In a video conference, North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum shared her own story of recovering from alcoholism and how she’s using her 19 years of sobriety as a way to reshape the conversation surrounded by the stigma of addiction and how that correlates with the same connotation associated with dyslexia.

Hosted by Decoding Dyslexia, Burgum was invited to speak during a Zoom video conference meeting Oct. 11, for her talk “Addiction and Recovery in North Dakota.” For the past 19 years, Burgum has been in recovery. She shared her personal experience, encouraging others the importance of normalizing the conversation around the disease of addiction. Burgum noted that addiction is a chronic disease and not a character flaw.

As First Lady of North Dakota, Burgum’s platform is centered around addiction and recovery. She serves as chair of the seven-person advisory council for the Office of Recovery Reinvented.

“Mostly, I've set out to eliminate the stigma that surrounds the disease of addiction so more people will share how they've been personally impacted by addiction, reach out for help and ultimately, work on trying to make recovery possible for everyone who is struggling,” she said.

Addiction and dyslexia have a correlation, Burgum said, adding that stigma “acts as a major barrier” for those who struggle with addiction or dyslexia.

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“I have family members and friends with dyslexia, and I understand the immense challenges that it can present, particularly in learning environments. But (dyslexia) also (has) the amazing opportunities where we work to creatively address the gaps that exist and enable people to thrive when we reinvent how education is delivered and respond to the ways that our children learn best,” she said. “I think the quote from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity featured on the Decoding Dyslexia website puts it best, ‘In dyslexia, there's not a knowledge gap, but rather an action gap.’”

Upon much extensive research, Burgum noted that it is critical to address misconceptions to provide clarity on how dyslexia is managed and treated.

“... Children or people with dyslexia can still achieve amazing things inside and outside of the classroom,” Burgum said. “With addiction, stigma often prevents people from reaching out for help from accessing treatment or recovery and supportive services or... sharing their stories of addiction and recovery.

“Currently, research shows that only one in 10 people who need treatment for addiction actually seek treatment. In my life, stigma was the primary reason that kept me silent for so many years. It kept me from seeking treatment and it kept me from talking about my treatment, my recovery and my journey.”

For every public event she attends or group she’s invited to speak to, Burgum said she makes an effort to share her recovery story from addiction to raise awareness and educate people that they can help eliminate that stigma “by being a face and voice of recovery.”

“In the first five years of being First Lady of North Dakota... I've really come to believe and really understand how powerful it is that sharing stories can help eliminate stigma,” Burgum said. “If we share our stories, it opens the door for others to speak out, to reach out and connect to services and help people know that their challenges are not unique and that they're not alone.”

Burgum’s story of addiction begins back in her high school days in Jamestown. Despite being “an all-American teenager” who was popular, an honors student and involved in various extracurricular activities, Burgum said she had voices in her head telling her that she was “stupid” and someone who didn’t live up to perfection.

Coming from a Scandinavian family, Burugm’s family didn't sit around the dinner table to discuss everyone’s mental health, she said, adding it was a more closed-off topic. At school, she realized there was also a lack of resources to help students who are struggling. Though there were counselors, they mainly focused on helping students with college enrollment, she added.

“I didn't really understand at the time that I had anxiety and depression, and those voices in my head were a result of all of that… On the outside, it looked like I had everything going for me but there were a lot of days when I didn’t want to get out of bed,” she said. “So I started drinking when I was in high school. And when I took that first drink, I thought it was nirvana. Those voices were gone. I could talk to anybody (though) I was more of an introvert… (That is) until I had my first blackout when I was in high school. And that started down a path of 20 years of blackouts of feeling like I was helpless against my addiction and that I was hopeless. And I would never get better.”

Burgum relapsed over a period of eight years.

“I don't have to tell you (that) those years were like a living hell,” she said.

It wasn’t until Burgum found the courage to want to ask for help and then actually seeking the help that she began to see results in her recovery.

“The actual story was I reached out to my team leader and I said, ‘I need to talk to you about something. Can we go to lunch?’ She said yes. Then about 100 times before lunch, I wanted to call and cancel that meeting, but I didn’t. I finally got to lunch and I started to talk about what was happening and that I was having all these troubles and issues in my life and that I felt like I needed to go to treatment. I couldn’t look at her the whole time. I was just looking down in my lap and I was crying and I was really upset. I just couldn’t look at her because I thought she was going to be looking at me like I was less than. I thought there would be a lot of shame and stigma and I just looked up at her, and she had tears in her eyes and she just said, ‘Okay, let’s do this,’” Burgum said, wiping away tears. “... That was like someone giving me a huge hug.”

Because of the way her team leader reacted and supported her during an emotional and vulnerable time, Burgum credits that as a pivotal moment in her recovery and that has kept her strong for the past 19 years.

According to the National Institute of Health, not much is known about the relationship between learning and substance abuse. However, research shows that learning disabilities can increase the likelihood of drug abuse. Emotional issues such as low self-esteem and peer relationships are commonly associated with dyslexia, which can indirectly lead to substance abuse as a form of managing those feelings.

Burgum added that it’s important people speak up about what they’re going through in order to change perceptions.

“In the same way that we use our stories of addiction and recovery in our movement to advance advocacy, policy making and awareness campaigns, the same energy and sharing stories of children who experienced dyslexia (applies)... Sharing all of those stories will help reshape the conversation and lead to greater understanding and create more solutions that adapt to the needs of those with dyslexia,” Burgum said.

The First Lady of North Dakota and her husband Gov. Doug Burgum will share the stage for the upcoming Recovery Reinvented event happening from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., CDT, Oct. 25, at the Bismarck Event Center. The event is free and open to the public with an online attendance option available. For more information, visit recoveryreinvented.com/events/2021.