed. The girl asked for another mattress, but the hostel owner told her to just "flip it over." In the morning, once the poor guy was told what he had done (he had no recollection of it), he was mortified and apologetic and eager to check out.

While I am all for a drink or two to celebrate or relax, it's a very unattractive prospect indeed to lose sense of who I am (or where I am and what I am doing)-and I don't think that it's because I am a control freak.

What is interesting about the peeing story is that once I brought it up, it seemed to break the seal (no pun intended) on the taboo around the topic. I would say that everyone at the table knew someone who had had a similar "incident in the night." I heard stories of boyfriends relieving themselves into their girlfriends' purses, on their roommate's shoe collection, or lifting the lid and destroying their best friend's laptop with one lousy move. It seems pretty common after a heavy night of drinking for the lines between reality and the subconscious to blur. The body is doing something automatic-getting up, having to find the bathroom-but the mind is too dull to catch up on the whole toilet thing.

Though many of these stories are pretty funny, they are also quite humiliating-and frightening. It has to be said that all these tales involved guys (the forgetting where you are when you are going to the bathroom seems a little easier for a man), but that's not to say that girls aren't drinking just as heavily. In Britain, the worry is specifically concentrated on young females and their propensity to drink (very heavily). "Lager lasses" on the pub scene are getting pretty wild, resulting in less sound decision-making on the whole. According to Sweeney, "without memory formation, [people] cannot learn, think, plan or decide anything, even to come in out of the rain. They do not know where they are, what they are doing, even what time it is." It's pretty fascinating that people inflict this catatonic state on themselves. It also presents some tricky questions regarding consciousness and accountability. Should we be held responsible for things we have no recollection of doing?

While I am all for a drink or two to celebrate or relax, it's a very unattractive prospect indeed to lose sense of who I am (or where I am and what I am doing)-and I don't think that it's because I am a control freak. Though the science behind blacking out is worth looking into, the more important question might be why so many people feel the need to basically poison themselves into oblivion. Sure, have a big night out, but wouldn't it be nice to remember it?

Emma Appleby is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.