WAUBUN, Minn. — Even when he was a kid growing up on the family farm outside Waubun, Bryan Klabunde says, alcohol held a certain allure for him. As an adult, his fascination led to frequent indulgence, and eventually, addiction.

“It’s not uncommon for farmers to go over to a neighbor’s house and have a beer,” he said, and while that’s “not a bad thing” in moderation, “I went from occasionally having drinks with friends to isolating myself from everybody and drinking as much as I possibly could, having alcohol in my system 24 hours a day.”

Though his drinking escalated quickly during times of extreme stress, Klabunde said, he was still able to continue operating the farm and doing advocacy work with the Minnesota Farmers Union, working out at the gym five days a week and giving the general impression of being a strong, capable farmer, husband and father — at least for a while.

Bryan and Sarah Klabunde have made frequent trips to the State Capitol in St. Paul for his work with the Minnesota Farmers Union, of which he is currently president. (Submitted photo)
Bryan and Sarah Klabunde have made frequent trips to the State Capitol in St. Paul for his work with the Minnesota Farmers Union, of which he is currently president. (Submitted photo)

The reality, however, was quite different.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“I was a workaholic, alcoholic, exercise fanatic,” he said, “but pretty soon the alcohol took control, and I was good at nothing — a bad dad, a bad husband, a bad advocate for farmers … I was a miserable human being, mentally incapable of balancing everything in an effective manner.”

That “everything” included the financial and logistical headaches of running his own farm operation and coping with a marriage that was fast falling apart; even the positive aspects of his life, such as a new position as vice president of the farmers union, as well as meeting and marrying second wife Sarah, added more fuel to the fire of his addiction.

“The way I dealt with all of it was alcohol,” Klabunde said. “I used alcohol to escape the problems I didn’t want to face.”

In fact, he added, he began to schedule his daily activities around his drinking, “until pretty soon, I didn’t have time for anything else.”

He recalls a time a little over a year and a half ago that his role as a farming advocate took him to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings with legislators and other farming representatives.

“I was going through withdrawal so bad,” Klabunde said, that “I wandered around the streets of D.C., desperately looking for liquor.

“I finally found a gas station that sold wine, so I brought it back to my hotel room and guzzled it (an entire bottle) — then threw it all back up.”

Undeterred, Klabunde said, he immediately began drinking a second bottle of wine, which he had purchased as a backup “just in case that happened.”

In other words, his drinking had reached a tipping point — a point where he could no longer maintain the illusion that he wasn’t falling apart.

The most wonderful time of the year … or is it?

Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and all the days in between should be filled with joy and family togetherness. But the holiday season can also be one of the most stressful times of the year, especially for a recovering substance abuse addict.

Klabunde says that in the past, a lot of his drinking activities were heightened during the holidays, when the pressures of trying to give his family a Christmas worth remembering — though finances were frequently at their tightest — could prove so overwhelming that he sought answers in the bottom of a bottle, with increasing frequency as the years went by.

“Instead of going to credit counseling, I turned to alcohol,” he says. And though he doesn’t do that anymore, Bryan added, that doesn’t mean the stressors that led to his drinking suddenly vanished.

In fact, with the added challenges of surviving a global pandemic, they’re greater than ever.

“We’ve all been taken by surprise by this year,” he said. “But even in these unprecedented times, there are still high expectations of providing a Christmas that our kids will remember forever.”

But he’s found new ways of coping, such as celebrating the holidays by doing different, inexpensive things together as a family, rather than spending a small fortune on gifts to put under the tree and then obsessing over how to pay the bill once the holidays are over.

Waubun farmer Bryan Klabunde hanging out on the farm with the family dog. (Submitted photo)
Waubun farmer Bryan Klabunde hanging out on the farm with the family dog. (Submitted photo)

“Christmas time has become so commercialized,” Klabunde said. “But we live in one of the most beautiful areas in the country, maybe in the world. Why not take advantage of that? There are a lot of ways to make memories for your kids that don’t come in a wrapped package under the tree.”

Coping with stress, anxiety, depression — and thoughts of suicide

Monica McConkey, a rural mental health specialist in Becker County, Minn., says that finding creative solutions for stress is just one of the ways she helps the farmers she works with to get past feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness — even suicidal thoughts.

The first step, she added, is to push away negative thoughts and focus on the positive — though that’s not as easy as it sounds.

“Farmers are some of the most hopeful, believing, faith-filled people I’ve ever met,” she says. “They put seeds in the ground year after year and feed their livestock, day after day, believing that the end result will be a good one.”

But at the same time, McConkey added, the agriculture industry as a whole is largely dependent for its success upon things over which farmers have no control — things like crop and livestock prices, weather and soil conditions, availability of workers, etc.

“Even with farms that are in good shape financially and physically, and have a stable workforce, there are still a lot of underlying stressors — a lot of uncertainties and unknowables,” McConkey said.

MORE: 14-year-old sexual assault survivor shares her story in hopes it'll help others

Brought low by addiction

Klabunde was “at such a low, low, low point” during that trip, Klabunde says, that “even as I was meeting with these representatives at the Capitol, I was a wreck of an alcoholic; as low as you can possibly be and still put on a suit and show up to work.”

Though he was aware that being impaired was not an effective state in which to conduct business, Klabunde says, he often did just that, “to help mask the stress I was under. I leaned on that (the alcohol) — and that was the wrong choice.”

One of his companions on that fateful trip — a close friend whom Klabunde says was one of a small group of people that stuck by him throughout his addiction and recovery — told him that “either they (i.e., his family) are going to put you in rehab, or you’re going to have to make a change.”

So Klabunde made the choice to give up drinking and try to reconstruct his life without the crutch of alcohol to get him through the tough times.

“By the time I flew home, I had quit,” he said.

Two days later, he added, he had his last drink to date, while he was waiting for his older brother to come over to his house for a conversation that he really didn’t want to have.

“I drank one more vodka, at about 1 a.m., and he came over at 2 a.m.,” Klabunde said, noting that the main topic of their subsequent conversation was his drinking and what it was doing to his own life, as well as those of his loved ones. “I’ve never touched alcohol again.”

For the next four days, Klabunde added, “I locked myself up in the house to get the shakes to go away.”

While he didn’t go through any kind of formal chemical dependency counseling or rehab to stop drinking, he says, he did have a strong support system to lean on, including wife Sarah, their “blended family” of five kids — a sixth, their first child together, is due at the end of the month — and a small group of trusted friends and family members.

“I just stopped,” he said. “I don’t know if it was the right way to do it, but it was the way I did it.”

His support network — especially Sarah — was essential to his success, Klabunde says, though the decision to change his life had to be his own.

Waubun farmer Bryan Klabunde credits his wife, Sarah, with being his biggest source of support during his recovery from alcoholism. The couple will welcome their first child together later this month, though they have a blended family of five children from previous relationships. (Submitted photo)
Waubun farmer Bryan Klabunde credits his wife, Sarah, with being his biggest source of support during his recovery from alcoholism. The couple will welcome their first child together later this month, though they have a blended family of five children from previous relationships. (Submitted photo)

“There’s nothing you’re going to tell an alcohol or drug addict that they don’t already know,” he said. “You don’t do it (drink or take drugs) for good reasons. Your body is telling you that you have to have it.”

In short, he added, “You can’t just tell someone to stop drinking. That was a mental change I had to make for myself.”

Even after that decision is made, however, maintaining sobriety remains a constant struggle — one that escalates in times of stress.

With all those stressors at work, McConkey, the mental health specialist, added, “I talk on a regular basis with farmers who have thoughts of suicide, because they feel like there’s no hope — no hope of fixing their financial situation, no hope of bringing in a good crop or fixing their relationship with their spouse. They’re mentally, physically and emotionally drained. They’re tired.

“Another thing that contributes (to negative thoughts and depression) is the isolation. Farmers are alone a lot, and they’re often not comfortable with sharing their emotions (because) it makes them vulnerable. So they put on a facade that ‘everything’s OK, and I don’t need help. I can handle this by myself.’”

On top of all that are the health issues: Many farmers have been injured, or even permanently maimed, in farm accidents that leave them with a diminished capacity to handle the day-to-day running of the farm as they have in the past.

“They also have increased susceptibility to illness — and it’s not like they can take time off when they’re sick,” McConkey said. “There’s so much on their shoulders, and it becomes a vicious cycle.”

To break that cycle, she said, she starts by asking her clients, “Are these thoughts helpful? What feelings are those thoughts producing, and are they keeping you up at night?”

The next step, she added, is to help her clients back up and focus on areas of their lives that they can control — things like making realistic lists of daily tasks and achievable goals, then making a plan to accomplish them.

The ultimate goal, McConkey added, is “taking the emphasis off worry and (negative) emotions, and focusing on positive thoughts and planning, so that when the day comes that they can do something (to solve their problems), they’ll be ready to go.”

One key thing her clients are asked to remember, she said, is that “avoidance doesn’t help. It often exacerbates an already stressful situation. Stay on top of (a problem), even if it’s painful. It’s better than avoiding the situation and not knowing what’s going to happen.”