Blackouts Aren't Just For Alcoholics

Social drinkers experience alcohol-induced amnesia
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Even at low doses, alcohol impairs judgment, decision-making, impulse control, and other functions.

In 1995, a group of friends gathered at the New Jersey shore to celebrate the Fourth of July. Kevin Price didn't join them until sometime after midnight, so he started drinking immediately to "catch up." He remembers feeling a little sick around 2:30 a.m. and going to the bathroom, but that's the last thing he remembers about that night. He can't remember getting into his car, driving south in the northbound lane of the Garden State Parkway, or hitting a van that carried six church volunteers, killing five of them.

When he awoke in a hospital three days later, he had no idea where he was or how he got there. As a result of this tragedy, Price pled guilty to five counts of vehicular homicide and was sentenced to 8 to 21 years in prison.

Those who have studied Price's case believe he experienced an alcoholic blackout on that fatal night. Aaron White, an assistant research professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and lead author of a study supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, describes such blackouts as periods of alcohol-induced amnesia. During these times, an individual actively participates in events yet has no memory or only partial memory of what occurred during the blackout. White emphasizes that blacking out should not be confused with passing out (falling asleep from excessive drinking or drinking oneself unconscious). Although an individual could experience a blackout prior to passing out, White says the two states cannot occur simultaneously.

"If recreational drugs were tools, alcohol would be a sledgehammer," writes White. Even at low doses, alcohol impairs judgment, decision-making, impulse control, and other functions. When a significant amount of alcohol is consumed quickly, inhibitions lessen, making it possible for individuals to engage in an array of risky behaviors with no memory of what they've done. People in blackout states can drive cars long distances; have arguments and physical altercations; spend money; engage in criminal acts; or have unprotected sex.

White says that because someone in the midst of a blackout is capable of carrying on conversations and is able to engage in complicated activities, it can be extremely difficult for others to recognize that he or she is experiencing a blackout and will not recall these events later.

Contrary to long-held assumptions that blackouts only happen to alcoholics, we now know that blackouts frequently occur among social drinkers who drink too much. In 2002, when White and his colleagues asked 772 undergraduates if they had ever awoken after a night of drinking unable to remember things they did or places they went, 51 percent reported experiencing at least one blackout at some point in their lives, and 40 percent experienced one in the year before the survey.

Despite the fact that males drank significantly more often and more frequently than females, females reported experiencing the same amount of blackouts as their male peers. This outcome, says White, suggests that women are at greater risk than males for blackouts, likely due to differences in body weight and proportion of body fat.

White says that young drinkers may also experience more alcohol-induced blackouts than was previously believed, perhaps because they can often remain conscious and keep drinking beyond a point where older drinkers would pass out. Because studies have shown that alcohol affects the teen brain differently than the adult brain, White says there are long-term cognitive consequences of adolescent alcohol abuse that places them at a much higher risk for becoming alcoholics.

As dire as this all sounds, most alcohol abusers can recover cognitive functioning with abstinence and time. In her book Blackout Girl (Hazelden, 2008), Jennifer Storm writes that she was the one at every party who drank too much, never knew when to say no, and called friends the next day asking them what happened the night before. Her first blackout came at age 12—the first time she got drunk and the first time she got raped.

Storm says the years that followed were a blur of binge drinking, cocaine use, and "blackouts, bulimia, and burials," as she lost herself and friends to addiction. Despite her horrific journey, Storm entered treatment and Twelve Step recovery and turned her life around in order to help others. Today she is the executive director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Harrisburg, PA, and a champion of victims' rights.

Blackouts are frightening and potentially tragic. They represent a dangerous state of extreme impairment and are a clear warning sign of problem drinking. White highly recommends an alcohol abuse screening for anyone who suspects they have an alcohol problem.

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