Eliminating Stigma: The First Lady of North Dakota Speaks Out

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Close up portrait of cheerful young woman laughing with sunglasses against colourful background

A self-described introvert thrust into an extrovert's job as the First Lady of North Dakota, Kathryn Burgum has clearly found her voice as a leading advocate for addiction recovery. Listen in as Burgum talks with host William C. Moyers about the intersection of her personal recovery experience and her public persona and platform. She explains why she's on a mission to eliminate stigma: every recovery story shared creates a pathway for others to find the help and support they need and deserve.

I believe the people that are in recovery need to be the faces and voices of recovery.

Kathryn Burgum

0:00:23 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of award-winning podcasts produced and brought to you by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Each podcast focuses on a topic related to addiction to alcohol and other drugs. From prevention, research, treatment, current events, trends, advocacy, and of course, recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. I'm your host, William Moyers, and today our topic is personal stories, public advocacy. I can't think of anyone who best represents this than our guest, Kathryn Burgum. Welcome, Kathryn.

0:01:00 Kathryn Burgum
Thank you so much for having me here today.

0:01:03 William Moyers
Well and as we—as we are here at the Betty Ford Center in February of 2020, I wanna just recognize this moment by giving you a medallion. Because yesterday was a big day for you. [hands her medallion]

0:01:14 Kathryn Burgum
It was—whoa this is so cool, thank you so much!

0:01:17 William Moyers
I can't remember how many numbers are—

0:01:19 Kathryn Burgum
So this is my 18—my year 18 of sobriety. So my 18th sobriety birthday today. It was yesterday, actually. So thank you so much for this amazing medallion.

0:01:33 William Moyers
Well you're welcome.

0:01:33 Kathryn Burgum
I'm so grateful and that's so thoughtful of you. 

0:01:36 William Moyers
18 years ago, what was your bottom 18 years ago?

0:01:39: Kathryn Burgum
My bottom was, you know, not being able to look at myself in the mirror. Complete loss of self-respect. And I, you know, decided I needed to make a change and it—I was able to do that 18 years ago. And walk this path of recovery and sobriety. I'm so grateful.

0:02:00 William Moyers
How did you know that you had a problem? What was that moment that said 'Aha, I'm not doing this the right way.'

0:02:09 Kathryn Burgum
Well I could achieve almost any goal I'd set for myself in my life. But I could not stop drinking, you know? No matter how many drunk episodes I would have or struggles or you know mornings hung over. I just—I just could not stop drinking. And so, that's how I knew. I knew I needed help and I knew I needed to really make a change in my life.

0:02:33 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. And did you seek treatment or just walk into a recovery path?

0:02:37 Kathryn Burgum
I went down a recovery—I did both, actually.

0:02:39 William Moyers

0:02:40 Kathryn Burgum
I did go to treatment but I also went down the recovery path and found like-minded people—

0:02:49 William Moyers

0:02:49 Kathryn Burgum
—That I could take this journey with.

0:02:51 William Moyers
And you've been on that journey for a long time, but one of the fascinating dynamics of your recovery journey which I'm sure you hadn't really anticipated back when you started it 18 years ago was that five years ago or so, your husband was elected the Governor of North Dakota.

0:03:08 Kathryn Burgum
That's right! [laughs]

0:03:10 William Moyers
And that makes you—

0:03:11 Kathryn Burgum
The First Lady of North Dakota! [laughs]

0:03:13 William Moyers
The First Lady of North Dakota. And so there you are, suddenly a very public persona in the state of North Dakota. And not long after that, nationally, but very quickly, Kathryn, you recognized the unique opportunity you had to have the public platform and the personal experience and to combine that personal story with public advocacy. Talk about that for our audience.

0:03:39 Kathryn Burgum
Well, early on in my time as First Lady, you know I spent time trying to decide, you know, what would I do, what could I be really passionate about and you know it didn't take me—it was like a hot second to decide that, you know? [Moyers laughs] Because of my own recovery I, you know, this way the path I needed to go down especially related to eliminating the stigma of addiction. And you know what? I heard you speak—

0:04:07 William Moyers

0:04:08 Kathryn Burgum
—A few months before that. And you said the best way to eliminate the stigma of addiction is to just talk about it. A very simple solution. And I basically took up that idea and made it part of my platform and that's what I'm doing. And so, early in my time as First Lady, I did an interview with the newspaper. And you know they just wanted to get to know the First Lady and five minutes before the interview, I told my husband I was gonna talk about my recovery.

0:04:35 William Moyers

0:04:35 Kathryn Burgum
Which I had not done really publicly for 15 years at that point.

