How Kathryn Burgum is Reinventing Recovery

Government Buildings

Shame and stigma kept Kathryn Burgum silent about her recovery for fifteen years. After she became First Lady of North Dakota, she learned from host William Moyers himself after an event where they both spoke: "The solution is so simple—we end stigma by talking about it." Now she's leading head and heart first, putting her own story front and center, and providing invaluable input to steer policy, public perception, and people everywhere toward real hope and healing.

The easiest, fastest, cheapest way, this is what I say now to eliminate stigma. Is just by talking about it.

Kathryn Burgum

0:00:13 William Moyers
Welcome! We're back for another interview in our award-winning podcast series, Let's Talk. Where we focus on the issues that matter to us at Hazelden Betty Ford, the issues that we know matter to you, too. From prevention and research to treatment for substance use disorder, and managing recovery from it. I'm William C. Moyers, your host, and today is special for me—professionally and personally. Because I am with a woman whose trajectory as a recovery advocate in this nation I have had the privilege of being part of from the beginning. [smiles] I first met Kathryn Burgum in North Dakota in about 2016. At an event where I spoke on behalf of a nonprofit treatment provider in the community. She and her husband, Doug Burgum, took more than a passing interest in what I had to say. In fact, they were among the first people to show up at the event and they were truly the last people to leave. [chuckles] We actually said goodbye to each other in the parking lot at the Civic Center that evening. Welcome, Kathryn!

0:01:18 Kathryn Burgum
Hey, William! Oh my gosh, I have tears in my eyes—what a great night that was! [Moyers chuckles] And oh, what a great path we've had! And, you know, and working together it's just been so—it's just such an honor to work with you. And so I mean I forgot we said goodbye in the parking lot. It's true! We were literally hanging on every word you said.

0:01:43 William Moyers
[chuckles] Well and I was struck that night when you all came because I learned that at the time, your husband was running for Governor of North Dakota. And I had seen other people who were candidates for office who would come to some of my events--they might come and they might wave, they might listen for a few minutes. But then no one had ever stayed and you all stayed as long as you did. There was a personal reason for that—tell me what motivated you that evening, Kathryn.

0:02:09 Kathryn Burgum
Sorry, I'm emotional, you know, and well the personal reason was because I was in recovery. And I'd never really talked about it. You know, publicly, never reached out to anybody to talk about it. And I had, you know, about 15 years of recovery at that time. And you know what, I didn't reach out to talk about it to anyone or share with anyone because of the shame. And the stigma. So, I was there—I was also there because First Step Recovery, which was who the group was that you were working with, I had some dear friends that were part of that journey. And I also had participated with and had some help with people from that group also. So, you know, when I was really in my recovery. So it was just serendipitous, you know, but I also just felt this need. [tears up] Ah I just felt the need to be there. And my husband who is so supportive of me and really had also so much empathy and we both are just on this path to help eliminate the shame and stigma. And so, you know, having a partner in the process is just so important. So you know, he was more than willing and happy to be there that night.

0:03:32 William Moyers
Well and it helped that he won—he was elected Governor. And you became First Lady and you made recovery advocacy a cornerstone of your platform in that position. What's that been like for you, Kathryn?

0:03:47 Kathryn Burgum
Well, it's been, you know, highs and lows for sure. But mostly, it's been super rewarding! Because, you know, the minute I gave an interview and told the world, basically, and opened the door that I was—to talk about my own recovery, you know, it felt like a hundred-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And I sort of immediately felt like, you know, some of the shame was already gone, you know? And so, it's the ability to work with people, to share with people, to be able to convene people to come together to really just talk about addiction. You know, when I heard you speak that night, it was such a simple solution. You're like, 'Hey!' You know? The easiest, fastest, cheapest. I'm not quoting you but [Moyers laughs] the easiest, fastest, cheapest way, this is what I say now to eliminate stigma. Is just by talking about it. And it's free! And so, that's what we've been doing. And we've been doing it since I got in office. And we have data that shows that we've decreased the amount of stigma around addiction in our state. [Moyers nods] By twelve percent. And that, you know, it's great to have the data as well. And all of that has really mostly been about storytelling. Which I learned from you!

0:05:17 William Moyers
[chuckles] Well we know the power of storytelling and you are a very powerful storyteller. Just tell our listeners and our viewers briefly what was your bottom? What was the moment when you made that turn?

