I wait for Sarah, listening to the muted sounds of traffic rushing past the window over the strums of indie rock from the ceiling speakers. We’re meeting at Houndstooth, a coffeehouse with an industrial-meets-hipster feel ... aka the style du jour for most eating establishments. The tables are pale blonde wood, with their brightly painted turquoise legs providing a stark contrast. The accent wall behind the counter is brushed metal, the other exposed brick. They serve malted matcha that has an “oatmeal” like taste, roasted coffee, and microbrew IPAs.
The chairs are barstools with no seat backs, as if they don’t want people to stay awhile. Still, that doesn’t stop the businessmen and college students hunched over their laptops for hours on end. It won’t stop us either.
The front door opens, and Sarah walks in. She’s wearing a maroon and teal paisley dress that skims her knees. Over it, she has a denim jacket and three-inch beige shoes with wooden wedge heels that she seems used to moving in.
Her hair is the color of wheat and just as straight, cut in layers that come to just above her shoulders. Her eyes are the same shade of cornflower blue as her jacket. She surveys the room, carrying an oversized purse that reminds me more of a tote bag. The entire outfit is calculated casual. She fits right in.
When we make our introductions, she greets me with a smile, friendly and polite, yet with an underlying hint of a smirk that seems to come naturally. I had only seen Sarah before in the pictures on her web site, parts of her pieced together from different eras of her life: the child with her proud school picture grin, the angsty preteen, the high schooler, dazed and drunken smiles, and the young woman with muddled, dyed red hair and a defiant glare.
Sarah Hepola’s personal memoir, Blackout, talks about experiences as an alcoholic prone to blackouts, and her recovery, helping others who are in the place she used to be. Her writing incorporates a matter-of-fact, and often self-deprecating kind of wit. For Sarah, humor means many things: a way to get people’s attention, a means of expression, self-defense, and a tool to be used wisely.
“They say you can experience life as a tragedy, or you can experience is as a comedy.”
When Sarah was 15, she discovered comedy was a much better way to experience the world. She wanted to be like her first boyfriend, Miles (an alias she gave in the book), who was the funniest person she knew. By learning his tricks, she discovered she could easily get away with a lot more by making someone laugh.
As she grew older, Sarah continued to copy the people around her, especially at her first job at the Austin Chronicle, and later at the Dallas Observer. Humor was a way to bond with her coworkers, bringing everyone closer together as they dealt with the annoyances of the world.
Still, she struggles with being close to people, and often finds her shyness, as well as trying to figure out what the heck to say, holds her back. Writing takes some of that shyness away. It gives her a reason to talk to people, which was what alcohol used to do as well.
She’s ordered hibiscus tea. It’s a bright, pinkish red, the color of her lipstick.
“[Blackout] was an attempt to integrate all parts of my personality. Because so much of drinking had been, ‘Oh, this is all really funny!’”
She takes a sip of her tea, careful while holding the cup, but once it’s safely on the table, her hands move like a symphony conductor.
“And then you wake up the next morning and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is a f------ disaster! It’s miserable. I’m in f------ hell.’”
When she speaks, her words come out quickly, like she’s trying to cram in as much as possible before the next question. Yet every response is thoughtful and well-crafted. Sarah seems used to living inside her own head, thinking and pondering all the time.
Reading Sarah’s memoir gives a glimpse into decades drenched in beer and riddled with lost time, one night stands, and reckless behavior. She comes across differently now, but that’s the whole point of being a chameleon: learning how to hide yourself. But instead of being invisible, Sarah’s camouflage is acting like someone else, be it the people around her or another, bolder version of herself. But there are many uniquely-Sarah parts to Hepola, as I’d come to discover.
After the interview, we agree to meet up a few days later for a photoshoot for the magazine. Sarah suggests an antiques and vintage clothing store named Dolly Python, one of her favorite places to shop.
