Sarah Levy, DRINKING GAMES: A Memoir

Sarah Levy, DRINKING GAMES: A Memoir

Zibby interviews debut author Sarah Levy about Drinking Games, a candid and poignant new memoir in essays about her journey to sobriety. Sarah shares the details of her story–it involves blackouts, forgotten hookups, eating disorders, debilitating perfectionism, and ultimately, the decision to get sober. She also talks about what it has been like to put her darkest secret into words and share them with the world, from an article in The Cut to a published memoir. Finally, she talks about her recent move to LA and the books she has read recently and loved.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Drinking Games: A Memoir.

Sarah Levy: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I was so excited to get this book. I was like, oh, the perfect cover, a great title. I couldn’t wait to dive in. Yay!

Sarah: Thank you. I am so excited to talk to you about it.

Zibby: First, tell listeners what it’s about in general.

Sarah: Drinking Games is a memoir in essays about my experiences living in New York City right out of college, growing up in a “work hard, play hard” culture, and how my life changed when I got sober in my twenties.

Zibby: You go into depth about your blackout experience and even defining the difference of a brownout and a blackout and how you may have inadvertently triggered this phenomenon with this one drinking experience you had early on. Talk about your blackouts. Give an example or two that you give in the book because they’re quite dramatic. I thought I blacked out, but not like this. This is quite an extreme.

Sarah: It’s so funny to even hear you say that because for so long, I thought that that was just normal. I thought the way I drank and the way that I blacked out was normal. Basically, what would happen to me, really from some of the first experiences I had drinking, was that I would be drinking and be engaged with people around me and having fun and talking to my friends, and then it would be like a light switch would flip off in my brain. I would wake up the next day with no memory of anything between that light switch and the moment that I was waking up in my bed. It wasn’t that I was passing out and falling asleep in that moment. It was that my brain was no longer forming short-term memories and was no longer logging the interactions that I was having in real time. Yet I was awake and still able to function. I would continue having conversations. I would be able to walk, order more drinks for myself, make out with someone, take pictures. I was on autopilot. It’s crazy to think about now. I was a robot, essentially. There were certain tells that I had. My friends would tell me they could tell if I had blacked out because I would be asking the same questions over and over because I would have no memory of the fact that they had just told me what bar we were going to next or whatever we were talking about.

It happened most times that I drank. I really thought that it was, like I said, normal. I thought it was a sign of a really fun night. It was pretty normalized when I was younger. Oh, we’re going to black out tonight. We’re going to have a crazy night. It got scarier for me in my twenties living in New York City because I was waking up in strangers’ apartments and in really scary situations that I had no memory of getting myself into. A couple of examples that I give in the book are, one of my first times blacking out was, I was at a party in high school. There was a guy that I liked there. He said something that kind of hurt my feelings. I just started to drink because that was what I thought you did. You wanted to change or alter your state, you had a drink. That was what had been modeled for me in TV and movies.

I didn’t know what a normal cocktail was. I didn’t know how to pour a shot. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time. I poured myself a whole cup of vodka, a Solo cup of vodka as if I was pouring a glass of water. I just drank the whole thing. The light switch went off. I don’t remember anything else. I have since talked to people who were at that party. I carried on throughout the night and was playing drinking games and was awake and alert and stuff until I started throwing up and was eventually brought home to my parents. I don’t remember anything from that night still. My blackouts, I was essentially operating in my body, but my brain was not aware of what was going on. It went on for over a decade until I had my last blackout a few days after I turned twenty-eight. That’s where the book starts in a lot of ways, is that last blackout and how it prompted my decision to get sober and eliminate alcohol.

Zibby: How did it? Can you talk about it more?