0:05:31 Kathryn Burgum
Right, right. Well, you know, I'd been trying to—I knew in college that I had an issue with alcohol that just progressed over the next twenty years. You know, I relapsed very consistently for the last eight of those years. And in the end, I just thought, you know—'cause I was just like, 'I can do this,' you know, I've got an MBA, every job I'd try to—I just progressed in my life but I just could not stop drinking. And so, and then I also had untreated depression. And so in the end, unfortunately, it was—I would drink a lot and I'd have depression and I became so depressed and suicidal. And so, that was very scary. And so, you know, I knew that I just needed to reach out for help. And I was able to find, you know, finally able to really make a commitment and find people like me! Who were working hard on recovery and that was really the group of people that helped me stay on this path of recovery. But also just doing this work and the advocacy and being around people that are still struggling helps remind me that, you know, I'm just one drink away from really ruining my life.

0:06:52 William Moyers
Yes, yes. So I wanna come back to the advocacy part in just a minute. But just sticking with that theme for a minute about reminding yourself—do you ever get nervous being so public in the way that you are as the First Lady of North Dakota? And the reaction that you get? How do you take care of yourself, Kathryn?

0:07:12 Kathryn Burgum
Well, you know, that's a good question. I never, like, I am never ashamed [chokes up]—I don't know why I'm so emotional. I'm emotional because I'm so dang grateful. [Moyers nods] That's really all it is. But, you know, I am never ashamed, you know, to talk about it. It's like the minute I opened that door it was like, hey, you know, I have a disease! Like a lot of other people. And we don't need to be ashamed of it. But as far as taking care of myself, you know, I'm really more of an introvert. I guess I'm probably an ambivert because I'm able to be around people and do—and I love meeting people and whatever, but it kind of you know some people get energy from that but it makes me a little bit tired sometimes. So I have to take time to sort of be on my own and get reenergized. And, you know, stay close to my friends and my family and, you know, get some exercise. So I have to—it is important. And then I also have this agreement with my husband. [chuckles] Where, you know, we go to events because a lot of events we're at, there's alcohol. And, you know, alcohol is cunning, baffling—the disease of addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful. And I don't ever want to be in that position where all of a sudden, somebody passes a tray of something and I don't even--I'm like having an out-of-body experience taking a drink. [chuckles softly] And because I'm frustrated because I need to leave or something. So he and I have this great agreement where, you know, when he decided to run and I supported him, I just said, 'I know I can support you a hundred percent, but, I need to be able to have my own getaway car,' you know? [chuckles] Or leave when I'm ready to go. And that has just been really great because then I don't—I'm not stressed and I don't feel like I—and also, you know, have the ability to say no to some things. 'Cause you just—I can't overcommit either. As much as I would like to help and be a part of so many things, that's—that's dangerous for my own recovery.

0:09:13 William Moyers
[nods] Yet you've managed to take your own recovery, you've managed to take your position as the First Lady of North Dakota, and you've taken that and truly become a national advocate for the causes that matter to you and your constituents in North Dakota, that matter to me, that matter to Hazelden Betty Ford. Did you ever imagine that you would become a national advocate in the way that you have?

0:09:39 Kathryn Burgum
[laughs] Uh, no. Never thought I'd be on your podcast! Never thought I would be, you know, speaking at a national level. And never thought I'd be invited to be at the table at the federal level. You know, to help with making decisions, to provide input. I never, ever thought that. [chokes up] It's like it's crazy because for those people out there that are trying to decide if they should get sober or they're in their early recovery and it's challenging. You know, it's like you do not know—you do not know what doors will open for you. You do not know the amazing things that'll happen in your life. 'Cause you can never predict that. But you have a chance, you know, if you're in recovery. So for sure, I just—I sort of go back sometimes and go, 'I can't believe I did that, or I was able to meet those people.' It's been—it's amazing.

0:10:39 William Moyers
And one of the remarkable advocacy platforms that you've created that I've argued is a template for all 50 states, not just the state of North Dakota, is what you have called 'Recovery Reinvented.' Could you explain a little about what that is?

0:10:56 Kathryn Burgum
Well, it's a fantastic one-day event that I'm fortunate to be a part of really. And emcee-ing the event with my husband. But, you know, it started with a meeting with you and the Director of our Behavioral Health team in North Dakota, Pam Sagness. And it was kind of like, 'What should I do?' Like I think I was saying to you, I don't know what to do with my platform and maybe help me figure out some strategy. And we all just came up with this idea of a one-day event. But I'm pretty sure it was you that said, 'I think we should call it Recovery Reinvented.'

