You’ll never regain the memory of what occurred in an alcoholic blackout, because you never committed the events to short-term memory in the first place. It’s as though, like a monkey, you are swinging from vine to vine of awareness and when you look behind you there’s nothing there anymore.
In her research-memoir hybrid, Wasted: a Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane, Elspeth Muir sifts through her own tattered consciousness, hunting for what has been lost. Her younger brother Alexander may well have been in a blackout himself when he left his clothes in a pile on Brisbane’s Story Bridge and either jumped or fell. Discovering which became his sister’s mission. Only one thing could be said with certainty: the twenty-one-year-old’s blood-alcohol level was 0.238. That’s the equivalent of about ten pints.
The cruel biology of blackouts was first described in detail in Dr Donal F Sweeney’s 2004 book, The Alcoholic Blackout: Walking, Talking, Unconscious and Lethal. A large quantity of alcohol can block the NMDA receptors in the hippocampus, preventing them from reacting to the glutamate neurotransmitter, thus inhibiting formation of memory. (These findings are backed up by a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.) Sweeney uses the imagery of a person in a blackout wandering along train tracks. They might notice a train is coming, but will lack the subsequent synaptic connections needed to surmise that it might hit them.
In Alexander’s case, it was a walk along a road bridge, one that is a notorious suicide spot in Brisbane. “Was there a knifepoint of consciousness or lucidity that, however briefly, sliced through the alcohol haze?” Muir wonders of her brother’s plummet. She considers his previous incidents of erratic behaviour, which friends had a tendency to view as derring-do: walking atop the arches of another bridge; run-ins with the cops over pranks; going missing and waking up on a total stranger’s couch after wandering into their house. Once, he’d even come to on the riverbanks near the Story Bridge, nestled in the mangroves. Was it a dry run? Muir can’t be sure.
As Wasted unfurls we discover Alexander wasn’t the only family member prone to drinking to confusion. On one occasion, when Alexander disappears after a funeral, Muir rings the emergency services to report him missing. She’s so drunk herself that she can’t tell the operator what city she’s in.
Muir doesn’t hold back from detailing every vomit and ungainly sprawl. Her twenties was “the most fun I had ever had. Every day was an adventure and each morning I woke up in a painful, joyful haze”. And yet, she describes falling asleep at work, surviving on packet noodles, begging train fares from “itinerant sex buddies”. She got an infection in her armpit, “an open sore that I couldn’t get rid of because I couldn’t give up drinking for the three weeks required for antibiotics to work”. Her share house was a storm of oversized personalities and extras: “Funnels of joy, anger, hilarity, irritation, sadness, fatigue and manic excitement whipped up quickly and subsided slowly.”
That Muir drifts through Wasted in a sort of fugue state—still binge-drinking as she retraces her brother’s footsteps—is of no detriment to the book. At first, the author is set on getting black-and-white answers, asking people variations of the same two questions: “What happened to Alexander? How might it not have happened?”
Her growing realisation that the terrain she’s exploring is all grey-area, potholed with doubt, will be a distress familiar to many drinkers. As I reach the final stages of writing my own book—research about women and addiction, stitched together by personal experience—I recognise the challenges of the unreliable narrator. Subjectivity is muddied by alcohol and amnesia, meaning the reader might trail us in concern, rather than be led confidently by the hand. Then there’s the attrition of writing about ordeals. Drug and alcohol clinicians call it vicarious trauma and are trained to protect themselves against it. My publisher calls it PTSD-by-association – “a common problem for investigative journalists”.
Over the course of writing Wasted, Muir grows as furious as she is rudderless. She wonders if she can blame her parents for Alexander’s death, then wonders if she should blame herself. In the process, she says, she has broken up with two boyfriends, a girlfriend, and a best friend.
Working in statistics and interviews may have brought some relief, grounding her thoughts in theory, but then she starts to drape the shroud of doubt over these interactions, too. After meeting the Red Frogs—the guardian angels of Schoolies revellers—she wonders if they might themselves be preying on teenagers, albeit for the purposes of religious conversion. Upon interviewing a father who has lost his son to a coward punch and now takes the message to schools, she muses over his way with a good quote. “This is what we do,” she writes. “We retell our stories, trying to find a way to maximise the impact. If I cut a word here, will it sound sadder? If I move this section?”
Muir even questions her own motives in flypostering Brisbane when Alexander was still missing. “In some way the posters suited my need for drama. I wanted people to know that this person has disappeared – that their lives might still be the same as they were yesterday, but other lives were not.”
In Wasted, drunk boys are in just as much danger as drunk girls – perhaps unsurprisingly, when the backdrop to much of it is the explosively violent Fortitude Valley. Another of Muir’s brothers, Patrick, has no cartilage left in his nose from all the bar-room brawls, and as Muir notes, between 2000 and 2014 there were ninety-one fatal one-punch attacks in Australia. In a sense, Alexander’s death was a lottery – in that there were so many other ways he could have died.
Muir pulls a passage from Jack London’s 1913 memoir, in which he describes an attempt to commit suicide by drowning:
In my case, healthy, normal, young, full of the joy of life, the suggestion to kill myself was unusual; but it must be taken into account that it came on the heels of a long carouse, when my nerves and brain were fearfully poisoned, and that the dramatic, romantic side of my imagination, drink-maddened to lunacy, was delighted with the suggestion.
In psychoanalytic terms, a death wish is an unconscious drive that motivates our behaviour – and that’s not unlike automatic drinking, the type that’s mechanical, unstoppable, even throughout a blackout. When drinking has become so habitual that there’s a feedback cycle between the mid-brain, which produces dopamine, and the striatum, which sucks it up and becomes highly stimulated. Correspondingly, there’s a decrease in activation of the prefrontal cortex areas responsible for judgement and decision-making. A person becomes a walking impulse.
But there can be a grim pleasure in that march towards destruction, too. A dopamine-fuelled mission with a very final sense of accomplishment. Freud posited that “The goal of all life is death.” Perhaps it is. But as Salman Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children, “We all owe death a life.”
Muir scrutinises the measures that might have saved Alexander: responsible service of alcohol at the bar he’d been drinking at, safety railings on the Story Bridge (which are now in place) and more lockout zones. She partially agrees with the friend who complains that she shouldn’t have to go home at 1am because the nanny state decrees it, but counters, “While most of us are allowed and encouraged to consume a product that releases our inhibitions, we need also to accept some measures that are put in place for those people who might react badly to that consumption”. It means, she says, “accepting that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity”.
It’s possible that Muir was powered by her own unconscious drive to write Wasted, because the pain it was going to bring would have put off most. She concludes of her brother’s death, “What a waste of a life that was.” Yet by determinedly documenting the drinking culture that coddled him, she has opened vital new lines of enquiry into our duty of care towards drinkers.
It’s a tragedy, but now, not entirely a waste.
Jenny Valentish wrote the novel Cherry Bomb about a DUI pop band on their own highway to hell. In 2017 Black Inc. will publish her non-fiction book about women and addiction.