What Happens When You Black Out?
Although most people equate a “black out” with losing consciousness, the term has a different meaning in addiction medicine. If someone passes out—collapses and loses consciousness—while drinking alcohol, that’s a potentially life-threatening situation and requires medical attention. By contrast, a person who is “blackout drunk” seems awake and functioning, perhaps even “normal” in behavior. Once the intoxication wears off, though, he’ll remember little if anything of what happened.
What Causes You to Black Out?
Not everyone who gets drunk blacks out, but it takes a high blood alcohol level (roughly double the maximum for legal driving) to trigger a blackout. Alcohol slows the brain’s functions and, above a certain point, can temporarily paralyze the ability to transfer short-term memories (recall of what happened a few minutes earlier) into long-term storage (lasting recall of what happened hours, weeks, or decades ago).
- Brownout: a partial or fragmentary blackout.
- Complete blackout: permanent loss of recall for a certain period.
- En bloc blackout: a complete blackout spanning several hours.
- Fragmentary blackout: recalling a period of time in scattered segments with memory gaps between.
- Graying out: retaining vague memories that can be accessed only with effort. Can also mean suffering a partial or fragmentary blackout.
- Partial blackout: a condition where some memory of the period is retained, though often needing reminders or prompts for recovery.
Risk Factors for Blacking Out
Your risk of suffering a blackout increases if:
- You’re hungry, fatigued, or under stress
- You gulp rather than sip your drinks (most people who black out have consumed at least four or five drinks within two hours)
- You have a high proportion of body fat
- You have epilepsy, diabetes, or heart arrhythmia
- You smoke
- You’ve taken THC, anti-anxiety medications, or benzodiazepines
- You’ve experienced one or more blackouts in the past
- You have close relatives with a history of alcoholism accompanied by blackouts
That doesn’t mean you’re safe if none of the above apply to you. The only sure guarantee against an alcohol blackout is drinking little or no alcohol.
Black Out Symptoms
Of course, if you black out, you’ll be in no condition to recognize symptoms. But if you see someone else exhibiting the following behaviors in an alcohol-consumption context, they may be blackout drunk.
- Staring into space, even while responding to conversation
- Being easily distracted, or constantly “losing their place”
- Frequently repeating themselves
- Obvious “drunken” behavior: seeming physically off balance, slurring their speech, acting recklessly and/or out of character
But the decisive factor separating blackout drunk from “ordinary” drunk shows itself only the morning after: actual forgetting of the night before, often characterized by acting as though the most embarrassing moments never happened (because, in the blacked-out mind, they never did) and by becoming defensive—perhaps suggesting you must be remembering wrong—if you mention witnessing inappropriate behavior.
I Had a Blackout – Now What?
Although many blackouts are due to one-time carelessness, any blackout is a warning of possible worse trouble to come. Pay attention if you wake up foggy about what happened the night before, or if anyone mentions things you don’t remember doing. Don’t be afraid to ask a trustworthy friend what actually happened, and definitely don’t use, “It couldn’t have been that bad, or I’d surely remember,” as an excuse for dismissing what others remember. Denial is the path to life-dominating alcohol use disorder, and to permanently damaged health, careers, and relationships.
Don’t let blackouts help alcoholism ruin your life. Tell your doctor if you ever black out: if they recur, or if there are other signs of drinking getting out of control, talk to an addiction specialist. The earlier a problem is caught and treated, the more time you’ll have to make lasting memories without regrets.
Wake up from Alcoholism at Beach House
Frequent blackouts, and other symptoms of alcohol use disorder, should never be brushed off: if allowed to continue, alcoholism will only get worse. Seek help before you hit bottom. At Beach House, we offer medically supervised detox for the immediate physical problem, and inpatient rehab for planning a healthy future. Contact us to learn more about our recovery programs for alcohol and other substance use disorders.