How Sarah Hepola, Author Of ‘Blackout,’ Does Money
Sarah Hepola is a journalist and editor who lives in Texas. We spoke about her newly released first book Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget, which is about a lifetime of drinking and the initial years of recovery.
Good morning, Dallas!
Hello to you.
Thanks for chatting with me! I really enjoyed your memoir Blackout, but for those folks who haven’t gotten to dive into it yet, would you like to give a brief synopsis of who you are and what the book is about?
Sure. I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years now, and I’ve written about a lot of things, mostly pop culture and personal essays. I was also an inveterate drinker, the kind who hoisted my beer stein in every picture — and I wrote about that, too. But I had to quit drinking five years ago. Blackout is the book I wrote in the sad, lonely years that followed. It’s about falling in full-throated love with alcohol, and believing that alcohol can fix you — that it gives you power, and strength, and meaning — but discovering that it is actually robbing you of those things.
And then you have to figure out what’s next. You’ve had this one identity for decades: How do you find your power and your strength after it’s gone?
That conflict comes across with real clarity from the first pages. Do you think living in New York City exacerbated some of those problems? Because I was really struck by how many decisions you made all at once in an effort to slough off the drinking: you moved back to Texas, you stopped smoking, you changed the way you ate and exercised … It was like you had to find an entirely new person inside yourself in order to change this one thing.
New York heightened my drinking, in the sense that a lot of the barriers were removed: The bars stayed open until 4am, you could buy beer at any hour of the night, and if you got too wasted (and I usually did), a cab driver could take you home. Also, I lived alone. There is an anonymity in the city — a lack of accountability — that allowed me to drink however I wanted without fearing judgment.
But the reason all those changes were necessary was that years of drinking had distanced me from who I was and what I wanted. When I quit, it’s amazing how much became clear. Booze is a pain management system, and when you remove the anesthesia, you really see the source of your misery. I don’t like this city. I don’t like my body. All those changes you mention, it seems like they happened fast because they’re one after another in the book, but it was a slow evolution. A year after quitting drinking, I moved back to Dallas. The next year I changed my diet and lost weight. A year after that I started dating again. It took me TWO WHOLE YEARS to start dating again! It was a turtle crawl.
As far as smoking, I quit the same day I quit drinking, and I didn’t give a shit. I was never addicted to smoking. I was addicted to booze. All addictions are not created equal.
Evolution is slow by nature; that’s why it sticks, I guess. As I was reading about your ditching cigarettes and booze at the same time, my reader brain was like, “Ooh, what’s she going to do for adrenaline now?” and my editor brain was like, “Ooh, what’s she going to do with all the money she’ll save?” I thought that while reading Choire’s farewell elegy to cigarettes in the Times too — my God, think how much more money he’ll have; what will he spend it on?
That’s so funny. Well, the answer is: Sarah is going to spend all her money on giant orders from Italian restaurants in her West Village neighborhood, because I went directly to binge eating from drinking. All I did that year was gorge on things made of meat, cheese and pasta (followed by ice cream) and watch movies in my bed.
I guess I did save money, but one of the things about my story, which I don’t dwell too much on in the book, is that I was seriously and horribly in debt. About two years before I quit drinking, I had gone on a really tough payment plan with the IRS — I owed them like $40,000 in back taxes — and so all my money, all the time went to them, and to pay off credit cards. It’s not like I enjoyed this surfeit of money. (Did I use “surfeit” right? Will have to look up.) I was broke all the time.
New York exacerbates that too: there’s a sense here that everyone should live beyond her means because everyone else does, and everything moves at such a fast clip that there’s no time to reflect on whether the next purchase is actually a good idea.
But another thing I loved about the early part of Blackout is how candid you are at setting up the psychology that made you susceptible to that: that sense, even as a young child in Dallas, that you were special and so deserved more than you had in your wholesome, kind of simple compared to your neighbors middle-class life, and that led you to start stealing. I don’t think I’ve come across anyone deal with that sense of youthful entitlement so frankly.
My sense of money — and my sense of what I’d been given, and what I was owed — was very screwed up from a very young age. My parents gave us a good life, but all I could see was other people’s bigger homes. We lived in an elite neighborhood in Dallas — we rented this small house so that my brother and I could go to this great public school — and by the time I got to middle school, I was just obsessed with acquisition. The casual shoplifting from the Eckerd’s and the Woolworth’s, the “borrowing” of my friends clothes (without asking). I kept joining Columbia Records and Tapes club, or whatever it’s called, under different names. I just wanted those 7 CDs for a penny, over and over again.
Like, where did I get this idea that things just came FREE to me? My parents are hard-working, modest. They came from working-class backgrounds. But I went to school with kids who were vacationing in Aspen and Vail and their parents drove Mercedes and there was this roar in my head that told me I needed that. It’s funny, because as an adult, I’m uncomfortable around extreme wealth, and it’s not something I want for myself. But back then, yeah, I thought that was what success and happiness would be. A giant mansion, like in Annie.
Sure. Tweens and teenagers are status-hungry monsters; they’re not exactly known for having a strong sense of right and wrong, at least not when peer pressure is involved. Also you were growing up in the “greed is good” eighties, which was a particularly heartless and shallow time. But so, does the Getting Right With God step include Getting Right With The IRS? Where are you with money now?