0:04:40 William Moyers
And how did that go that day, when you sat down with the reporter and really revealed the essence of who you are, how did that go?

0:04:47 Kathryn Burgum
You know it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

0:04:49 William Moyers

0:04:50 Kathryn Burgum
Yes. You know because I have a disease, you know? I figured out I have a brain disease. And I shouldn't have to carry this burden on my shoulders of keeping it—keeping silent about it, you know? But the stigma is what kept me there for most of my recovery and kept me from seeking treatment.

0:05:09 William Moyers

0:05:10 Kathryn Burgum
And getting help for over 20 years. So, it was such a huge relief to really be able to talk about it. And, you know, my husband was super supportive with me talking—

0:05:21 William Moyers

0:05:21 Kathryn Burgum
Oh yeah, he's—he's very supportive and he believes that the more we talk about it, the more we're able to eliminate the stigma.

0:05:28 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. And then when you did begin to appear publicly, whether it was in the media or on the stump as First Lady, what was the reaction that you got?

0:05:38 Kathryn Burgum
You know overwhelmingly positive. You know, there's hardly anyone who is not impacted in some way—

0:05:45 William Moyers

0:05:46 Kathryn Burgum
—By the disease of addiction. As you know!

0:05:47 William Moyers

0:05:48 Kathryn Burgum
You know, I mean, and so, people reaching out, asking for help, you know? Thanking me for being a voice. It's overwhelmingly positive. You know and it's an opportunity to connect with people on a much different level. And on a very real level. And in both my husband and I are very focused on how—the importance of behavioral health—

0:06:11 William Moyers

0:06:11 Kathryn Burgum
—In our state. But for me, you know, working with people on the front lines who are really making a difference in treatment and recovery, the peer support specialists we have in our state, and one of the populations in our state that's most adversely affected by the disease of addiction are Native Americans.

0:06:31 William Moyers

0:06:31 Kathryn Burgum
And so the opportunity to partner with so many of them trying to make changes where they live in their communities on the reservation has just been so powerful and I'm grateful for that opportunity.

0:06:43 William Moyers
Was there any blowback, did you get any criticism or people scratching their heads saying you know, Kathryn, you shouldn't do that or why are you doing that? Did you get anything like that?

0:06:53 Kathryn Burgum
No, no. Not—I would say, pretty much it's been positive and super supportive. I think there are you know some people who struggle with you know sort of there's an anonymity issue related to recovery for some people—

0:07:06 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. Yes.

0:07:08 Kathryn Burgum
—But I believe the people that are in recovery need to be the faces and voices of recovery.

0:07:15 William Moyers

0:07:16 Kathryn Burgum
You know over 23 million people struggle with the disease of addiction across our nation. But you know over 20 million people are in recovery. And so, people need to see what recovery looks like. And to—and so I believe that, you know, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be in this role. And have that opportunity to tell my story at this level to help eliminate the stigma and be a face and voice of recovery.

0:07:40 William Moyers
And you do it so well. And you do it so well not just in the small state of North Dakota but you really have become a public national advocate for this illness, right?

0:07:52 Kathryn Burgum
Well I've been able to meet people on a national level for sure.

0:07:55 William Moyers

0:07:55 Kathryn Burgum
You know, I was able to speak to the National Governor's Association about how this disease has impacted my life and what they can do, in their states, to make a difference. Now we've measured the level of stigma related to addiction—

0:08:09 William Moyers

0:08:09 Kathryn Burgum
In our state through a survey. Because I believe that we really won't know how the progress we're making unless we can measure against a base line, you know? And I've shared that story with everyone including the Director of the CDC, encouraging them to—

0:08:24 William Moyers

0:08:25 Kathryn Burgum
—Measure things like stigma. So yeah, so—and I'm meeting at the White House, I've been involved in opioid-related meetings and people reach out and ask me for input. And so, yes, on a national level, I've been really surprised at the opportunity to have partnerships with people like the Drug Czar. Jim Carroll.

0:08:44 William Moyers
Jim Carroll.

0:08:44 Kathryn Burgum
The Office of National Drug Policy—

0:08:46 William Moyers
Yes. [nodding]

0:08:46 Kathryn Burgum
—The Surgeon General, he's been to our state—

0:08:48 William Moyers

0:08:49 Kathryn Burgum
Meeting with him. So, you know, there are so many people really trying to make a difference and help people and families struggling across our nation. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to partner with them.

0:08:58 William Moyers
And how will you—how do you measure the impact that you're making? I mean obviously just by the public story that you tell, it gets a lot of attention and certainly that makes a difference. But do you feel like you're making progress?