Sarah: That last blackout, what had changed for me was I felt like I had lost the power of choice when it came to how drunk I was going to get. That was really scary. I had always been able to sort of justify the way my night had ending. It was my birthday. It was a really fun party. Everyone was drinking a lot. Throughout the last couple of years of my drinking, it had been harder and harder to tell myself those stories. My last night that I drank, I had gone into the night not wanting to get drunk. It sounds really silly, but I had booked a workout class for the next morning. I paid for the class, and so I was going to be at that class. Instead, I went to happy hour. I met up with some friends for drinks. Then I had a dinner with my then boss. Once we all started drinking, I just really had a hard time stopping, which was scary. I kept drinking. Some of his friends ended up coming over. We all went out. The last thing I remember is being in a taxi on the way to go dancing with all of these people. I woke up the next morning next to my boss’s best friend, which is really shameful even now to remember it, and felt horrible at the time.

I did not want that. I did not want to be there. I didn’t remember what had happened between us. I had no intention of doing that and having that be the way my night ended. I missed my workout class. I was so hungover. I just felt so awful. I had these goals for myself. I had things that I wanted to accomplish. I had this idea of the type of woman that I wanted to become and the type of person that I wanted to be. I had this moment when I was walking home from his apartment having a walk of shame the next day where I was just like, every time I drink, it takes me farther and farther away from being that person that I want to be. It was this tiny sliver of desperation and willingness to try something different and just see what happened. Every year, I would make resolutions that I wasn’t going to drink as much. I would tell myself I’m going to try to control my drinking. I’m going to limit the amount of drinks that I have. I really didn’t want it to be so black and white that I had to abstain altogether. I really didn’t like that idea of being so extreme and so dramatic, but my drinking was pretty dramatic. I was just like, maybe I need to try abstaining altogether and see what happens. That’s what I did.

Zibby: There’s so much about alcoholism, but it feels like this is not — do you consider yourself to be an alcoholic?

Sarah: For a long time, I hated that word. I really did not identify with it. I think that the label doesn’t matter so much to me now. Whether we call it alcoholism or alcohol use disorder or a binge-drinking problem or whatever we want to call it, I consider myself to be someone who cannot drink safely and who has lost the ability to drink and has lost the privilege of being able to drink. I can’t do it safely anymore. I didn’t know I was allowed to feel that way. I thought that alcoholics were people who had lost everything in their lives, who were much older than I was, who were unemployed or divorced or whatever. I had this image in my head of something that I didn’t think I was. The truth is, I think if I continued drinking the way that I was, I could’ve become that. I also think that — I write about this in the book. We’ve made such strides in the way that we talk about mental health and the way that we talk about sexual assault and how nuanced it can all be. I think that alcoholism and addiction is not far behind. Yeah, I think I drank alcoholically. I think that if alcoholism is defined as being powerless over alcohol once you start to drink, in a lot of ways, I was because once I started to drink, I didn’t really know how my night was going to end. That, to me, is not having power over it. I try not to think too much about the label because ultimately, being sober has helped me in so many ways. That’s what I always say to people who are like, I don’t think I’m an alcoholic, but I feel like I might want to stop drinking. It’s like, great, so just take a break from drinking. You don’t have to worry about it. No one has to diagnose you with something for you to decide to make that change.

Zibby: The only differentiating factor, I would think, is there’s a genetic component to alcoholism. Some people know they just have to watch out. They know they shouldn’t even start. That’s why I was just wondering.

Sarah: It’s a great question. I didn’t have that in my family. My parents are normal drinkers. There’s no history of alcoholism that I know of in my immediate family tree, but I also don’t know. I’ve since had conversations with other relatives. They’re like, so-and-so definitely couldn’t drink without getting sick. It was generations ago, so they didn’t, maybe, have the same language. I don’t know. I think there’s still a lot of shame and a lot of secrets around alcoholism and addiction in families. Sometimes it’s not spoken about very openly.

Zibby: You wrote about how on the outside, nobody would ever really know this about you. You were so high-functioning. Everything was fine. You were so capable, all of the good stuff. Yet there was still this secret that you felt like you were hiding. Now it’s a memoir. You have it out everywhere, and so it’s the opposite of a secret. What made you want to share it? Why now? How do you feel now that it’s out in the world?

