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Alcohol, ‘blackouts’ and young women

I’ve raised the issue of alcohol-related sexual assault and young women many times over the years and it is certainly one of the most difficult topics I deal with when I visit schools. To have a Year 10 girl divulge to you that she has been sexually assaulted, whether she was intoxicated at the time or not, is extremely confronting and something you never forget – ever. Some of the young women I have come in contact with have already reported the assaults and simply want to share their stories in the hope that I can warn others about the risks, whilst others have never told anyone and the mandatory reporting process that follows can be very difficult for all concerned … If there is a positive in this area it’s at least we’re beginning to have the conversation around violence towards women, sexual or otherwise. Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty is to be commended for using her platform so effectively to get the issue on the political agenda, while long-time advocates like Melinda Tankard Reist work tirelessly for social change.

When it comes to alcohol-related sexual assault, however, there is one issue that we rarely talk about and that is ‘blackouts’. This week I was approached by a 15 year-old girl who wanted to discuss a recent experience that she was really struggling with …

A number of weeks before I met Liza she had been out with friends on a Saturday night and had simply drunk too much. Most of the evening is ‘fuzzy’ to say the least, but after a certain point there is absolutely nothing – no memories at all. What she does knows has been told to her by others who were with her that night … Apparently she became too drunk for her friends to look after and had obviously become an annoyance and was impinging on their fun, so a decision was made to call a cab, put her into it and send her home. Liza remembers none of this – she has no recollection of being that drunk, being put into a taxi and absolutely no memory of how she made it from the car to her bed (where she found herself the next morning). She is traumatised by the whole incident – she made a mistake and drank too much but now feels guilty, full of shame and terrified about what may have happened during those missing hours. According to her friends she did not pass out, she was walking and talking (although not well), she just can’t remember anything!

I couldn’t tell you how many times I
have been asked by students, usually young women, about  ‘blackouts’. Usually
the question goes something like – “What does it mean if after drinking a bit,
I can’t remember what happened the night before?”

Blackouts are believed to be caused when high levels of alcohol reach the hippocampus (the learning and memory centre of the brain), disrupting the formation of long-term memories. This is a simplification of a very complex process but essentially memories are formed by an event occurring and then that short-term memory of what just happened is ‘imprinted’ into a long-term memory – you are then able to remember what happened in the past. Alcohol disrupts this ‘imprinting’ – you can walk, talk and answer questions, but alcohol prevents your memories of what is happening to you at the time from being imprinted into events you will be able to remember an hour later or the next day. Although anyone, regardless of age, can experience a blackout, research suggests that young people are far more susceptible. Due to the hippocampus not being fully developed until the early to mid 20s, the memory centres of the adolescent brain are more likely to be affected, therefore the greater risk of blackouts.

Recently an extract from a book called Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sara Hepola, was published onlineI haven’t read the book but the extract is well worth a read  – one interesting quote that provides a little more insight into the phenomenon of blackouts is as follows:

“Although some people learned to detect my blackouts, most could not. Blackouts are sneaky like that. There is no definitive way to tell when someone is having one. And people in a blackout can be surprisingly functional: you can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of your past. The next day, your brain will have no imprint of these activities, almost as if they didn’t happen. Once memories are lost in a blackout, they can’t be coaxed back. Simple logic: information that wasn’t stored cannot be retrieved.”

Liza was mortified about what had happened to her and really needed to talk to a professional to process the experience and forgive herself. As already said, she felt guilty, full of shame and was terrified about what may have happened to her during the blackout period. Please god, nothing bad happened to her during that time – from what she said, it sounds as though nothing did! Unfortunately that is not always the case and some young women do come out of these blackouts to find themselves in compromising and dangerous situations, often with no memory of how they got there! 

It needs to be made clear that blackouts and memory lapses are not ‘normal’ and usually occur only when significant amounts of alcohol have been consumed. As much as it is important to let young people know the dangers of alcohol poisoning and the importance of calling for help should someone lose consciousness after drinking, it is also vital to inform adolescents that not remembering what happened the night
before is a warning sign that they are
drinking too much – it is not simply a ‘part of the alcohol experience’ as many of them believe. If they ever experience a blackout when drinking, whether it be for a minute, an hour or whatever – pull back a little and try to drink a little less. Educating both young men and women about blackouts and the fact that there are people in this world
who may take advantage of this type of situation is extremely important. 

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If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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