0:09:11 Kathryn Burgum
Yes, I—I do, you know, but I have a team of people I work with, but a couple of instances, you know. We host a conference every year called Recovery Reinvented.

0:09:20 William Moyers

0:09:21 Kathryn Burgum
And which you were very helpful and instrumental in helping us conceive and design and thank you so much for that—

0:09:28 William Moyers
Thanks for inviting me. [chuckles]

0:09:28 Kathryn Burgum
—I'm so grateful. Yay. And it's been super successful. But, as the result of that, you know people have come up to me and said, you know, I am now talking about my recovery at work. I'm now talking about my recovery openly. And I didn't do that before. I speak to groups like the Chamber of Commerce—

0:09:50 William Moyers

0:09:50 Kathryn Burgum
You know, 400 people in a room. And—and I feel like I have to walk the talk when I do these—

0:09:56 William Moyers

0:09:56 Kathryn Burgum
—Talks with people. And so I ask people. To stand with me if they're in recovery—

0:10:00 William Moyers
Mmm. Wow. Wow. [nodding]

0:10:01 Kathryn Burgum
—And be a face and voice of recovery. And they do.

0:10:04 William Moyers

0:10:04 Kathryn Burgum
And it's a very emotional moment. I get emotional thinking about it.

0:10:07 William Moyers
Sure! Sure!

0:10:08 Kathryn Burgum
You know you can hear a pin drop—

0:10:09 William Moyers

0:10:10 Kathryn Burgum
But the number of people that come up afterwards and say I'm so grateful I don't have to sort of carry this burden on my shoulders where I work, you know?

0:10:17 William Moyers

0:10:18 Kathryn Burgum
I'm now the people you know—people and I didn't know so-and-so that I work with was in recovery—

0:10:23 William Moyers

0:10:23 Kathryn Burgum
So, you know, people have less fear. And, you know, more courage to stand up and help others. Because I frame that in a way that by doing that, you may be saving one person in this room, because that person might reach out and ask for help. And so you're eliminating stigma just by standing.

0:10:41 William Moyers
And by standing up and speaking out like you do, you do get a lot of requests for help, yes?

0:10:45 Kathryn Burgum
Yes. Absolutely.

0:10:46 William Moyers
How do you respond to that?

0:10:48 Kathryn Burgum
Well you know, I spent—you know again I'm grateful for the opportunity. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day helping a woman who's from one of our tribal reservations who was really struggling. I helped her get connected to the right people in our state—

0:11:04 William Moyers

0:11:05 Kathryn Burgum
—To get into treatment. She was ready, she needed to go, and the timing I wasn't gonna be like oh, I'm on vacation, it's the holidays—

0:11:13 William Moyers

0:11:13 Kathryn Burgum
You know, but I'm also through that process finding very impassioned, committed people who are willing to do this work. But we're also as a result of that, creating a lot of easier pathways for people to find support and get connected themselves.

0:11:27 William Moyers

0:11:27 Kathryn Burgum
But I—I never turn anybody down and as you know, I often ask for your help as well.

0:11:33 William Moyers
Well and I know I thought what you said about the fact that you spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day just like I'm sure you could cite lots of other examples when you've spent time helping people. How do you, Kathryn, how do you balance your public role and the advocacy that you do and the results that come with it, with your need to take care of yourself? Because oftentimes we hear that particularly in the field of addiction treatment or addiction advocacy, we're always willing to give away so much of ourselves whether we're counselors or First Ladies or people like myself in the organization. But we've gotta make sure we take care of ourselves. Is that hard for you?

0:12:10 Kathryn Burgum
You know it is. It's hard to say no. [Moyers chuckles] Actually when you were asking that question, I just took a deep breath and let it out, you know? Because most of the time, I'm actually an introvert trying to do an extrovert's job in this role as First Lady.

0:12:23 William Moyers
[laughs] I never would have—would have never imagined that.

0:12:26 Kathryn Burgum
I mean I'm pretty good one-on-one, but you know, there's I definitely you know it's sort of depleting of energy for me and I have to go somewhere alone really, so, where I can like meditate or read—

0:12:38 William Moyers

0:12:38 Kathryn Burgum
—And just get my energy back and just fill up those reserves that sort of get depleted doing this work. Because it's—it's just such an emotional you know difficult journey sometimes helping people.

0:12:51 William Moyers

0:12:52 Kathryn Burgum
But I do that. I love to watch, you know, historical dramas on TV, you know, I snowboard, you know, I walk, I love to get connected to people that I don't spend enough time with in my life.

0:13:06 William Moyers

0:13:07 Kathryn Burgum
But mostly I just sort of take one-on-one little mini-vacations [Moyers laughs] where it's just me getting rejuvenated, doing yoga, and then I'm just ready to go back into it again. So, I just have to do that as an introvert, you know, have that time away from people also.

