An alcohol blackout is not the same thing as passing out from alcohol drinking. When a person passes out from alcohol drinking they will become unconscious, comatose, sometimes at risk of death due to continued absorption of alcohol into the blood after the drinker has passed out, perhaps in danger, and in need of protection. Urgent medical assistance is required if you believe that a person has consumed a toxic level of alcohol before passing out.
The alcohol blackout however, is a completely different situation. An alcohol blackout can occur after drinking any amount of alcohol, although alcohol blackouts are most commonly associated with people who have an extremely high tolerance for alcohol. Alcohol blackouts happen, with people who can drink and continue to function – with absolutely no memory of the event.
Two books written about alcohol blackouts are The Alcohol Blackout - walking, talking, unconscious and lethal - by Donal F Sweeney in 2004, and the sequel “Cries from the Abyss” – Alcohol Blackouts Revealed – also by Sweeney are definitive works for anyone concerned about alcohol blackouts that they have, or alcohol blackouts in loved ones.
When a person has suffered an alcohol blackout and is unable when next awakening to remember what they were doing when they were intoxicated, it is not that they have lost their ability to access their memory and remember what they did.
During an alcohol blackout – no memories are created. Alcohol blackouts can be complete – in that a person has no recorded memory for a complete period of time, or they can recall parts of a sequence of events, but do not realise that there are “gaps” in their memory of the complete sequence unless their memory of the events is specifically raised as an issue.
Alcohol blackouts are a form of amnesia brought on by alcohol drinking. Chronic alcohol abusers who frequently suffer from blackouts might be bemused and express concern about their plight in being unable to recall the events of the night before, but as with alcohol hangovers, there can be a tendency to shrug off both hangovers and blackouts as being a serious problem for the drinker.
Alcohol appears to affect the transfer of short term memories into permanent long term memory. Even with small to moderate amounts of alcohol drinking, it can produce what Ryback (1971) called cocktail party memory deficits - an inability to remember another persons name, or what has just been said in conversation. Formal studies show that with modest alcohol drinking people will have difficulties learning items on a word list, or learning to recognize new faces.
As the dose of alcohol increases, so does impairment of memory.
The loss of or severe interruption to the ability to form long term (permanent) memories is a very serious matter.
An inability to encode and store autobiographical memories has implications for the experience and integrity of Self. Autobiographical memory is our history, memories selected and stored referenced to their meaning and importance to us, a unique imprint of our history, a record of our journey in life.
To lose a part of our historical life due to an inability to have recorded it can have profound psychological effects. To have part of our autobiographical history recorded in a manner that is incoherent, jumbled and fragmented is disturbing.
People with dementia, post traumatic stress disorder, some types of mental illness can be filled with anxiety, become depressed when attempts to access memories bring a sense of “nothing” being there, or the conscious mind becomes “flooded” with fragmented and disturbing memories from the past.
Sometimes fragmentary memories can emerge as “flashbacks”, with an intensity that makes people feel they are going “mad”, that they have lost control of their mind. Alcohol abuse causes mental disorder and memory disturbance, and effects can be intensified when alcohol is used with stimulant drugs.
A person who is suffering from the effects of an alcoholic blackout might feel guilty or ashamed - it is pointed out in the reference work – The Alcohol Blackout - that the frequency of alcohol blackouts is typically under reported, as is the experience of having problems with alcohol drinking.
People can of course get themselves into enormous amounts of trouble during an alcohol blackout. Whatever a person chooses, or feels impelled to do, seems to occur without restraint, and without connection to intellect or conscience. The high levels of alcohol in the body sedates the brain functions that usually cause us to have inhibitions and to moderate our behavior. When in an alcohol blackout, we are merely responding to our environment in a reactive manner – a walking, talking zombie.
Regular alcoholics for whom blackouts are commonplace speak of waiting in the morning after to hear reported back to them, the details of what they were doing while in a state of alcohol induced fugue. The feedback can be alarming – performing unprotected sex with a complete stranger, with nothing of the entire event recorded in the memory, people have woken up to find that they have committed murder, assaulted someone or otherwise got into trouble with the law.
The events that people with alcohol blackouts get involved in can be profounding disturbing but the worst aspect of any alcohol blackout is the total lack of recall for the events, in the alcohol drinker.