Step Out Of The Car, Please: Rolling Blackouts -The Toast

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The second time I blacked out I was nineteen, back in Kentucky for winter break of my freshman year, and discovering the true meaning of homesickness. What began in my friend’s UK dorm room with whiskey and ABBA karaoke ended with me driving home completely unaware, then sobbing/vomiting so loudly that I woke my dad up.

The next day he and I would have the first of a series of conversations on the subject of Drinking, and my friend and I would have what has now become a regular Piecing the Night Back Together Recap. I lost about three hours of the evening. Apparently we went to a frat house and some short, stubby guy—I’m a magnet for fire-hydrant-shaped men—followed me around all night. I may or may not have kissed him on the neck. And when I took the car—my father’s—to pick up Chipotle the next afternoon I noticed twin cigarette burns on the driver’s seat in a spot a few inches from my crotch.

In high school I drank with friends in their basements. There wasn’t much to do in my town, and since we were underage there was nowhere to go to do our drinking. Our houses were grouped in a tight constellation around a local park, and we’d get blasted, then play on the swing sets or ran the bases at the field till we were all tuckered out. We drank a lot, with the kind of courage that comes from having no idea how much gets you too drunk. We stored the $9 handles of locally made vodka in our cars, and the poisonous stuff retained its solar heat for hours, even when we were able to scrounge up some ice.

The first time I blacked out I was eighteen, and in my final year of high school. I was drinking that same vodka straight from the bottle, balancing my left flank on the edge of the pool table in a basement. Then suddenly I woke up and I was wearing only a soiled soccer jersey, and my back and ass were tender, painted with rug burns. The night before, my friends had dragged my naked body up the carpeted stairs and threw me into the bathtub, where I snarled, wolflike, at them and rammed my fingers down my throat to induce vomiting.

That’s the worst I’ve ever been, I think, and since then my blackout behavior changed considerably. I went from this violent savage to a charmingly unstable talk show host: a cross between Charles Bukowski and Kelly Ripa. I’m always chain-smoking while I interrogate people about “what projects you’re working on” and “what are your musical inspirations?”

I think that this shift is due mostly to a change in my relationship with drinking: why I drink and who I drink with, that sort of thing. A change in scenery. I’ve never been able to replicate the kind of subterranean comfort of those basement jags. Instead, I drink to stave off that paranoia I think most people have, that feeling that everyone around you secretly thinks you’re a joke or—worse—doesn’t think of you at all. With the help of my blackout alter ego I can blend into any social setting. I can relate to anyone.

People are always surprised when they discover the next day that I have no memory of what happened the night before. “You seemed fine,” they say. “Fine” being the operative word. I think that they don’t notice because they’re not paying attention. And there’s no reason for them to do so. If they do notice something’s off it’s normally because I’ve done something wild and a little sociopathic, but funny, like throw ice at strangers or asking middle-aged men if they’ve read Lolita.

I’ve been developing this alter ego over my four years in college, and at this point she is so fine-tuned she can respond to any crisis. I call her Cha Cha. Cha Cha is charismatic and compassionate, able to schmooze with strangers or comfort a hysterical friend. Before I go out for the night I set up my face wash, toothbrush, PJs, and a bottle of water. When I wake up in the morning Cha Cha has cleaned, clothed, and cared for me. I feel like I’m underwater for the first couple of hours, then I resurface with only traces of seasickness. Lately, though, Cha Cha has been slipping up. I’ll wake up and one part of the routine has gone awry: I’m naked or I’m so hungover I think I’ll pass out from the pain.

It used to be that once Cha Cha took over I could tackle any situation, no matter how uncomfortable or serious. One summer night, my friends and I hopped into a stranger’s car when he offered to take us anywhere in the city for $5. He was quickly pulled over and breathalyzed—quite obviously smashed behind the wheel. The policeman questioned us, and when he determined we didn’t know the man, he volunteered to chauffer us to our next location. Sitting in the backseat of his car, Cha Cha was a delightful combination of sassy and sycophantic. She fished out his wide-brimmed sheriff’s hat from behind the seat and threw it on, peppering him with questions about his training and background. By the time she arrived at her friend’s party, she had a new best friend.

