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Busting the Fictions of Addiction

Photo by Hillary Ehlen

25 percent of adults report binge drinking. 46.7 percent of all roadway fatalities are attributable to alcohol. Half of all arrests in our state are alcohol- or drug-related. 75 percent of those in North Dakota prisons have an addiction. North Dakota’s First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum doesn’t think it has to be this way, and she’s doing something about that.

What To Know:

North Dakota’s First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum has been very vocal about her past struggles with addiction. That is why she has made it her platform to work to eliminate the stigma of addiction. With Recovery Reinvented, she is bringing a public dialogue to the state to eliminate that shame.

The second annual Recovery Reinvented will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at the Fargo Civic Center. This is a free full-day event that will feature state and national addiction experts discussing this problem that has plagued North Dakota.

Recovery Reinvented
Wednesday, Sept. 5 from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Free to attend

You’ve been vocal about your past struggles with addiction. What made you decide to make this your platform?
When Governor Burgum took office, the focus on the opioid situation was alarming and concerning in North Dakota and across the nation. I was asked to do an interview about a month and a half into Doug’s governorship, and that was the first interview that I would have done. About five minutes before the interview, I said to Doug, “I’m going to talk about my recovery.” He was like, “You are?” I said, “Yeah, I think it’s time.” I had already mentioned that my platform was addiction, so people already knew that. I just felt a calling. I felt I had an opportunity to help people understand about addiction and recovery. I decided to open the door and walk through it.

Part of the reason I did was that there is so much stigma around the chronic disease of addiction, which affected me as well because I didn’t talk about it for 16 years. 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.

“Addiction needs to be embraced in our society like any other chronic, progressively fatal illness or disease before real changes can be made in our communities. We are a small state of caring, committed people who can unite to normalize the conversation around the disease of addiction just by talking about it. Talk will eliminate the stigma.”

You speaking out might have shown that it affects all walks of life. I think part of that stigma is that it only affects certain types of people.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It literally affects everyone. When I go speak somewhere or meet people and I ask people to raise their hand about how many have been affected by addiction and 90 percent of the room raises their hand.

We’re in North Dakota, a rural state, and we have a reputation for being hard working, hard drinking people. How do you fight that and what are your thoughts on that reputation?
Unfortunately, we were again named the drunkest state in the nation, and I believe that there are a lot of people really struggling in our rural communities that are a part of that designation and they’re not reaching out for help because of that stigma of addiction.

I think as a state, we’re a group of caring and committed people. We’re a small state of people that can really make a difference by starting to talk about the disease of addiction. If we talk about how it affects you and your family, then I believe we’ll really move the needle and change that so we’re no longer on that path. I think a goal for our state should be that the state that completely drops off that list.

“We gave out Narcan at the conference (last year), which is the antidote for somebody who has had an overdose. Parents who picked up that Narcan at the conference three days later revived their son who had overdoses. That was really powerful.”

It’s a bad sign when it becomes a rallying sign for the state.
What the Governor is doing is really cool with the Main Street Initiative. What we often hear is that there’s not enough to do, there’s not enough for young people to do, there’s not enough reason for people to stay. Part of the reason we get that title is because it’s really related to the Fargo-Moorhead area and how many universities we have here and all the college students. One of the things we’re trying to do with the Main Street Initiative is have more programming, have more things for young people to do, create music venues where you don’t have to be 21 to go to that venue where people can go to socialize.

The Main Street Initiative is really going to make a lot of headway in creating more opportunities for young people to stay that don’t revolve around the number one social issue in our state, which is drinking and drugs.

I have several family members and friends who quit drinking who on a Friday night go, “Now what do I do?”
On that note, a good friend of mine is heading up a group called Phoenix Multi-Sport. It’s basically a franchise program that communities are adopting around recovery activity. We’ve connected with them. They have a model that we can adopt where there’s sober cycling classes, sober biking – a lot of the activities that get people outside. It creates this community for recovery support for people who are sober and want to have those opportunities.