0:13:24 William Moyers
Sure. So you're taking care of your mind and your body and your spirit.

0:13:27 Kathryn Burgum
Yeah. Exactly.

0:13:28 William Moyers
People are gonna be watching this and are gonna be inspired. Some are gonna be inspired to find recovery as a result of you sharing some of your own story. Some are gonna be inspired to stand up and speak out. What would be your counsel to people who are new in recovery who are now being inspired by what they've heard and seen with you today? Should they stand up and speak out or what would you be your counsel to them?

0:13:48 Kathryn Burgum
Well, you know when I was new in recovery that—that was definitely not something I was ready to do.

0:13:56 William Moyers

0:13:57 Kathryn Burgum
Or willing to do.

0:13:558 William Moyers

0:13:58 Kathryn Burgum
But, you know, it feels like things were different back then, you know? It was 18 years ago. I think if I would have had more courage to talk about it, you know, I wouldn't have had to have all that burden and live with that shame for so long. I think it's important to find like-minded people that you can talk to on your recovery journey. But you know every person I think has to decide when the time is right for them—

0:14:26 William Moyers

0:14:26 Kathryn Burgum
—To be speaking about it publicly. But I think that having the courage to do that sooner than later will help people along their recovery journey—

0:14:34 William Moyers
Aaah. Yes.

0:14:35 Kathryn Burgum
—Because you have support from the people around you. And people understand potentially what you're going through because there's so many other people out there. So, I guess I would encourage it sooner than later, wish I would have—

0:14:47 William Moyers

0:14:47 Kathryn Burgum
—Spent more time focused on that and being with people that were in recovery. And also really talking about it.

0:14:56 William Moyers
We only have a minute or two left, Kathryn, and I wanna go back to where we started this conversation and me handing you that medallion for 18 years ago. Did it ever cross your mind that you could recover from alcoholism?

0:15:12 Kathryn Burgum
Uh, no. I mean I had tried so many times on my own back then, 18 years ago. I mean I relapsed. I went to treatment and relapsed for 8 years.

0:15:24 William Moyers

0:15:25 Kathryn Burgum
I didn't—I—but I kept trying, I guess, you know? I kept thinking, you know, there must be a better way to live my life. There must be a better—so I would say that I never completely gave up hope but my hope levels were pretty low.

0:15:41 William Moyers

0:15:43 Kathryn Burgum
And so, I—but it is possible.

0:15:45 William Moyers

0:15:46 Kathryn Burgum
It did happen, you know? I'm so grateful that I kept trying. That I kept trying to find the right people or the right situation or the right group to be with to help me on this journey.

0:15:58 William Moyers

0:15:59 Kathryn Burgum
Because the most important thing is, you know, just never give up hope. [places hand on chest, chokes up]

0:16:03 William Moyers
Mmm. Mmm. [nods]

0:16:03 Kathryn Burgum
Because recovery is possible. Especially, you know, if you find the right recovery journey and find those people to support you along the way.

0:16:12 William Moyers
And did you ever imagine that one of the gifts of your recovery all these 18 years later would be the role that you have here in this chair now, in this national arena that you have—whether it's North Dakota or across this country?

0:16:24 Kathryn Burgum
Yeah no. Never. Never. [Moyers laughs] You know, this was never on my radar. That's the thing. That's the thing about it. You do not know the incredible amazing things that will show up in your life.

0:16:36 William Moyers

0:16:37 Kathryn Burgum
You know? You may think I could never be there, I could never be that person, I could never whatever. But you know literally, you become a different person when you are able to walk the road of recovery. And literally everything's possible and you least—you do have the opportunity to reach your full potential.

0:16:56 William Moyers
Well we sure are grateful that you've been walking that walk for so long and that you've reached your full potential, that you've given away what's been given to you and that you've done it in a way that proves that treatment works and recovery is possible. The fact that you've touched the lives of so many people those of us at Hazelden Betty Ford where you're on the Board of Trustees. But also those across the state of North Dakota and across this country. Thank you for sharing your recovery story, thank you for sharing your story publicly, and thank you for being with us today, Kathryn Burgum.

0:17:26 Kathryn Burgum
Thank you for your inspiration. So grateful.

0:17:28 William Moyers
You're welcome. Thank you. [turns to camera] And thanks to all of you for tuning in to another edition of Let's Talk, a series of podcasts on the issues that matter to us at Hazelden Betty Ford and to you, too. Please let your friends, family, colleagues, First Ladies, and others know about our podcast series and we hope you'll tune in for another one soon. Thank you.

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