Sarah: I was always the kid that my parents didn’t have to worry about. It was always like, Sarah’s fine. She does well in school. It all looked good on the outside. I was a perfectionist and really prided myself in that and being high-functioning and was going to go to the best college and just do everything by the book. Yet I was in a lot of pain. I felt really uncomfortable in my own skin from as early as I can remember. I struggled with food and eating disorders. Then alcohol became kind of a solution for me. I did a lot of hiding and kept a lot of secrets. Even when I made that decision that I was talking about of that moment of, I think I’m going to try getting sober, I never thought I would talk about it publicly. It was my biggest, best-kept secret for about a year. I would go to bars with friends and order a shot of water and take a shot of water when everyone else was taking tequila shots because I just was mortified at the thought of anyone knowing that I wasn’t drinking. Over time over that first year, I slowly started to become more comfortable with myself. I became more confident in my decision not to drink. I started to feel better. I also had always wanted to be a writer and had studied writing and English in college and read all the time. I started to have this seed in my head. What if I wrote about this? They always say write what you know. For a long time, my writing really reflected how I was living my life, which is, it was just nonsense. I was trying to write things that I thought I should write. I had all these great ideas, but I wasn’t actually writing anything. It was smoke and mirrors. I would get really drunk and talk about the book I was writing, and I had not written anything.

I was starting to live more authentically and journaling a lot and just feeling more connected to my voice as a writer. I, on a whim, pitched an essay to The Cut about my experiences dating sober in that first year and how uncomfortable it had been and how I really felt like a teenager in a lot of ways. They say when you get sober, you kind of regress to the age that you were when you drank for the first time. Emotionally, I felt fifteen going on these dates with thirtysomething-year-olds. I wrote that essay. I was really scared. I was really scared of what the reception would be. A lot of people in my life still didn’t know that I was sober. My parents knew at that point, but not everyone knew. I was not public about it the way I am now. The response that I got was really amazing. I got messages from a lot of young women, just young people, who said that they really related, that they also had been struggling, and that they were acting like everything was still okay, that they were fine on the outside. It continued from there. I wrote other essays for different publications. I continued writing on my own. It became the idea for this book. I had read a lot of recovery, addiction memoirs. I felt like a lot of them ended at the point where the author got sober. I wanted to show and just share — for me, I felt like my life was going to be over when I stopped drinking. That was my genuine fear. Okay, I can’t do this anymore, and my life is over. No new friends. No boyfriend. No fun, but at least I won’t black out every weekend anymore.

It was the exact opposite. My life really started when I stopped drinking in so many ways. I was scared, but I wanted to share that. I thought maybe it could help someone. I felt like if I had found a book like this when I was struggling, it really would’ve helped me to just feel less alone and to feel like I could relate with someone who maybe on the outside looked and seemed like me but was struggling with the same things that I was. I wrote it now almost two years ago. A lot of it was written a while ago. How I feel about it coming out now — I’ve heard writers say a book is a moment in time. The things that I wrote, the way that I felt, the opinions that I have, I can look back on some of them now when I read it and think, oh, I don’t even necessarily know — more has continued to change since then, which is cool. I’m really proud of it. It is, it’s a moment in time. It’s exactly how I felt when I wrote it. All the things that are in it are true. They’re all my experiences. Enough time has passed since a lot of it has happened that I don’t feel the fear of, what are people going to think? I’m not in it the same way anymore. I hope it will help people. I hope that people will be able to connect to the storytelling and to the contents of it.

Zibby: When you’re not writing memoir, what do you do?

Sarah: This has taken up a lot of my life for the last couple years.

Zibby: I bet.

Sarah: I got sober in New York City. I lived in New York for years. I’m from there originally. My family’s still there. I moved to Los Angeles two years ago now. I moved with my now husband. He was my boyfriend at the time. We got engaged. We got married a year ago. We’re now newly married. We have a dog. What do I do when I’m not writing? I am still very much trying to find my footing in LA. It’s so different from New York. That has been a really humbling experience, moving to a new city in the middle of the pandemic. I very much still feel like I’m finding friends and finding a routine and finding my coffee shops and my rituals and places where I feel like myself, which I very much had in New York and am still trying to find in a new city. It’s been fun. It’s been a really exciting period of life to rediscover a new city. We hang out. We cook. I read books. I love to go on hikes. I like to spend time with my family. That’s a lot of what I do.