Your TED talk at TEDxFargo in 2017 has more than 10,000 views. Tell us about your TED talk.
It was terrifying, but I wanted to do it and I wanted to talk about it. I’ve had this long career of marketing and human resources where I’ve had to do presentations, so it wasn’t about the presentation but it was about telling my story to thousands of people. Greg Tehven and his team are awesome because they support you so you can’t fail. They help you with the speech writing, they’re really knowledgeable people who can provide topics and give direction to do the best presentation. Literally, by the time I walked on that stage, I was like, “I got this” because I felt so supported.

Right before I went up there, I remember thinking, “I’m about to tell 2,000 people my story with more details than I’ve shared with anybody.” It was a bit terrifying but a bit gratifying as well because the more I talk about it, it’s freeing for me to talk about what happens as part of my journey but I also believe it helps people. After that happened, a lot of people came up to me and said, “I’m in recovery and I’ve never talked about it before.” I think it opened the door for some people to lift the monkey off their back with what they’ve struggled with in terms of addiction.

Take me through the genesis of Recovery Reinvented.
It’s a super fun event. The brainchild and the idea came from Pam Sagness, who’s our Director of Behavioral Health. She is really awesome and we are so lucky to have her team because they’re so innovative, forward-thinking, always ahead of the curve in terms of mental health and addiction and what we can do in our state. We started talking about this idea of doing a conference and I was all in. We partnered up on that. We had the first conference last year. We thought we’d get 300 people. We ended up with between 650-700, with 200 showing up the day of the conference. We gave out Narcan at the conference, which is the antidote for somebody who has had an overdose. Parents who picked up that Narcan at the conference three days later revived their son who had overdosed. That was really powerful.

We also did a recovery countdown where we asked people to stand up if they were in recovery and said, “How many of you have been in recovery for a year? Two years?” After that, I remember the Governor telling me that somebody who works in North Dakota government came up to him and said, “I have three years of recovery and I’ve never told anybody. You’re the first person I’m telling.”

It’s those types of things that are really powerful. The more people talk about it, the less stigma people have. We decided to do it again this year because it really is a great way to get several different groups together: education, law enforcement, Native Americans, behavioral health, healthcare, criminal justice to focus on different topics.

This year, we have three key themes. One is to eliminate the stigma of the chronic disease of addiction, which is my platform. Another is to talk about the science of this chronic addiction. The third message is we’re going to talk about building recovery support in communities and what communities can do.

We’ve got five rockstar speakers coming. Some are local, like Doctor Don Warne, who used to be with NDSU and is now with UND. He is Native American himself and has spent a lot of time focusing on public health. He has a degree from Harvard and a degree from Stanford. He’s going to talk about issues related to behavioral health and Native Americans. The Governor and I say that methamphetamine is really destroying people and communities on reservations in North Dakota. The Governor and I have made a commitment that we’re going to partner with these communities to see what we can do together. We believe that there’s not enough help or support. I always say that we treat our new Americans better than we treat our Native Americans across the nation. We have some great initiatives we’re focusing on.

We have Laurie Dhue. She worked for Fox, CNN and MSNBC. She had about four years of recovery and somebody outed her recovery. She’s taking that opportunity to become an advocate of eliminating stigma.

We’re also incorporating some performance art into the program. We’re going to be asking people who are in recovery to step up to the plate to make Recovery Reinvented even more powerful by adding a musical component or even slam poetry. We’ve got this Native American guy we’re hoping will join us – we don’t have it all lined up yet – but he’s just a rockstar who plays multiple instruments.

It’s very fast-paced like TEDx. We’re going to give out awards. We’re going to talk about initiatives. The bottom line is that there’s going to be action taken every step of the way. It’s not like we’re going to share this stuff and hope that people do stuff in their communities or take their own initiatives to make a difference related to addiction. We’re going to say, “Here’s what you can do. Here’s how you can help.” We know that it just takes a small group of people to make a huge difference.

