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'It's up to me': ND’s first lady talks about her recovery, in advance of Fargo addiction event

Kathryn Helgaas Burgum was instrumental in launching the Recovery Reinvented conference to be held at the Fargo Civic on Sept. 5, 2018. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO — Tears come easily to North Dakota first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum when talking about her recovery from alcohol addiction, a journey that began more than 16 years ago.

"The emotion just comes through because I have so much gratitude," she said, adding, "I would not be here, if not for my recovery."

Helgaas Burgum, 55, spoke with The Forum recently about her experiences and the second annual Recovery Reinvented gathering she's hosting on Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the Fargo Civic Center.

The daylong event features experts speaking on three themes: eliminating the stigma of addiction, educating about the brain science of addiction and empowering communities to support people in recovery.

A 'high-functioning' alcoholic

Helgaas Burgum married her longtime partner, Gov. Doug Burgum, not long before he took office in December 2016. In the years before that, she worked for various companies as a human resources and marketing professional.

She described herself then as a "high-functioning" alcoholic, who was able to still do well on the job and even earn promotions.

She was, however, hiding a secret.

"I literally, truth be told, was going to work hungover almost every day and trying to conceal that," she said.

Her life revolved around managing her addiction, knowing when to stop drinking in the evening so she could function at work the next day. Eventually, her relationships suffered and she came to wonder how much better her life might be if she quit drinking.

She went to the Mayo Clinic for inpatient treatment and had a period of sobriety, but relapsed afterward because she didn't surround herself with people in recovery. That relapse lasted eight years before she made a serious decision to get sober.

"That's really the miracle that happened for me," she said.

Navigating life without alcohol

When she and her husband decided he would run for governor, Helgaas Burgum said they discussed how her recovery might affect attendance at social events that go along with a political campaign.

Sometimes, she stayed away to avoid being where alcohol was served, or she left events early.

While she's on a good path, she remains vigilant.

She has friends in longtime sobriety who attended a cocktail party and found themselves drinking a glass of wine before they even realized it. "I don't ever want to fall into that, but this life is very busy, so it's up to me to make the choices," she said.

When traveling, she'll often call ahead to have the mini-bar removed from her hotel room. Once she arrives, she mostly socializes with other people in recovery.

When it comes to her work as first lady in spreading the word about recovery, she doesn't care for the bureaucratic side. Instead, she'd rather connect directly with people who are struggling.

Instead of viewing people with addictions as having character flaws or no willpower, they are people with a chronic disease who should be treated as such, she said.

Areas of controversy

Recovery Reinvented is an ongoing series of initiatives that operates as a nonprofit group in association with the Dakota Medical Foundation, Helgaas Burgum said.

The Fargo event is made possible through donations and a partnership with North Dakota's Behavioral Health Division, she said, which will help cover production and staging costs. Live music and performance art will be woven throughout, with aims to inspire and uplift.

During the event, results of a North Dakota study about addiction stigma, believed to be the first of its kind conducted by any state, will be released. The study will provide a baseline to measure against in years to come. A new youth initiative involving existing school groups, like student councils, will also be announced.

One of the speakers at Recovery Reinvented is Jessica Hulsey Nickel, who is president of the national nonprofit Addiction Policy Forum, and whose parents were addicted to heroin, leaving her homeless and in foster care for a time.

Helgaas Burgum acknowledges some controversy in the selection of Hulsey Nickel, who's been criticized for accepting funds from pharmaceutical companies — companies that many say shoulder blame for pushing highly addictive opioids for pain relief.

However, she thinks it's important to have everybody at the table, because those companies can also help develop drugs to treat addictions. "You have to sometimes be willing to step into the fire," she said.

Helgaas Burgum also weighed in on the controversial recreational marijuana ballot measure that North Dakotans will vote on this November.

She said she's against full legalization of recreational marijuana, citing other states that have seen more car crashes after doing so, and concerns about effects on young, developing brains.

Still, it's important for people to read up on the measure and make their own decisions, she said.

Naloxone for everyone

New to Recovery Reinvented this year is an Empowerment Expo, offering resources from multiple addiction treatment providers. As was the case in 2017, all attendees will receive the opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone, and training in how to administer it.

Helgaas Burgum said just a few days after last year's event, a couple from the Bismarck area revived their son with naloxone they'd received at Recovery Reinvented. Sadly, he still isn't in recovery, she said.

For people who can't attend the event in person, it will be livestreamed on the event's website.

Asked how to measure success, Helgaas Burgum said one measure will be when North Dakota is no longer considered "the drunkest state" in surveys.

More important will be when the stigma of addiction is erased.

"You know, mission accomplished," she said.

If you go:

  • What: North Dakota Behavioral Health Conference
  • Where: Holiday Inn, Fargo
  • When: Sept. 4, 6, 7
  • Info: Keynote speaker is Drew Pinsky, physician and star of reality series "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew"