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Port: ND's First Lady showed us that addicts are still good people

North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum speaks during an interview Feb. 3, 2017, in the Governor's Mansion, Bismarck. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service 1 / 2
columnist Rob Port2 / 2

I will admit to being something of a cynic when it comes to so-called "first lady issues."

Most of them seem shallow and trite, and I'm not sure why we expect those married to the people we elect to lead us feel compelled to enter the public policy arena in the first place.

We elect the spouse, after all. The position of first lady (or, uh, first dude?) doesn't exist on anyone's ballot anywhere. These people have no mandate from the electorate to pursue any sort of a public policy or social agenda at all, but they do it anyway.

Having got that grouchy rant out of my system, I want to commend the work of North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum on addiction and recovery issues.

Helgaas Burgum started her efforts by humbling herself. She has spoken candidly about her own struggles with alcohol addiction, saying things got so bad she checked into an inpatient treatment program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

She's now been sober for more than a decade and a half.

It's not easy for any public figure to reveal personal demons. Particularly when so many see these specific sort of details negatively. Even more so when the person doing the revealing is involved in the world of politics.

But that first step North Dakota's First Lady took may be the most important one of her initiative.

She's followed up her personal story by convening an event in Bismarck which took place this week featuring a wide-ranging discussion of addiction issues from criminal justice reform to recovery in Native American communities.

This observer believes that first admission will be the most important thing Helgaas Burgum has done. Because the biggest obstacle in the way of a better approach to addiction treatment and recovery is perception.

Historically most in the public have perceived addiction to things like drugs and alcohol as some sort of a character flaw. Evidence that the person drinking the drinks, or using the drugs, is a bad person. Even a criminal.

This isn't true. Addiction can happen to anyone. Even the very best of people. I would go so far as to say that most people who are addicted are, outside the confines of their addiction, good people.

Everyone reading this has someone they love who has struggled with addiction to one degree or another. Maybe a parent or a sibling. Maybe a lover or a child.

These are not bad people. Just people who need help.

Perhaps it seems simplistic, but recognizing addicted people are still good people is the key to understanding and ultimately addressing the addiction problem. From it stems criminal justice reform that values recovery over incarceration, and public policy which treats those with addictions like human beings as opposed to societal burdens.

First Lady Helgass Burgum helped start that conversation in our state with a personal admission which had to be both harrowing and painful.

Whatever else happens with her initiative on addiction, that peek she allowed us into her personal struggles will be the most important thing she did.

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