The other thing that we’re going to do that I’m so excited about is, people are saying, “I think things are changing. I think people are talking about addiction. I feel like there is less stigma.” However, feelings versus data are very different. We are going to be doing a statewide survey to determine how much stigma we have in our state and where we are. Once we have that baseline, we’re going to measure that against every year to see if we’re changing. No other state across the nation has ever done this type of survey.

I met with Kellyanne Conway last week in D.C. and shared it with her and a team of people. I’ve shared it with governors at other governor events. People want that model. We’re going to be sharing that with anybody who wants to do that. We’re going to be talking about that survey at the event.

The Governor and I are going to host because we’re both really passionate about this. He has five pillars as part of his platform and initiatives, and one of them is behavioral health and addiction. When you hear him talk, when he first interviewed people when he first got into office, every cabinet member, every department was in some way affected by addiction. We don’t have a budget line item to determine what that is. That is something that we’re going to determine. We know nationally that it’s billions of dollars that affect communities.

With North Dakota being such a rural state, resources can be hard to come by. Talk about the ones that are available out there.
That’s an area that we’re very focused on because we are a very rural state. I spoke with this couple in Mott, North Dakota. She’s the sheriff and he’s a pastor. The sheriff said that there’s a woman in the community who has alcohol addiction for a very long time and is violent. She was recently in a period of sobriety and her and the sheriff were communicating every day. The sheriff was almost her sober coach playing that dual role. The people in law enforcement in our state are on the frontlines. They’re the ones that are having to step up and help people, especially in rural communities.

We have this behavioral health team. That website has a plethora of information and resources available. You can click on addiction. It takes you to a site that you can plug in your zip code and find all the treatment resources. We also have this thing called Recovery Talk. That’s a free service that is 24-hours where anybody in the state can have somebody to talk to.

We’re also connecting with a group called The Addiction Policy Forum. They’re a nonprofit out of D.C. The woman that heads up that group, both of her parents had a heroin addiction. She’s very passionate about creating community support. They’ve created this model where it’s all volunteer, all grassroots, where people are identifying communities in counties where they can be the leader to create opportunities for recovery, talk about opportunities to eliminate stigma, ask for volunteers to help with either becoming recovery coaches or that sort of thing. That’s a model we’re going to be talking about. Telehealth is really important in our state. That’s what Recovery Talk is.

I or a family or friend is going through addiction problems. What should I tell them?
Have the courage to reach out and ask for help. I tell everyone, send me a message on social media. I make an effort to reply to people. I make an effort to email and meet with people. I’m available. I know that if I would have had somebody who was really supportive, it might have made a difference. The sooner you have the courage to reach out and ask for help, the sooner you can get back on the path of having a happy life. You can have a happy, joyous and free life.

There’s a lot of great resources. We have a lot of great treatment opportunities in the state, but, again, it takes courage, but when I was really struggling, I thought, “I don’t want anybody to know about this. I don’t want to go to these meetings and I don’t want to reach out.” What I didn’t realize was that they all knew. Sometimes, people would say things to me and I would have to seriously deny them. Sometimes, I think we’re keeping things a secret when the people who love and care about us the most would be the ones to be the biggest supporter to say I’ll help you and I’ll be with you.

What I think happens to people is that the negative consequences that happen with the disease of addiction, like not taking care of your kids, losing jobs, committing crimes, those negative consequences can all go away if you can get on the path to recovery.

Many people don’t know where to turn to find the support needed. This site provides a list of all the resources available to you or a loved one suffering from addiction.

Recovery Talk
This is a free and confidential 24-hour telephone service for anyone in recovery or seeking recovery from substance abuse. Simply call 1-800-592-0835 to talk to someone.

TED Talk
Kathryn Helgaas Burgum spoke at TEDxFargo last year. Her video entitled Eliminating the Shame and Stigma of Addiction has more than 10,000 views.

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Andrew Jason

Written by Andrew Jason

Andrew Jason is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media. He oversees the production and the wonderful team behind Fargo Monthly, Fargo INC!, Bison Illustrated and Design and Living magazines. In his free time, he enjoys running marathons and pretending he's a much better piano player than he actually is.

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