Years ago as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, I treated a young woman who was traumatized as a result of her sexual assault at a fraternity party. She said she remembered going to the frat house with a group of friends. They had all been drinking in the dorm and were intoxicated when they arrived. The next thing she remembered was waking up naked in someone’s bed the following morning, but there was no one else around. She said there was “evidence of sexual intercourse,” yet she had no memory of it.
She said she could not imagine having had sex with someone and not remembering.
She told me she hastily got dressed and went downstairs where some of fraternity members were milling about the kitchen. She said she felt deeply ashamed as she thought, “I can’t ask any of these guys if I slept with them.”
So she went back to her dorm where she got an icy reception from her friends. She learned that she had been in bed with the fiancé of one of them. She also made a panicky trip to a pharmacy to purchase the “morning-after pill,” because she was not using contraception and didn’t know if a condom was used.
Although the young man later apologized to her, she was ostracized from her social group. She became clinically depressed and her grades suffered that year.
This young woman had experienced a “blackout,” which is very different from being “passed out.”
During a blackout it is possible to be awake, walking, talking and performing tasks, but the person will have no memory of these behaviors later.
When a man who is black-out drunk swears that he did not sexually assault his accuser, he may very well be telling the truth from his perspective. He has no memory of the assault, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Although the intense reaction to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination & appointment to SCOTUS has abated, it is important to keep examining the issue of alcohol and sexual assault in our society. This is a public health issue that does not get the attention it deserves.
The hippocampus of the brain is responsible for the acquisition of memories. Scientific studies have demonstrated alcohol-mediated changes in genes which are responsible for memory. Acute and repeated ingestion of alcohol results in suppression of these genes, which can cause a “black-out,” or failure of the brain to record events and retrieve them from memory later. Cell damage and death, or apoptosis, occurs in the hippocampus at an increased rate in the presence of alcohol. The body’s ability to repair brain cell damage is also weakened by alcohol.
We can help prevent these alcohol-mediated traumas from happening by educating young people about the effect of alcohol on the brain, supporting victims and not tolerating the “slut-shaming” of girls and women who are assaulted.
A friend of mine allowed his 16-year-old daughter to attend a “kegger” which was unsupervised by adults. He said he trusted his daughter. I asked if he also trusted all the boys and men at the party. Vulnerable people, especially young women need to protect themselves from the assaults that can and do happen in situations of heavy drinking.
A brain soaked in alcohol does not remember. It may pass a lie detector test, but that doesn’t mean it is making accurate statements.
DNP, APRN, PMHNP-BC, LCPC, Assistant Professor Community, Systems, and Mental Health Nursing
Rush University Medical Center