Alcoholic Insanity (Different than you probably think)

Karin L. Burke
Karin L. Burke is a woman at large, full-time unemployed, writing a book, and sleeping on other people’s couches.  She started writing a blog that deals with domestic violence, alcoholism and recovery, and yoga as healing when a friend said she needed to publish her letters. 

"You have to give this away," the friend said, "This is what you needed to hear when you were getting sober.  This is what you needed when you were trying to leave that abusive *****.  This is what I've needed, at so many points in my life.  You have to give this away.  It isn't yours to keep."   

(More of Karen's bio at the end of post, after the jump.)

We are flattered that she has chosed to share some of her experience with the special insanity of alchoholism with us.


"The only thing there is to say," said another recovering drunk, "Is that alcoholic insanity is the mistaken belief that ‘this time it will be different’; it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘insanity’ in the way most people would use the word. It’s just that one simple thing: we keep drinking, thinking this time we’ll stay in control."

The word ‘insanity’ as used by Bill Wilson was supposed to mimic Einstein’s definition, or doing the same thing expecting different results.

There is another definition, though, that I remember from when I was a teenager. I suppose the saying is still around, but it struck me strongly then. "An insane person does not know they are insane; a sane person knows when they’re illogical."

This seems much more my kind of insanity. I never really believed ‘this time it’d be different’. I knew how I drank. Of course I drank after saying ‘only this much’ or ‘no more’ or ‘I think I’ll quit’. But that was only the behavior. The insanity itself was a thing I lived with, sober. And I did not know how sick I was. I didn’t realize I could be any different. I didn’t know how far gone I was. I had some vague idea that I was going to fix it, somehow. Someday.

My alcoholism was, of course, about how much and how often I drank. It was, of course, that strange phenomena of losing control, but somehow thinking I’d have control in the future. I had endless excuses: I was angry, that’s why I lost control. I have depression. I was going through a divorce. I had a terrible day. Also: screw it, fuck it, goddamn it all to hell and Line ‘em up, Jack. Line ‘em up again.

But that was the behavior, not the sickness. The fever, not the infection. I was sick in the way I spent money, had friends, thought of myself, had sex, thought of the past and the future. I was sick in the way I ate, in the letters I wrote, in the way I paid or didn’t pay my bills. I was sick in self-hating, sick in isolating, sick in keeping secrets. The career choices I made were sick. My family relationships were sick. I was so sick I pathologically avoided doctors, could not study, chronically underestimated myself.

To say I was ‘insane’ because I kept drinking is true. But there is some other truth that goes deeper.

I could write a book on the things I do not remember. It would be profound. And disturbing.

This is what I remember: I get tired of apologizing to my friends, and even more tired of the odd conversations we have about ‘their concern’. I roll through friends like the cheap calendars banks and pharmacies give out every January. I become a mysterious woman. I disappear.

I wake up with skinned palms and a split lip. I know I start the night in one place and end up in another. I realize – without ever thinking it through or coming to a definitive decision – that I need to be careful. Not “I need to slow down” or “I need to stop”, but “I need to be careful”. I have “safe drinking” and “social drinking” as separate personae. Social drinking occurs with friends, in social settings. “Safe drinking” is what I do at ‘my bar’. The bartenders know me. They know where I live. They even know how I break in when I lose my keys. They allow me to pass out in the back room, laying across the cases of beer, and will take me home in a cab at the end of their night. I have eight such bars. I do not want to always do this in the same place.

“Social drinking” becomes more and more strained. I know – again in that way where I have not given conscious thought, but have moved on instinct – that if I have a few drinks, I am liable to end up un-prettily drunk. I begin to lie. My stomach hurts. No, you know I’m not really wanting a drink right now. No, hard liquor upsets my stomach. Prior to these situations, I will have a six pack. Immediately upon leaving, I go to one of ‘my bars’.

I break up with a man because he leaves a toothbrush in my apartment.

I move to New Orleans. It is November, and I live in Minneapolis. I drive a shitty Plymouth without heat. The man I love, who has told me that he loves me, does not want me to go. “Winter is coming. My car has no heat. I need to move somewhere it’s warm”. And I drove, almost fell, down the continent, diving into New Orleans.

I stop drinking imported beer. Budweiser, I convince myself, tastes right. Available anywhere, cheaper by the dozen.

My lunch date cancels. I shrug, and start the evening early.