We’re buried in the back part of the clothing section among the racks of kimonos, Kentucky Derby style feathered hats, gilded western jackets, and rows of cowboy boots. Above the racks are two Picasso-style paintings that take up nearly an entire wall dominated with red and punctuated by blues and yellows.
A fake skull with a candle stuck in a trepanation hole on top sits on a table with other knick knacks in front of a floor-to-ceiling length mirror next to the changing area. A tiny old dog with scruffy brown fur wanders the aisles, investigating the customers traipsing among its already strange environment.
Sarah loves the photobooth style shoot, using props to show different sides of her personality — her own props. She explains that she likes to collect wigs, then quickly calls herself “weird” for doing so. Carrying in tote bags and piles of clothes, she looks perfectly at home here too.
The first facet of Sarah is simple: studious and smart. No wig, just her, adding only a pair of glasses. There’s no change in the outfit she’s wearing: a black shirt, grey pencil skirt, black tights, and fire engine red knee high boots. Her brightly colored and immediately eye catching boots stay on the entire time, for every part of her.
She's holding Roads by Larry McMurtry, a book she’s currently reading. But we find another book titled Madame Sarah and decide it’s perfect. She gives another knowing, vaguely smirking smile, a challenge to the serious academic stereotype. Being the outlier seems to be her style, though she describes herself as being shy as a child and, even as an adult feels insecure and self-conscious.
Then it’s Sarah the femme fatale, in a long, blonde wig that’s the same color as her actual hair and a pair of sunglasses, evoking the idea of the dangerous, often uninhibited woman. But instead of a gun, Sarah’s weapon is her oft-used witty, often deadpan humor.
The lights of the patrol car flash in Sarah’s rearview mirror, painting the inside of her car in bright, rhythmic shades of red and blue. “What have you been doing tonight?” the police officer asks, peering into the rolled down car window. She had just left the Old Monk parking lot when he caught her. It’s for a simple reason: no headlights, but Sarah knows she’ll be in a lot more trouble if the police officer found out she was completely wasted. She has to think quickly, or risk potentially seeing the inside of a jail cell.
“Well, I’m going to be honest with you,” Sarah tells the officer. “I was making out with a guy back there in the parking lot” (that was true).
The officer blinks at Sarah for a moment. His stern eyebrows quickly shift into raised ones as the tension melts away. He bursts into surprised laughter.
“I did not expect you to say that.” In that moment she’s no longer an enemy, because she had made him laugh. He lets her go without a ticket.
Sarah admits to humor being a dark power. “You have to be careful that you’re not using it as a smokescreen for either bad behavior or real vulnerability.” Something she’s all too familiar with, having been on both sides of that barrier. But it’s hard to put down your weapon when you’re so used to using it.
When I ask her what she would be if she wasn’t a writer or an editor, Sarah immediately proclaims that she wants to be a dolphin, because they look beautiful racing through the water. A moment later, she finally admits she would love to be a mother, calling it “a really powerful experience.” She’s yet to find the right partner for her to be in a relationship with, much less have a child.
Making connections is something Sarah’s trying to get comfortable with when it’s just her, uninfluenced by alcohol. After decades of drinking, she’s still on the road to recovery to an alcohol-free life, and what kind of person she is without it. If humor is her weapon, alcohol was her shield. She lived behind the shield for so long that just being herself has been a struggle.
I watch Sarah as she adjusts her new wig in the mirror. It’s ink black, cut into a short, blunt bob. We decide this facet is Sarah being French, like the curious and adventurous main character from the movie Amelie. Finding a Polaroid camera from the 1970s amongst the store’s antiques section, Sarah reminisces about using a similar one when she was younger.
Exploration has always been in her blood. She’s currently working on a book comprised of multiple essays about travelling alone, having quit her job at 26 to explore South America for four months. At 27, she drove across the United States for five months, occasionally sleeping in her car and living “on baked beans and peanut butter.” But Sarah is careful to point out that traveling alone probably isn’t going to “fix” anyone like Julia Roberts’ character in Eat, Pray, Love, but merely expand their experiences.
