Councilwoman Burke on why she opposes letting bars sell mixed drinks to-go: 'I struggle with my alcoholism'

click to enlarge Councilwoman Burke on why she opposes letting bars sell mixed drinks to-go: 'I struggle with my alcoholism'
Daniel Walters photo
Early on, Councilwoman Kate Burke earned a reputation on City Council for being a passionate — and sometimes fiery — defender of homeless and low-income residents
Last month, Washington state's Liquor and Cannabis Board altered rules to allow bars and restaurants — struggling mightily during the stay-at-home order — to sell sealed bottles of alcohol for customers to take home. On Monday, the Spokane City Council sent a letter asking the board to go one step further, allowing old fashioneds, Manhattans and greyhounds to be sold to-go as well.

"Including complete mixed drinks and cocktails, sold in LCB-approved containers, this temporary policy would greatly help licensees in the city of Spokane survive during this period of unprecedented business restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic," the letter reads.

But while six council members voted to support the letter, one, Councilwoman Kate Burke, voted against it. Her signature will not appear on the letter.

At other times throughout her tenure on the council, Burke has generally bristled at what she's seen as giveaways to businesses or developers, wondering whether incentives actually pay off.

Part of her "no" vote comes from that sort of skepticism — she wonders whether asking the Liquor and Cannabis Board to allow selling mixed drinks to-go will actually make much of a difference at this point. 

“Selling a few cocktails sold toward the end of COVID is not going to save a business,” she says.

But this time, there's also deeper, more personal motivation to her vote.

"I know that a lot of businesses make money from alcohol," she said at a Council Finance Committee meeting on Monday. "But there’s also a lot of people who are trying to stay sober during this time.”

She elaborated in an interview with the Inlander Tuesday.

"I am an alcoholic," Burke says. "I struggle with my alcoholism. I know I have a lot of friends who are struggling right now as well. Being in this situation. I don’t think we need to push alcohol on more people."

For years, she says, she'd used alcohol as a way to treat her undiagnosed anxiety. She'd drink before parties to feel more confident. She'd drink after a rough day as a way to cope. She'd drink as a reward for a particularly productive day.

She didn't have a problem, she thought.

When her partner, Devon Wilson, would gently ask her if she actually wanted to have that additional beer, she found herself getting defensive and irritated.

"It was just the alcoholic brain in me, saying, 'I've got this. You don't need to micromanage me,'" Burke says. "That kind of mentality that you get when you think that you can do these things without having consequences."

But she also found that drinking began to start driving problems instead of solving them.

"I was afraid I would drive after three drinks. My anger was getting worse. My irritation was getting worse," Burke says. "I didn't want to get on Twitter late at night if I had a few drinks and say something I didn't want to say. I didn't want to say things to my friends that were rude and unhelpful in certain conversations. And it was leading toward that."

In particular, she recalls a camping trip in September of 2018.

"It was just an excuse for me to get drunk because I was on vacation," Burke says. "And I just treated a few of my friends really poorly."

She woke up. She'd puked. And on the nine-hour drive back home, as she stewed in her misery and self-hatred and sickness and hungover guilt, she had an epiphany: Her drinking needed to stop. 

"I hit a point in my life where I realized that if I wanted to keep everything good in my life, I needed to drop drinking," Burke says. "Because I had this feeling and this notion and this intuition that I was going to lose everything."

If she wanted to keep her home, her job, her partner, her friends, she needed to prevent her addiction from overwhelming them.

"There's only so much room in your cup," Burke says.

The first five months of sobriety were the most difficult. Her anxiousness got worse. She would get that panicked breathless feeling of not knowing what to do or how to act. The same conversations would play over and over and over again in her head on a loop. She couldn't sleep.

“I, all of a sudden, just craved sugar stuff," Burke says. "I’m totally addicted to gummy bears, which is a better tradeoff."

Eventually, she started seeing results. Her skin felt better, her hair felt better. She lost a few pounds. But it wasn't so simple. There were underlying issues, she says, that quitting drinking laid bare but didn't automatically solve.

So she began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Burke stresses that's she's not speaking on behalf of, or even endorsing, AA. But she says she found the community, and the steps they led her through, working on a way to heal herself completely, invaluable.

"Just to be around people who get it and understand it and have stories, you just have immediate allies around you," Burke says. 

That, she says, is what's so frightening about the coronavirus crisis.

"The human connection we're used to is gone," Burke says. "It's great to do a meeting on Zoom, but it's not the same. It scares me. I'm thinking about all the alcoholics out there every day. Trying to get by and hoping they can have support."

If she were still using alcohol, she says, she could easily picture herself spending all day drinking during the stay-at-home order, knowing that she wouldn't have to get up the next day to go anywhere. 

“I already have a friend of mine who went on a 13-day bender," Burke says. "It’s a scary time, if you have any mental health or depression or anxiety issues, especially if you live alone. “

And so, despite recognizing the importance of alcohol to the local economy, she argues that it's "such a harmful drug to a lot of people that I just feel like we just don't need more of it."

"America is so alcohol-friendly. You can go to a grocery store and buy it. You can order alcohol from a restaurant right now in a bottle," Burke says. "I don't understand why we need to do cocktails. It's like we keep expanding this — alcohol is everywhere! It's already so much."

Despite all the focus on the damage by meth and opioids, alcohol kills more people than every drug overdose combined.

City Council President Breean Beggs praised Burke for sharing her experience.

"I thought it was powerful what she said," Beggs says. "It's very vulnerable and real."

But while Burke's story made him pause, he says he ultimately signed the letter for the liquor control board. 

Beggs says he's concerned for those who have addiction problems — but he believes it's more the government's role to try to help them rather than to restrict or reduce access to addictive substances that are already deeply part of our culture.

"We're governing for the whole entire community," he says.

It's not the first time Burke has been willing to speak out about a harrowing personal experience. Before being elected, she spoke out about her experience being sexually harassed by a former City Council member.
"A lot of people don't agree with what I'm doing, being so honest and authentic," Burke says. "But I do think that people who are struggling, seeing a leader who has also struggled, and continues to have to work on herself can be very validating for a lot of people."

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...