North Dakota's First Lady Shares Her Addiction Story At Recovery Event

By Paul Gaita 09/06/18

The First Lady says she became a recovery advocate because of the stigma around addiction.

Kathryn Helgaas Burgum
Photo via YouTube

Education, advocacy and empowerment were among the key topics of discussion at Recovery Reinvented 2018, a daylong event devoted to drug and alcohol dependency in Fargo, North Dakota.

A host of speakers were featured at the event, including news anchor and recovery advocate Laurie Dhue and Addiction Policy Forum founder/CEO Jessica Hulsey Nickel—as well as a figure known to many North Dakotans both in and out of the recovery community: Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, the state's First Lady, who with her husband, Governor Doug Burgum, is a key sponsor of Recovery Reinvented.

Burgum is also in recovery from alcoholism and fully understands the importance of such events. "I'm very passionate about addiction because it affects me personally," she told the Forum

Prior to her marriage to Governor Burgum in 2016, Burgum was a successful human resources and marketing professional for various companies. But her alcohol dependency required even greater time and attention than her employment; a self-described "high-functioning" alcoholic, Burgum told the Forum that she had been "going to work hung-over almost every day and trying to conceal that."

Burgum sought recovery from the Mayo Clinic, but it took a relapse that lasted eight years for her to devote herself fully to gaining sobriety. "That's really the miracle that happened for me," she recalled.

When her husband was elected governor in a landslide victory in 2016, Burgum decided to focus on advocacy for dependency and recovery. Chief among these was Recovery Reinvented, part of an ongoing series of initiatives that operates as a non-profit in association with the Dakota Medical Foundation; the event itself is produced in partnership with the state's Behavioral Health Division.

Its goal, as the website states, is to "eliminate the shame and stigma of addiction in North Dakota" through "proven prevention, treatment and recovery approaches."

Among the issues that Burgum supports: increased access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, which will be provided, along with training in its use, to attendees at the event. Burgum also supports public-private partnerships to assist individuals in returning to society after treatment through providing them with places to live.

"There are people that are willing to spend money sober houses," she told the Forum. "Because at some point when people start getting sober, they start paying rent. They start becoming members of the community."

Most importantly, Burgum said that she wants to change North Dakotans' perspective of people with dependency issues from, as the Forum noted, flawed or damaged individuals to ones with a chronic disease that needs treatment. 

"Part of the reason I [got into recovery advocacy] was that there was so much stigma around the chronic disease of addiction, which affected me as well because I didn't talk about it for 16 years," she told Fargo Monthly. "I just decided that if I could help other people reach out for treatment and seek help and find recovery by talking about my experience, then I felt like it would be worthwhile and to be grateful for that opportunity."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.