Zibby: There’s so many — I’m not even going to go into it. We’ll have to have coffee or something. I feel like I have so many similar things in basically every area that you’re talking about. I’m like, okay, how do you feel about chocolate? Let me try something. What do we not have in common here? It’s funny for me. I did move to LA from New York with the guy I was dating. We ended up breaking up. That was in 1998, so I’m much older. I had the same thing in West Hollywood, getting used to LA and figuring out where to go, what to do, finding my people, basically.

Sarah: It’s interesting because there’s so much overlap between New York and LA. People go back and forth. I really thought that it would be so easy and that it would just be exactly the same with better weather. I remember telling my husband, “I’ll just get a Metro card. I’ll be the person taking the subway. I’ll be the one taking the bus.” He was like, “No, you really want to drive in LA.” I knew how to drive, but I hadn’t driven in a long time. I had to get comfortable driving. I had to get comfortable parallel parking. In New York, you can leave your house in the morning and stay out until ten o’clock at night and just bounce around in the city. It’s like a wave. It just takes you from place to place. You have to be much more intentional with your time in LA and schedule your plans and know where you’re going. For me, I have to google parking before I go somewhere. The neighborhoods are so spread out. I feel like it’s a little suburban town within a big city when you’re in Brentwood or Santa Monica. They’re all so unique. It’s definitely very different. We’ve been here two years, and I still feel like that, new and figuring it out.

Zibby: These have been a weird two years. It’s not a fair test.

Sarah: Very true.

Zibby: Pandemic living, not the easiest way. Do you read other memoirs? I’m assuming you do. If so, which ones are some of your favorites?

Sarah: I love memoir. I love fiction. Recently, I read — I read it last year, Stray by Stephanie Danler. I loved that, especially with the LA-New York connection. She writes a lot about addiction in her family and with her parents and then how it’s impacted her relationships. I loved that. I loved that book.

Zibby: She’s in LA.

Sarah: Yeah, she is.

Zibby: That’s cool. I loved Stray. She’s a beautiful writer.

Sarah: She is a beautiful writer. I’m excited to read what she’s working on next.

Zibby: What about fiction? Any novels or all-time favorites or recent favorites?

Sarah: Recent favorites, I loved This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, who I know you had on. I listened to your conversation with her. I think I told everyone that I know to read that book. Obviously, I had my dad read it, my mom. I thought it was so beautiful. It really just hit on where I’ve been personally of being married now and living in a different city than my family. I lost my grandparents last year. I was very close to both of them. She put words to a lot of the emotions I had been having about the passage of time and feeling like there’s not enough time to spend with the people that you love most and wanting to really just capture every second that you have with them. It was, I thought, so beautifully written. I loved how she captured New York City. I loved it. That was my favorite book of the year.

Zibby: Amazing. How have you found being out in the world book marketing, all of that stuff?

Sarah: Oh, my gosh, it’s so wild. It’s everything everyone says. I thought that my job was over when I finished writing the book. It’s now been a completely different experience of being out and marketing and having these conversations. I’m really enjoying it. I’m excited to finally be talking about it because I’ve been working on it for a long time. Now it’s finally almost here. Also, it’s like a baby. I hope that people like it. I guess that’s not really how people feel about a baby. I feel like it’s very precious to me. I’m now talking about it with all these people. I hope that people will resonate with it. It’s also admitting that I don’t have control over the outcomes here. When you’re writing the book, you can just sit down every day and try to do your best and try to work on it. Now so much of the marketing and PR part of it all is out of your hands. It is what it is.

Zibby: I wish we had more time. It’s already been half an hour. It’s so fast. Thank you for coming on. I’ll be in LA. I’m in LA a lot, so I feel like we should have coffee or something.

Sarah: I would love that. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Congrats on Drinking Games. Very exciting.

Sarah: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Sarah: Bye.

Sarah Levy, DRINKING GAMES: A Memoir

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