I stop paying bills and for the most part stop paying attention to how much money I have. It doesn’t matter. Bills are a thing I pay when the phone is disconnected or the electric company sends the envelope with the red stripe across the front.

I sometimes get my groceries at a local food-shelf. I don’t tell this to anyone. But I have enough money to drink.

Serious drinkers are smart. They have to be.

Every morning, I have to search for my cell ‘phone and my keys. Sometimes I find them in the refrigerator. Sometimes I don’t find them anywhere.

Occasionally, I get a phone call from a person I do not know. Sometimes, they express concern. They say ‘you know, you should be careful’.

I sleep with a married man for five years. I find his sock under my bed. I stare at it awhile, but don’t touch it. I wonder why I am lonely. Eventually, we stop. We both know it to be unhealthy. I start sleeping with another married man. This one lives in Uruguay.

I work as a barmaid. People sometimes ask why I do it, and I say the money is good. This feels like a lie. It’s true. But it feels like a lie because it isn’t the real reason. I work in the kind of bar where you are encouraged to drink during your shift. It’s expected. It’s protocol. The bathrooms always smell like crack cocaine. I find co-workers passed out. There is always a lingering smell of stale beer and vomit. It’s the kind of bar where you crawl up there and dance, maneuver your way on the 12-inch, sweaty wood of the bar. I wear a cowboy hat and a bikini top. Every third drink a customer buys, I buy him a shot. And do one with him. Someone wonders if I work there because I need the excitement, the adrenalin. I hate the excitement. I work there because I need a place that will let me drink the way I want to drink.

It’s not like I drink every night. But sometimes, I can’t sleep, and I go to the bar at three a.m.

I have words in my head that will not go away. I am laying in bed in my underwear. I find a Sharpie marker. I start to write the words on my legs. From the bottoms of my feet to my crotch. Slut. Worthless. Bitch. Crazy. Ugly. I cover my legs with the scribbles. I feel better afterward. Three days later, the markings are still there, though faded. Sharpies are strong stuff. It occurs to me that I perfectly stayed within the lines of what no one could happen to see. Nothing on an arm, where a sleeve might pull up. Nothing that anyone will ever know.

The cop kicks me and wakes me in the subway station at 14th Street. He keeps asking me what drugs I’ve taken and doesn’t believe me when I say it’s only alcohol. They take me to St. Vincent’s. I detox for four days. On my way home, again in the 14th Street subway station, I run into a friend. He asks me how I am, what’s new, what’s going on. I’m fine, I say, and smile.

Two weeks later, the same nurse is working when I arrive back at St. Vincent’s. Ain’t you done yet honey, she says. I look at her and shake my head No.

The third time, about a two months later, she is the one who shakes her head No.

I believe, somewhere in that unarticulated-arguments part of my brain, that I am ok because I don’t do drugs. I did drugs as a kid, got in too much trouble, and I kicked. Somehow, this argument does not take into account the nights I end up snorting coke in the bathroom. If it’s there, hey. Nor does it take into account the times I’ve realized I’ve just smoked crack. Nor does this seem to take into any kind of consideration the apparent breezy lack of control I have once I’m going. It’s not heroin, I think, it’s okay. I never really ask myself what will happen the day heroin does happen to be there. Hey.

I sometimes fantasize about drinking myself to death. Once or twice, I sort of intend to do this. But I go too slowly. I pass out sitting on the kitchen floor, my knees drawn up, the bottle with half a swig left in it. Laying on its side.

I spend an awful lot of time wondering what it is that’s wrong with me.

I’m raped at work. I don’t tell anyone. The next day, I go back. It was my boss. We never mention that night again.

I don’t know how sick I am. I know how I drink. I know that most of my life occurs as things I can never mention, never bring up as small talk or flirtation script. I know I drink too much, but I am so sick I don’t think that’s the problem. I think it’s something to do with my heart. I think there is something wrong with me. Alcohol brings me to the root of despair, but I don’t see that. I don’t know I’m crazy. In my version, I topple to the root of despair, and alcohol is the one thing that saves me.

~Karin L. Burke


Wanting more honesty in the world, Karin named the blog that began from her personal letters Whiskey and Porn for Everyone.  Karin writes from her own experience as a drunk, a barmaid who danced for tips, an abused woman, a journalist anthropologist, and social advocate of all stripes.  She's  shamelessly trying to raise money for yoga certification, and the income it'd allow, but would like you to visit the blog because you might find something you need there.

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