Sitting on a couch in the sunlit living room of the North Dakota Governor’s Residence, first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum had something she wanted to talk about, something she had never made public before.

She’s already announced her plans to work to erase the social stigma around addiction and spread the word that it’s a chronic disease, not a character flaw. But what she hasn’t told everyone is that she herself has struggled with an alcohol addiction.

“I’m very passionate about addiction because it affects me personally,” she said in a recent interview. “I have actually been in recovery for 15 years now.”

Helgaas Burgum, 53, said she intends to use her personal experience to help others battling addiction and to address what she believes is a statewide crisis. She hopes that by talking about addiction she can reduce the shame associated with it – a shame, she says, she had to overcome before starting down a path to recovery.

“I know that I am blessed to be where I am in my life because I am sober,” said Helgaas Burgum, who married her longtime partner Gov. Doug Burgum a few weeks before his December inauguration. “I really believe I have a higher power who directed me down this path where I am now.”

‘Slips and bumps’

The second youngest of four children, Helgaas Burgum grew up in Jamestown where her family owned and operated the John Deere dealership. In 1981, she graduated from Jamestown High School where she was a tennis player, cheerleader, student council member and a voice in the concert choir. She went to Arizona State University where she played women’s rugby and was quarterback for her intramural flag football team.

Helgaas Burgum acknowledged Arizona State’s reputation as a party school, but she said her time there didn’t lead to her alcohol addiction. “It was just part of my DNA that was going to show up at some point,” she said.

She shied away from discussing the specifics of her addiction, such as how much she drank or how often. To sum up the experience, she simply said, “It was fun until it wasn’t fun.”

A veteran of the corporate world, Helgaas Burgum worked for various companies as a human resources and marketing professional. She said her addiction never kept her career from progressing. But there came a point when she realized that by bringing her addiction under control, she could accomplish more and could feel better about herself.

She said her realization didn’t happen after the sort of rock-bottom moment those in recovery often talk about. Yet she did reach a personal low point that led her to check into an inpatient treatment program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Helgaas Burgum’s sister, Ann Kumm of Fargo, said there were no outward signs of the addiction that afflicted her sister, who’s younger by a year. “I, to be honest, have only maybe once in my whole life ever seen her drink too much,” Kumm said.

Helgaas Burgum said she hid her addiction so well her decision to seek treatment shocked people around her. “One person said, ‘I can name five people I think should go to treatment, and you would not be on that list.’”

She spent 10 days at the Mayo Clinic and also tried a couple of outpatient programs. But it took a few years, “a few more slips and bumps,” she said, before she was finally willing to do everything it took to get sober.

‘A strong love’

After college, Helgaas Burgum was married for a few years before getting a divorce. In 1989, she earned an MBA in human resources from the University of North Texas. For about 10 years, she worked for different firms in Texas before returning to North Dakota to help care for her mother, who died from cancer in 1996.

From 1995 to 1998, Helgaas Burgum worked at Great Plains Software, the Fargo-based company that was run by Doug Burgum. Although the two met at Great Plains, they didn’t start dating until 2006, they said. Burgum and his ex-wife divorced in late 2003.

The couple was engaged in August and was married Nov. 25 in a small, formal ceremony at a centuries-old estate near the town of Abergavenny, Wales. Because of privacy reasons, the couple said, they waited until now to disclose the date and location of their wedding.

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Helgaas Burgum said they chose Wales because her husband has Welsh ancestry and because they wanted to see his daughter perform at the historic Globe Theatre in London as part of a University of Minnesota exchange program.

Since the governor took office on Dec. 15, the couple has been residing in Bismarck, and they’re planning regular returns to Fargo where the governor’s youngest son is a high school senior. Helgaas Burgum said she’s going to dedicate herself full-time to being first lady and raising awareness about addiction.

Kumm said she’s confident her younger sister, known for her efficiency, will find a way to make a difference. Through recovery, she said, her sister has gained more confidence and the ability to let herself shine.

“She’s always been awesome,” Kumm said. “She’s just really awesome now.”

Kumm said the governor has long been supportive of her sister’s recovery. “I knew that there was a strong love there because of that,” she said.

Tightly holding the first lady’s hand, the governor showed this affection as she spoke publicly about her struggle with addiction. The occasion left him choked up.

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“It’s just one of the reasons why I love you, because you’re so courageous,” he told her. “That definitely is going to make a big difference for a lot of people.”

Solving the problem

Whether it’s alcohol, meth, opioids or other drugs, Burgum said, the issue of addiction is one that touches every family, every business, every community in the state – an issue that’s become more apparent with fatal overdoses in the news.

Burgum, a Republican, said he believes putting money into addiction treatment makes more sense than spending it on locking up people with drug problems. “We treat addiction like a crime,” he said. “We can’t solve the problem by building bigger and more prisons.”

He said it costs $40,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate in North Dakota. “For a fraction of that, we could be rehabilitating those individuals,” he said.

However, Burgum said the state government, which is faced with a massive budget shortfall, can’t fix the problem of addiction alone. “This is going to take faith-based, nonprofits, private sector, individuals, families, everybody working together,” he said.

Helgaas Burgum said more public-private partnerships are needed to help people with addictions transition back into society after getting treatment. Part of this is creating places for them to live, she said. “There are people that are willing to spend money on sober houses. Because at some point when people start getting sober, they start paying rent. They start becoming, you know, members of the community,” she said.

Carrie Simonson, a registered nurse who works at First Step Recovery in Fargo, said she and the first lady struck up a friendship 10 years ago after meeting through mutual friends. Simonson, who’s also in recovery, said she and Helgaas Burgum talk about addiction, but it doesn’t dominate their conversations.

“I don't know that our friendship is based solely on our recovery,” she said. “That's just a small part of our lives.”

Simonson described Helgaas Burgum as a smart, warm, generous woman who’s passionate about what she sets her mind to. She believes her friend has the chance to improve North Dakota’s approach to addiction, possibly by incorporating practices from elsewhere.

“She’ll have the opportunity to visit all areas of the state, and she’ll have the opportunity to see what’s there and learn from people what’s missing,” Simonson said.

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