So one of my big goals in sobriety was to get out of debt. When I first went on that IRS payment plan, it was a seven-year payment plan — that seemed like FOREVER. When I finally sold the book, and I knew I was going to get an advance check, I was thrilled. I’m going to be able to pay it all off in one lump sum! I was so proud. But it took a really long time for my check to arrive, and for that matter, it had taken years and years to develop and then sell the book, so when I finally got the check, and I called the IRS, they said, “OK, well, you owe us $13.” WTF??? I only had $13 left on my entire $40k debt!
I had actually paid it off myself, through that payment plan, and I hadn’t realized how close I was to being out of the woods. So yeah, I’m debt-free now.
Amazing! Congratulations. I’m actually laughing at the surprise happy ending to that story. So what do you enjoy spending money on now, since booze and cigarettes and binge-eating and the IRS are all out of the picture? What brings you pleasure? And are you managing to save at all?
I actually have money in savings, for the first time in my adult life. But I struggle with this. You’ve already hinted at one of the problems addicts have. They give up one addiction for another. Or they lose adrenaline in one place and seek it out in others. When I finally got out of debt, and I finally had a bit of money in my account — which was a sensation as foreign to me as walking on the moon, because I was a chronic check-bouncer — it was really hard for me not to want to SPEND IT. I had to actively fight compulsion. Fortunately, for me, I don’t really have expensive tastes. Like, I live in an inexpensive one-bedroom house that I rent.
What are luxury items? Whatever they are, I mostly don’t want them. But I do sometimes go to the mall here in Dallas, and I just BUY SHIT. What am I doing? It’s mostly pretty dresses, because I lost some weight and I needed a new wardrobe, and I’ve mostly kept it under control, but I still have to be aware of it. I find it very hard to find a balance between “you deserve it” and “OK, but you don’t deserve ALL OF IT EVERY DAY.” You know? Moderation is not my strong suit.
Again, you are America. This is the problem I feel like so many of us are struggling with. Advertising purrs at us, “Indulge yourself! You deserve it.” And then you flip the page of the magazine and advertising screams at us, “Hate yourself! Deny yourself! What’s the matter with you, you entitled, self-indulgent slob?” It’s exhausting.
Yeah, it’s so true. I remember reading this great Judith Warner piece after the Gulf Oil spill, where she was pointing out that so many problems in American life pointed back to our inability to moderate: Spending, eating, drinking. It’s insane.
Destroying the environment, binge-watching Netflix …
Right. Just pedal to the medal, no limits. Sometimes you can’t moderate, though — that was my lesson. For a long time, I was obsessed with the idea that I could moderate my drinking. It took me a long time to realize I never could. When I stopped trying — when I cut out drinking altogether, which seems so extreme but was necessary for me — I was much closer to finding moderation in all other parts of my life.
But you’ve put your finger on one of the profound pains of American life. This constant craving. And then the shame for the indulgence. The pendulum swings between those two things. It’s ferocious.
So how have you been able to cope? What’s worked for you?
Well, here’s where I turn into a giant cliche, and I tell you that what worked for me was Alcoholics Anonymous. And I resisted it for so long, because of all the reasons that people resist that program. But ultimately I found that it was like this force field against the toxic parts of American culture. Because so much of American culture is telling you that you need something to fix you — drive that car, marry that man, own that house, get that job — and AA is reminding you THAT AIN’T IT. The answer is never out there. It’s in you.
And I think this is one of the reasons 12-step programs have flourished alongside late Western capitalism, because we search for some kind of pushback to the philosophy that says take it all, eat it all, drink it all. Wanting everything can push you in a very tight corner. So AA isn’t the only answer, by any means, but it was the answer for me. Most of us don’t have organized religion anymore. What is going to get you out of the hole that you’re in?
It’s funny, because the message also says Everything In Moderation but it doesn’t teach us how. Yeah, I’ve been fascinated by AA from the outside. It seems like someone should adapt some of the lessons for lay-people, because we could all use some wisdom and humility and community.
I actually have a friend whose husband is in AA, and she doesn’t have a drinking problem, but she goes to the meetings, and she told me it’s because she just thinks it’s a really good blueprint for life. I think she’s right.
Interesting! She too should write a book. Anyway, what are your plans for the second half of your life, if you don’t mind me asking / if you have them? Do you want things like to own your own house? Or do you have other aspirations, like to travel the world?
I think home ownership is over-rated. If I get to own one, great, but I’m more of a travel-the-world type of woman. I’m torn, and always have been, between my desire to roam and discover and my need to be loved and connected. I always wanted a family. I always wanted a husband. I’m 40 now, and I don’t know if those things are in the cards for me, and I don’t say that with a shrug of self-pity, I say that with clear-eyed knowledge that life is wild and unpredictable, and I plan to follow whatever winding path calls loudest, and it might not end on a couch with my husband.
But I want what I’ve always wanted: To love big, to see amazing things, to learn and grow and be the best person I possibly can be.
And to write more books?
That would be amazing. Books, stories, but I also love film and television. I’ve been obsessed with all those mediums from childhood. I just want to keep writing. Whatever the form.
Sounds great, and we wish you all the luck in the world. Any last thoughts, money-related or otherwise?
I was just thinking how lucky we are that we love writing, and writing is free. It costs nothing to do it. I mean, it’s frustrating that it doesn’t PAY as much as we might sometimes like, but think of all the people who have to leap over obstacles to reach their dreams, and it’s like, damn, all we need is a pen and some paper. Writing is always there, always available. That’s pretty cool.