BISMARCK, N.D. — Kathryn Helgaas Burgum could have picked any number of important issues for her platform as North Dakota’s first lady. She chose one closest to her — addiction recovery.
Helgaas Burgum, a recovering alcoholic, wants to use her experience of being sober for more than 15 years to help others in a state where drinking — even underage and to excess — has been culturally accepted and where many communities’ social activities revolve around booze.
“I guess that’s where I got my start … I was in a culture where I drank like everybody else did,” Helgaas Burgum said in a frank and often emotional interview recently at the governor’s residence.
“We live in a culture where it’s very acceptable but I also believe deep down there are a lot of people hurting and a lot of people impacted,” Helgaas Burgum said, holding back tears.
The 54-year-old former business executive, Jamestown native and newlywed to Republican Gov. Doug Burgum only revealed in February that she had struggled with alcohol and her road to recovery.
“I’m doing it mostly because I feel like I’ve been given a gift — a gift of being sober and not having a struggle any more, at least not today,” she said. “I want to share that gift with others who need help and have been impacted by the disease of addiction.
“The only way to erase the shame and stigma of addiction is by talking about it,” Helgaas Burgum said.
She’ll host the daylong “Recovery Reinvented” event Sept. 26 at the Bismarck Event Center that will bring together state and national recovery experts. Meanwhile, the governor has pledged to donate his $130,000 annual salary to addiction recovery and treatment initiatives.
Studies have long shown North Dakota’s rate of alcohol dependence and abuse is among the highest in the nation, while at the same time its residents have the lowest perception of a problem when it comes to drinking.
Hard-drinking North Dakotans’ relationship with booze is especially obvious with outsiders.
“I hear that all the time from people who move here,” said Pamela Sagness, director of the Department of Human Services’ behavioral health division. “It’s a work-hard-play-hard attitude and it’s not perceived as problematic.”
A recent study from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 30 percent of North Dakota adults over age 26 had five or more drinks in one sitting during the month before they were surveyed. The national average for binge drinking was 24 percent.
North Dakota long held the top spot in the nation for binge drinking before dropping to No. 4 over the past decade, Sagness said. The binge drinking rate among North Dakota teens had been among the highest in the nation but now is comparable to the national average, thanks in part to former first lady Mikey Hoeven, who lead a near decade-long campaign to stop underage drinking.
Sagness said while some progress has been made, alcohol remains the state’s No. 1 abuse problem, followed by marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and synthetic opioids.
Helgaas Burgum “has the potential to make true change” in the fight against alcohol and drug abuse, said Sagness, who has worked for the state for more than a decade and was a substance abuse counselor before that.
“Her passion is real and genuine,” Sagness said. “She wants this to be meaningful. There is no political story line here.”
Helgaas Burgum said she tried unsuccessfully for eight years to get sober.
“I could achieve any goal I had set for myself but I couldn’t stop drinking,” she said, crying.
Then, she said, she sought help from a higher power.
“I basically just said, ‘If there is anybody there, please help me,'” she said. “My life changed that day. I could never stay sober before that.”
She met Burgum more than 20 years ago while working at his Fargo-based Great Plains Software, which he sold to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion. The couple did not start dating until a decade ago, and were married shortly after Burgum was elected governor in November.
The governor said it was courageous for his wife “to step out like she did.”
He called her a role model for addiction recovery and “an incredible asset for the state and nation.”
Helgaas Burgum last week gave her first public speech about her recovery at a luncheon in Washington highlighting September as National Recovery month.
“She got a standing ovation and there was not a dry eye in the place,” the governor said.