0:11:30 William Moyers
[laughs] I don't know about that!

0:11:31 Kathryn Burgum
You know, that was such a great idea! Because it really is about truly reinventing recovery and getting rid of shame and stigma. And so, we've done it now for six years.

0:11:45 William Moyers
[shakes head] Incredible.

0:11:46 Kathryn Burgum
And one-day event and it's just gotten bigger and bigger. And we've reached—I think we've reached over 30,000 people around the world. You know? With people being able to re-provide it on the Internet, and we provide it so that people that are incarcerated in our prison systems in North Dakota are able to participate. Which is you know which is just so great. So, anyway, it's amazing and I'm so grateful to be a part of it. It's a one-day event where we just, you know, talk about eliminating stigma. We have a bunch of speakers that talk about it, we have art, we have music, we give out awards. Yeah, it's pretty—it's pretty amazing.

0:12:23 William Moyers
And you do it reflecting the population of the state of North Dakota! Even though, you know, you've become a national advocate, even though you are the First Lady of Recovery in this country, you have always been sensitive and keen to making sure that you speak for and help the constituents of North Dakota. That's particularly challenging because a lot of those constituents don't look like you. Can you talk more about what services are needed in communities of color and in underserved populations?

0:12:54 Kathryn Burgum
Yeah. So in North Dakota, we share geography with five tribal nations. And I get emotional about this part because, you know, it's just not—there's not enough information out there. That this is the population of people across the nation that are the most adversely affected by the disease of addiction. And so, when we got into office, we met with all the people that head up the tribes, the chairwomen and chairmen, and you know, we just said, 'Hey, you know, we wanna partner with you.' I said, you know, 'I will be available to you, let me how I can help,' but then, what's been really cool is that there have been partnerships that developed. We have had recovery community organizations started. The first one in North Dakota was started on the MHA Nation Reservation. And it's a place where they have peer support specialists, people can gather, they have meetings. And, you know, Turtle Mountain also, they just built a new treatment center at their location. And they've had a Youth Council at Turtle Mountain and the Band of Chippewa up there. And the Youth Council has been amazing and a big part of their focus is, you know, on addiction. So I mean really it's just been great to be able to connect with the tribes. And, you know, they really wanna make a difference. And, you know, I'm just there to help partner with them. And I'm fortunate enough to—you know they asked me to speak at a high school graduation which was amazing. It was during COVID, but, so I—if I'm able to partner with them and spread the word that the disease of addiction, there is no shame and stigma with that, that can go a long way. And just I'm grateful for the opportunity. But I just feel like, you know, we have so many things that happen at the national level. And I don't think anyone would—you know, the average lifespan of some of the people on the reservations in North Dakota is like 58 years old. And I just don't think we would—I don't know, there are so many underserved populations across our nation, but I don't know that any of them have that statistic. So, we're just gonna keep working. And a lot of that is related to the health conditions and addition and not having access to great food, you know, et cetera. So, anyway, that's my—my husband has one of his pillars is Tribal Engagement.

And his DNA, his family were one of the first to settle in North Dakota. His great-great-grandmother was called Sazula by the Lakota people. Because of how she worked with the tribes. So for him, it's been happening, you know, the partnerships have been happening for quite a long time. So it's a bit new for me, but I'm—I'm really grateful.

0:16:08 William Moyers
Your advocacy has been down in the trenches in North Dakota. And on the reservations. Your advocacy has been in the State House and in your position. You've also taken your advocacy and brought it to organizations like Hazelden Betty Ford. You are a member of our Board of Trustees and you've been quite adamant about the importance of diversity in our ranks. Why is it so hard for organizations that mean well and do well to become truly diverse? And I'm not just talking about Hazelden Betty Ford but I'm talking about how we see, you know, recovery advocacy is predominantly—recovery advocates are people of our color--when I look at the units at Hazelden Betty Ford, we're still not as diverse as we strive to be. What is it that we need to do better at?

