North Dakota First Lady speaks at DSU about addiction recovery

Oct. 27—DICKINSON — North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum spoke about addiction recovery to a packed audience on Wednesday in Dickinson. The Dickinson State University auditorium hosted Burgum's emotional presentation, timely held as DSU launched a new minor in addiction studies program for the fall 2022 semester.

"This new addiction counseling minor is needed now more than ever, to provide addiction resources as a direct response to the current and rising challenges we're facing in our state and across the nation," Burgum said. "I cannot say enough how meaningful it is for me to be here to celebrate this new addiction counseling minor program with you because addiction counseling is a career path that likely saved my life."

Her own struggle with alcohol addiction spanned 20 years before she found recovery.

"Well, my journey with addiction started when I was in high school in Jamestown," Burgum said. "I had my first blackout from drinking when I was in high school. On the outside it looked like I had everything. You know, I had a ton of friends. I was popular. I was involved in all kinds of activities."

She began struggling with mental health, and took to drinking to ease the pain that came with it.

"Now my family is very Scandinavian," Burgum said. "Well, we're basically Vikings. We're traders and explorers and warriors, right? And we didn't sit around the dinner table in my house talking about our feelings, or that we needed help. You just got it done and you got over it. I didn't know how to deal with my struggles, with what I now know was anxiety and depression. But let me tell you, there were a lot of days I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning but I couldn't really figure out why."

Eventually her alcoholism led to suicidal thoughts and Burgum knew she had to get help.

"And I literally, you know, I asked for help from the universe because I didn't really have a lot of faith," she said. "And, you know, when I asked for help, my life changed that day."

Addiction counselors have played a big part in Burgum's 20 'life changing years' of recovery.

"DSU will be helping to assemble the new and next generation of treatment and recovery game changers dedicated to empowering others and who will undoubtedly save lives," Burgum said. "You all possess the ability to leave an impact on who you meet or who you serve in your lives and an impact that they will remember and carry with them the rest of their lives."

She said it took 15 years of sobriety before she found the courage to share her story about her struggles with addiction.

"I thought if I could share my story, and maybe help just one person, then it would be worth it, to have the courage to do it," Burgum said. "When I was out there struggling for all those years, never in a million years did I think I would be here in a place like this. Never did I think I would be first lady. Never did I think I would be asked for input, you know at places like the White House."

She said her story is an example of how one never knows what good things can happen in life. Sharing her experiences has enabled her to chair an advisory council for the Office of Recovery Reinvented, which is managed by Jonathan Holth.

"The Office of Recovery Reinvented was created by Governor Burgum in 2017 and, really, our mission is to eliminate the shame and stigma of the disease of addiction," Holth said in an interview with The Dickinson Press. "So we do that through traveling the state and utilizing powerful storytelling, sharing stories of hope, collecting data and convening people to have important conversations and bring the disease of addiction out of the shadows."

Sen. Rich Wardner said Burgum has made a difference in the lives of North Dakotans.

"She is spreading the word that addiction is a chronic disease, and not a character flaw," Wardner said. "Three and a half years ago she was in this community when they had an event at the women's sober living home, Hope's Landing, and she spoke and she had a tremendous effect on four of the women that were there. She related to them. She spoke to them. She spoke to the whole group. Those four women are free today of addiction."

Burgum said advised that those struggling with addiction need to address the reasons why they became addicted in the first place. Many addicts and alcoholics have some combination of resentments, trauma or other negative life experiences fueling their compulsions.

"Until you've really faced those things, you really can't move along in the process of recovery," she said. "You know, be willing to forgive yourself for the things that you did in recovery. Be willing to ask other people for forgiveness. You know, you kind of just have to be willing to be completely vulnerable, which is really hard. But it's the only way that you could really get to the point of being really ready to do whatever it takes to stay, you know, to stay sober and live in recovery."

One audience member asked her how to find the heart to help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. Burgum said it's important to be available to those who are struggling, while also not allowing them to take advantage of that kindness.

"You also have to have your own boundaries, you know, and you have to take care of yourself in the process," Burgum said. "The disease of addiction is a brain disease, and it makes you think the only thing that's really important in your life is the drug or alcohol. And that's why you turn your back on everyone and children aren't as important. It's more important to steal from your best friends or your family to get the money to get the drug."

Kurt Snyder, executive director of the Heartveiw Foundation in Bismarck said it's hard for people in recovery to come out of treatment and go back to their regular lives.

"So it's really about treating the community and allowing the community to know how best to support them," Sneider said.

For more information on the Recovery Reinvented conference, visit For resources regarding mental health and addiction, visit the North Dakota Behavioral Health Division website at