We wrap up the day with a few shots of just Sarah with the giant Ronald McDonald head, using it to show Sarah’s humorous side: a painted mask, larger than life. She’s embraced her mask and the complexities that come with the various sides of her. Her conversational-style writing is also an extension of her that has been developed over time.
“I’ve always been a confessional writer and I think part of that was a form of control. I wanted you to see me in a certain way, so I was going to control the narrative.”
“And a lot of those stories in the early days were me trying to present myself in a certain way. It was a tightly controlled selfie with certain filters. I think I’ve loosened up a little bit and I understand that part of the art is allowing yourself to be seen without the filter.”
For so long that filter had been the amber-colored haze of alcohol. And though Sarah has been sober for a few years now, vestiges of her old life still linger.
It’s 4 p.m. after the end of the week from hell. There are too many hours left before bed, and Sarah finds herself overwhelmed with the thought of nothing to do other than stress about being stressed. It’s time for a “break the glass” emergency measure.
At 5’2”, she has to pull a stool over to her kitchenette, then proceeds to scale her shaker-style, white kitchen cabinets like Mount Everest, towards the box of double chocolate cupcake mix she has stashed up on the very top shelf. Letting out a grunt of frustration, Sarah struggles to reach for the box and finally snatches it from the recesses with a bellow of triumph.
Before she knows it, she’s stirring the bowl of batter, stopping to steal a spoonful.
Damn, that’s good.
She steals another, then prepares the rest to be baked.
An hour later, Sarah doesn’t notice that she has a dab of chocolate buttercream frosting just above her lip as she stands in her kitchen, staring at the trees as they billow in the breeze from the second floor window of her carriage house apartment.
Four empty cupcake wrappers, each one a different color, are strewn across her black and white checkered kitchen table. She feels a mixture of foolishness and masochistic accomplishment as she grabs another cupcake. Even though she’s full, she wants to eat every last one – and feels helpless to stop.
“I stopped drinking, but you can’t just cut out eating. My struggle will be to learn a healthy relationship [with eating]. Some part of me seems to refuse a healthy relationship. I’m hellbent on binge.”
All the cupcakes are gone. She immediately takes out the trash, and washes every dish. She doesn’t want to see what she has done. It’s a leftover ritual from her drinking days, the mountain of beer cans and cigarette butts replaced by a box of Duncan Hines and empty jars of peanut butter.
Sarah laughs helplessly as she sinks into herself, a look of guilt and regret flickering across her eyes. “This is not material. This is the struggle of my life. And it’s not the adventure I wanted to tell.”
Sarah wants many things. She wants to fall in love with a guy in California and drive into the sunset along Pacific Coast Highway. “I don’t want to tell the story where I’m on my cabinet, on my knees, trying to get the cupcake mix up on the top shelf.”
She stops herself, letting out another sad, almost bitter laugh, before stammering from a dawning realization. “But ... that’s material. And it is the adventure of my life,” she says softly.
“One of the adventures of my life will be to continue to confront and wrestle with my urge toward excess.”
While she imagined Blackout to be read by women in their 30s and 40s, she’s received a lot of feedback from young women in their 20s as well. Another surprising audience has been young men, as well as those in their 30s and 40s who have had their lives slowly destroyed by alcohol. Another project she’s working on will be an extension of Blackout, focusing on the concept of binging, especially regarding drinking on college campuses.
“When did college go from a place where we teach someone to be the best they can be to what one researcher has called ‘a training ground for alcoholics?’”
She tries to help people who are going through what she’s been through by giving talks, responding to them online and even going as far as to meet someone one on one. By reaching out and using her past to help people, it also helps bring her healing and a sense of meaning.
“I do it to keep myself alive, to keep myself from the pits of depression, looking for my meaning in a pint of Häagen Dazs.” She’s quiet for a long time before finally speaking.
“I do it because it feels good.”