Even when I was living in New York last year, Cha Cha never steered me wrong. I made it from the 6-train stop on 28th street back to my apartment three blocks over with an evening’s worth of drinks sloshing in my stomach and zero memory of the commute. However, that was the year the migraines started, and I spent the days after these jaunts in my room with the blinds drawn, watching Seinfeld and drinking coconut water.

Lately Cha Cha has been making more and more mistakes. The hangovers are getting worse, and they start around 5 PM the next day because I’m still drunk the next morning. The mysterious bruises, once a funny anecdote, are showing up larger and in more alarming places—last month I found a huge mark on my upper inner thigh. In the mornings my phone is lit up with text messages that hint at some sinister, passive-aggressive dealings with friends or boys. She never used to drunk text people, that was our agreed-upon policy. Who knows what dramas she’s been stirring up without my knowledge.

I woke up recently with a guy nicknamed Porkchop in my bed. We were sleeping head to toe, and his feet were in my face. The curtain was open and the Christmas lights above me were still plugged in; I think the sun had woken me up. We were both naked, but I was under all the covers and he was on top with just my throw blanket draped over him. I was scared. I tried hard to remember what had happened, and it only came back in brief echoes.

In the past I’d thought abstractly about having sex with Porkchop, but for me it was one of those things you fantasize about but never do. The fantasy is all you need. I knew underneath it all that if it did happen it wouldn’t be close to how I imagined it. It would probably be a nightmare. And I think I was right, although I can never know beyond the pain that came the next day when I walked or sat down or peed. I will never know what happened to me. What bothers me the most is that I’ll never really know if I wanted to do it.

Part of me feels like Cha Cha represents the best in me. She’s happier than I’ve ever been, from what I can see in the photographic records. She moves around with ease. I know that sounds meaningless but it’s something I think about often. Because I think it’s difficult sometimes to be a person, a daily person. Walking to class, figuring out what time to eat lunch, fitting exercise into my schedule. At some point I give up and stay in my room. And Cha Cha communicates effortlessly, which I find painful. She’s incredibly popular. Sometimes I walk around campus and pass people who look at me like they know me, but I’ve no memory of meeting them. They start to smile, but they recognize the look of confusion on my face and shuffle off embarrassedly. These interactions hint at a whole other world hidden from me, where I am a celebrity. I’ve tried so many times to imagine what these nights are like and I can only come up with that scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes where Marilyn Monroe is surrounded by adoring, tuxedoed gentlemen.

Cha Cha acts out my fantasies. She taps into this part of me, this need I have for a mesmerized audience. She took that daydream of Porkchop and put it into action. I’ll never know why she did it, though. She has none of the blocks I normally set for myself, the reasons to avoid conflict or intimacy. And she has very little regard for my feelings. I do think she’s an improvement from that flailing she-wolf I used to become, but in some ways she’s the same thing.

When I wake up in the afternoon, the feeling is the same. I’m battered and sick, sticky with night sweat and weak from dehydration and hunger. Those are the moments. You know when you drink a lot and then the next day your body just wakes up at 7 AM on its own? Those are the moments. I haven’t had enough sleeping time to fully heal. It’s like I’m opening my eyes for the first time after a car accident. The lights bloom in bursts through my eyelids first, my body reanimates itself one digit at a time; I’m learning again how to breathe.

And I feel completely alone, realizing that I’ve been alone this whole time. I can talk to people all I want about these moments, about the mechanics of blacking out or the agony of waking up from it, and they’ll nod sympathetically or look worried—or be worried—but it is impossible to understand what goes into this. I don’t really understand it myself.

At some point years ago my body took the reins from me. It decided that after a certain but unknown quantity of alcohol enters my system—from three beers to three bottles of wine—it’s going to shut off the lights in my brain. And then Cha Cha takes over, acting against both mine and my body’s wishes. And as she makes more and more mistakes, that part of me dislocates further. She turns on me, but I realize that I can’t do it without her. Every time I’ve tried to control my drinking I realize how much power she has even when I’m sober. How much I desperately, tenderly, and violently need her in order to be myself.

This post is a part of Step Out Of The Car, Please, a recurring and unglamorous series about DUIs and drinking problems that runs every Thursday. If you are interested in submitting a story either anonymously or under your own name for consideration, contact mallory@the-toast.net

Carrie lives in Bluegrass Country, where she tweets and writes.

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