Shirley was at her best friend’s birthday party with an endless supply of alcohol. It had been a difficult week at work, and Shirley told herself that letting loose was well-deserved. Having fun was never a bad thing. Quickly, the alcohol began to take over her body.
However, she woke up in a strange bedroom the following day and remembered nothing. She had no idea how she got there or what she did the night before.
Confusion was quickly creeping into her mind. She felt disgusted by whatever actions she did, even though she couldn’t remember what those actions were. She wanted to throw up when she saw the clothes she wore the night before lying on a chair near the bed. She didn’t know whose clothes she was currently wearing. She wasn’t this type of person. When she called her friend to apologize, her friend informed her that she was the life of the party and went home with a mutual friend. But Shirley felt ashamed and vowed she wanted nothing to do with alcohol ever again.
Shirley experienced an alcohol blackout, which can occur when someone drinks too much. In 2020, 18 out of 41 people surveyed in Columbus, OH, regularly used alcohol. Sometimes, the experience of multiple blackouts can lead to someone seeking treatment, but this decision can come at any moment. Frequently, that realization can arrive at an inconvenient time, resulting in minds changing when the time becomes convenient.
SUN Behavioral Columbus offers 24/7 crisis care so you can start treatment whenever you’re ready. However, an alcohol blackout can happen to anyone, even if they don’t have an alcohol use disorder. So, what is a blackout, and why do they happen?
Blackouts are not the same as passing out. When someone passes out, they are unconscious. However, a blackout is associated with impaired memory during the time that someone was drinking. When someone is experiencing a blackout, they drink enough to have an increased risk of injuries and other dangers. Also, a blackout can happen to anyone, not just those with an alcohol use disorder. People of any age or experience with alcohol can experience a blackout.
For most people, blackouts occur when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is around .16 percent or higher. The BAC is how much alcohol is in your system currently. BAC levels needed for a blackout can be much lower when people take sleep or anti-anxiety medications. A .16 percent is twice the legal limit and significantly impairs several cognitive functions. These include impulse control, judgment, decision-making, and attention. When your BAC is around this level, it can prevent your brain from making new memories. Not drinking as much alcohol will result in less memory loss than if you were to consume large quantities of alcohol. Additionally, reaching this level of BAC is dangerous because the impairment of these functions can place people in situations they wouldn’t put themselves in if they were not under the influence of alcohol.
There are two main types of blackouts, determined by the amount of memory lost from the experience. The first type, known as “fragmentary,” involves spotty memories. This blackout type is the most common, as you have retained some of your memories from the event. You can still remember some things that occurred while drinking, but chunks of time are missing. For example, you might remember singing karaoke at the bar and stumbling into an apartment with a girl, but you don’t know what happened between those moments. You might not even remember what happened before or after those moments. This blackout type is sometimes called a “grayout” or a “brownout.”
The second type of blackout is a complete loss of memories from the event. It is known as “en bloc” and is the most severe type. During this blackout level, memories are not formed or recovered. Witnesses might inform you of what happened, but as far as your memory is concerned, the moments lost never occurred. There are no memories that you have to tie you to what happened.
Blackouts occur as alcohol enters the bloodstream and causes the BAC to rise rapidly. This experience can happen when someone drinks on an empty stomach or binge drinks. Binge drinking typically occurs when someone drinks more than their body can handle in 2 hours. This number is around 4 drinks for women, while for men, it is about 5. It may take more alcohol for those who are regular drinkers. For women, it usually takes less alcohol for a blackout to occur because they weigh less than their male counterparts.
People who experience blackouts are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. The BAC level in their system lowers their inhibitions and makes them more likely to engage in activities they would not do if they weren’t drinking. These include driving while intoxicated or having unprotected or unwanted sex. They might also be more prone to injuries or engaging in activities that result in bodily harm. Those injuries could result from falls, drowning, car accidents, or violence. Regular experiences of blackouts over the long term can result in brain and liver damage.
The occasional blackout is not necessarily a sign of an alcohol use disorder. Blackouts might mean you had too much to drink one random night, which is not always a sign of an alcohol use disorder. However, if you or someone you know is experiencing blackouts regularly, they should consider that they may have an alcohol use disorder. If you are experiencing other symptoms associated with an alcohol use disorder alongside frequent blackouts, then you might have an alcohol use disorder. Some other signs of alcoholism include intense cravings, not being able to stop drinking even when you want to, experiencing side effects of alcoholism, and giving up hobbies that you used to enjoy drinking.
If you have an alcohol use disorder resulting in frequent blackouts, consider attending an alcohol detox. The ultimate way to limit blackouts associated with an alcohol use disorder is to stop your alcohol use under a doctor’s observation. You shouldn’t have to undergo what can be very uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal on your own.
You will likely not know if someone is experiencing a blackout until the following day. However, if you notice someone showing signs of intoxication, encouraging them to eat and drink water can limit their chances of a blackout. Also, leaving in pairs or groups can increase safety and limit blackouts. Watch their drink and make sure they take their glass with them if they leave the room. If they inform you that they have experienced a blackout the following day, help them try to piece together the events. If they were injured or assaulted, both physically or sexually, encourage them to seek medical attention immediately. If someone you care about frequently experiences blackouts, encourage them to seek treatment at an alcohol rehab.
When undergoing treatment for alcohol use disorder, you might be taking medications you must continue to take after treatment. This can result in needing to start over with a new pharmacy that may or may not accept your insurance or have the medication you had been taking. SUN Behavioral Health Columbus wants to solve this unmet need, so we offer an onsite pharmacy to handle your medications even after your treatment. Located in Columbus, OH, we want to give you a safe place to find healing. For more information or to start your alcohol use treatment, call us at 614-706-2786.
People have blackouts when they drink because their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is high enough to impact the brain’s ability to form new memories.
You can prevent blackouts by not drinking on an empty stomach. Also, making sure that you are drinking water as well can decrease your chances. Ultimately, limiting the amount of drinks you have in 2 hours based on gender will also reduce your chances of blackout.
There are multiple reasons why you might get drunk quickly. It could be because you are smaller in weight, female, drinking more than you should, or drinking on an empty stomach.
Skip the emergency room and come to SUN for all of your behavioral health and substance use disorder needs
For a medical emergency, including a drug or medication overdose, call 911 immediately.