Alcoholism stains a person’s life. No one understands this better than Sarah Hepola, a New York Times bestselling author. Speaking from her own experience, Hepola has crafted a candid memoir about her life and eventual breakup with alcoholism. With drinking still prevalent today, personal accounts such as Hepola’s will always be relevant.
Do you believe movies and television shows glamorize drinking for people, setting unrealistic expectations?
Movies and television set unrealistic expectations for EVERYTHING. They’re like adult fairy tales that comfort us with pretty lies. So yes, Hollywood glamorizes drinking, and I ate up those images. I loved the vision of a woman with a cocktail glass in her hand. To me, that said “power” and “seduction” and “strength.” But Hollywood hasn’t been too savvy about portraying the shadow side of drinking.
In your memoir, you stated that “writers are often insecure by nature.” Could you explain why they are?
My guess is that writers are drawn from a more sensitive pool of humankind than, say, your alpha gladiator type. They are introverts and observers and over-thinkers. Part of the retreat toward writing is a longing to control things in a way we cannot in the real world. In my teen years, I became involved in drama, and developed a much more extroverted persona, but I never stopped struggling with this massive insecurity that I was not good enough. Good writers seem to be cursed to worry they cannot write. (Bad writers seem to be cursed to believe they can.)
Since being sober, what inspires your creativity?
Life, pain, deadlines. The creative impulse is always inside me. Ever since I can remember, I was mentally scribbling all day long. But I suffered with the fear that nobody cared. Alcohol pulled down those inhibitions, and allowed me to express myself. It did not inspire my creativity; it just gave me permission. The challenge now is to find that permission in myself. I write from bed most of the time, which is a terrible habit, but it makes me feel safe. Perhaps you will read my future memoir, “My Bad Back: Remembering the Stories I Never Should Have Written in Bed.” For now, it works.
Do you have any advice for college students when it comes to being around drinking?
I don’t have much advice for anyone except to try to keep beating a path toward who they want to be. I was a drinker for a long time. It was my identity, and it was my freedom. Eventually, I found myself lost and trapped. Funny how those things you thought would liberate you can turn in your hands. But if someone had said in my college paper: “Don’t drink!” I would have said, “OK, thanks, move along now.”
What motivated you to write about your experience? How does it feel to have all your failure and triumphs out in public?
I was desperate to do something in sobriety that I had never accomplished in my drinking years, and “write a book” was at the top of that list. I didn’t set out to write a memoir. At first, I thought maybe it would be a reported book about women and drinking. The more I worked on the material, though, the more I saw that the strongest sections were my story.
That said, it can make for an awkward first date. “So, what is your book about?” Gulp.
What has been the reaction among family and friends to your memoir?
My mom had a really hard time when she first read it. She read it with a lot of classic mom concerns: “Where did I go wrong? What could I have done?” But then she read it again, and again, and she tells me each time she reads it, she finds something new and feels a little more released from the guilt and shame. I know she’s sad I went through all that, but she’s grateful I could turn the experience into something useful for others. She thanks me now for writing it. She says it was a gift.
My friends are super cool about it, super supportive. Most of the people in the book had seen the pages about them before they published. Of course there are the inevitable tensions that do arise, but those were very minor for me. I lucked out with this one.
You wrote that “sobriety was the plot twist” to your story. Why was this so after previous attempts to stop drinking? What was different this time around?
It will always be a mystery to me why I stopped that day, and not the time before, or 20 times later. I had been trying to stop drinking for years at that point, and I’d been failing, and I was near hopeless. I do think I was so beat-down by all the failures. It’s demoralizing to fail so much. You lose trust in yourself. Sometimes the good news about being truly beat down is that you can finally surrender.
How much do you believe genetics played a factor in your drinking?
No question that genetics plays a big role in the way people drink. I’m Irish and Finnish, which is a potent combination. I was the fabled “girl who could hold her liquor” (recovery rooms are full of them). I was GOOD at drinking, probably because I hail from two strong drinking cultures, but that predisposes someone to drink more, and longer, which can lead to addiction.
Genetics alone is not enough to create a drinking problem. You have to lay a set of behaviors on top of that. I continually arranged my life so that I could drink as much as I wanted. I worked in alternative journalism, and lived in New York City. I found jobs, boyfriends, and bar buddies to enable my habit. I can’t blame everything on my DNA.