0:17:01 Kathryn Burgum
Well, you know, I think that's a good question. Because, of course, everyone is affected by the disease of addiction. It doesn't matter, you know, what group you're from, what color you are, you know? Everyone is affected. And so I think that maybe, you know, I think with the tribal nations it could be that it's the stigma. It's the getting yourself associated with the disease of addiction. You know, that could be part of it. But I believe that at Hazelden Betty Ford we're making a lot of progress, you know? And you know that as well in terms of diversity and at the Board level also. You know, when I joined the Board, of course I started these conversations about the tribal nations. And how Native Americans and American Indians are affected by the disease of addiction. And so we have those conversations for a while and then, you know, I believed it was really important to have someone who is Native American on our Board.  And so we are so fortunate now to have Dr. Don Warren on our Board. Who's M.D. Stanford, Harvard graduate in Public Health, and he is just gonna be so helpful for us in terms of how we can provide services, how we can better connect with tribal nations across our nation. To provide services. 'Cause that's the big part of it is just the lack of services. And, you know, and the stigma. So, anyway, he's amazing, and our Board is getting a lot more diverse, and you know, we've got other populations and cultures as well. [Moyers nods] So, I think we're making progress at Hazelden Betty Ford.

0:18:44 William Moyers
That's right. We are making progress and you've been a big reason for that, Kathryn. However we measure that progress at the Board level and in the organization or across the continuum of the need in this country. I wanna close by coming back to your story for just a minute. Because telling stories, as you've talked about, is so important in smashing the stigma. [Kathryn nods] What do you envision happens to you? I mean, you're not gonna be First Lady forever. [Kathryn chuckles] What is the next chapter of your story if you could write it? What would it be?

0:19:20 Kathryn Burgum
Oh boy, good question! You know, I envision myself being an advocate. For basically as long as it takes. You know, until addiction is—we're not in a separate building on the edge of town somewhere, you know? We've got a wing in a hospital, just like the cancer wing or the diabetes wing, you know? It's the addiction wing, you know? And healthcare is really dialed in, you know? 'Cause I think that's one area where if we eliminate the shame and stigma of addiction in healthcare, that will go a long way. Towards people saying, 'Oh, well, you know, this is the addiction wing, and we don't have to be ashamed to go get treatment,' and that sort of thing. So, you know, I just see myself continuing to be an advocate. And just continuing to be available to help people. And, as you know, people reach out to me all the time. I'm so grateful to you and others for helping me navigate, helping those people who reach out to me navigate the opportunity to be at Hazelden Betty Ford. So, I see that as, you know, what my path is moving forward. Definitely.

0:20:35 William Moyers
Last question and in that spirit, people will watch this podcast or listen to it and they will be motivated to reach out to you. They will be motivated because they are struggling. What is your message, Kathryn, to people who are struggling not just with a substance use disorder, but struggling with the shame and the stigma about it. What's your message to them?

0:20:59 Kathryn Burgum
Well, you know, my message is really just don't ever give up hope. Because, you know I mentioned earlier that I relapsed for eight years. That's a lot of continuous trying to get sober. You know? Like, that's a lot of opportunity to give up. And, you know, for me it was like—but I didn't want the—I didn't want the life I had. I didn't like the person I was. And, you know, I had all that shame and stigma. But, don't give up hope, reach out for resources, because you never know where your life can be and it can be a hundred percent better. You know? So that's what I would say to people. And, you know, and I'm available, I have a First Lady website out there. Type in First Lady of North Dakota you can find it. And you know, I'm available, reach out to me, and I'll help however I can. But hey, if you wanna come join our team and help us eliminate stigma, we'd be happy to have you on our team, too. [chuckles, smiles]

0:22:01 William Moyers
Well thanks, Kathryn, we're so grateful that you're on our team and by our team I don't just mean at Hazelden Betty Ford. Or our team in North Dakota but our team of recovery advocates and champions across this country. You truly are professionally and personally an inspiration to so many of us. Including me. And your story of hope is a story of hope for all of us as we continue to strive forward to smash the stigma and follow your lead. Towards recovery, redemption, and all the good things that are coming as a result of standing up and speaking out. Kathryn Burgum, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:22:40 Kathryn Burgum
Thank you so much, William, thanks for doing this podcast! And thanks for all you do to help so many people who are struggling with the disease of addiction. 'Cause I'm sure a lot of that helps them to remember that, you know, to never give up hope for recovery.

0:22:54 William Moyers
Wow, thanks, Kathryn, I'm glad we're on the team together. [smiles] Take good care.

0:22:59 Kathryn Burgum
[nods, smiles] Thank you.

0:23:01 William Moyers
[turns to camera]
And thanks to all of you for joining us for another in this series of podcasts, Let's Talk. Remember there is help available, all you need to do is reach out and ask for that help. And you can find it like Kathryn and William and so many thousands of others have found it, too. We hope you'll tune in again for another edition of Let's Talk. Take good care.

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