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North Dakota first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum speaks to a group of people Tuesday in DeNault Auditorium at the University of Jamestown about addiction as a disease and advocating for better treatment programs. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

ND first lady, governor discuss addiction challenges

JAMESTOWN, N.D.—Addiction is a chronic disease and should be treated as such, said Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, North Dakota's first lady, on Tuesday night, March 27. She was appearing with her husband, Gov. Doug Burgum, at the University of Jamestown.

Helgaas Burgum said she is 16 years in recovery, and North Dakota needs to work to eliminate the stigma and shame that surrounds the disease of addiction and those who have the disease.

"All of you can help eliminate the shame and stigma around addiction by talking about it," Helgaas Burgum said to an audience of around 150 people.

Helgaas Burgum, a Jamestown native, said her journey to recovery started in high school in Jamestown.

"I knew in high school I didn't drink like other people," she said. "I experienced my first blackout in high school."

Helgaas Burgum said she struggled with alcohol-related issues for the next 22 years of her life. Having access to alcohol was a determinant in where she lived and work, she said.

"I couldn't imagine living without alcohol," she said. "I had no desire to attend an event that didn't include alcohol."

Helgaas Burgum said her career progressed, despite the negative effects her addiction had on her life.

"I knew I needed to stop drinking, but addiction is a powerful disease," she said. "I could achieve any goal I set in my life, but I could not stop drinking, despite many demoralizing and baffling drinking episodes."

Helgaas Burgum said she went through an eight-year cycle of stopping drinking for a while, in some cases she would stop for a year, but would start back up.

"I'm so grateful my higher power kept asking me to pull on my boots and try again (to stop drinking)," she said.

Helgaas Burgum said she is sharing her story to help those who struggle with addiction to see there is a way to recovery. She is the chair of the advisory council for the Office of Recovery Reinvented. The office was created by Gov. Doug Burgum by executive order to promote strategic and innovative efforts to eliminate the stigma and shame associated with the disease of addiction.

In a question-and-answer session held after Helgaas Burgum spoke Tuesday night, she and the governor talked about the need for changing the way people view the disease and finding sources of revenue to pay for addiction recovery services.

How addiction recovery is paid for must change, said Burgum, adding most insurance companies only pay for 28 days of treatment.

"That's like saying to someone with diabetes 'You get 28 days of insulin, then you're on your own,'" he said.

Questions from the audience included addressing the need for more transitional housing for prison inmates who are in recovery and the need for more funding overall for addiction treatment services.

Helgaas Burgum said the University of Jamestown has the opportunity to be a pioneer and leader in creating a recovery movement on campus. She said it is critical that college campuses take the lead in the recovery movement.

"North Dakota college campuses have the power to ensure that North Dakota is no longer the drunkest state (in the U.S.)," she said, referring to media reports about a study by 24/7 Wall St. naming North Dakota as the drunkest state.

Chris Olson

Hometown: Traverse City, MI College: Northwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University

(701) 952-8454
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