Like many Minnesotans and politicos across America, I am deeply saddened by Rep. Jim Ramstad’s passing last week. If I ever get a book written on Minnesota’s greatest leaders, there will be a politics chapter wholly focused on Jim.
Jim was always a true titan of bipartisanship and of doing what was right for his constituents over his national party. He also made heavyweight impacts to the Ways and Means Committee on fiscal responsibility, to police nationwide as co-chair of the Law Enforcement Caucus and to public health through medical technology policy advancements and especially his mental health parity legislation.
But what I will personally remember about Jim are his countless hours helping to save my life — and the lives of hundreds of people in the throes of addiction, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. By his personal example and service, Jim helped to destigmatize diseases that were once viewed as moral weakness.
Fourteen years ago, as a recently returned Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war, I was running for the state Senate as a newly endorsed Democratic candidate in Edina. But even as I was outwardly projecting confidence, competence and a sense of civic duty — internally I was jammed up in a downward cycle of alcohol abuse and erratic personal behavior that was destroying my family and my friendships.
I was so embarrassed by my own actions in my binge drinking, and in my behavior with untreated stress issues, that I’d hit the point of never wanting to wake up again.
For many years, I’d been told I needed to be careful with my abuse of alcohol. I’d had my share of drunken debacles, thinking I was only partying and not hurting anyone. But I’d hurt plenty of people, and always justified it as a drunken excess. I held on to deeply harbored ill will at anyone who’d ever hurt me.
My pride had me so ashamed of being seen as “less than” others or being dubbed mentally ill, or broken, or chemically dependent, or weak, or inherently bad, that I really couldn’t fathom moving forward in life without alcohol — and I was certain I could not live with it any longer. I was at the breaking point, and it was so painful I truly believed I couldn’t bear to change.
As I was sharing the dilemma I had created for myself, a personal friend of Jim’s gave me the congressman’s phone number and told me that I should reach out to him. I did some research and saw that Ramstad had committed several very public alcohol-related offenses, but that he’d been able to get his life back on track and have a successful career in public service.
By what miracle I found the courage to call him I don’t know. A new Democratic candidate calling an established Republican leader for help was not at the top of the list of recommended campaign tactics.
What happened next changed my life.
When he learned my call was about addiction, Jim told his staff to immediately clear his calendar. He made arrangements to meet with me confidentially, in person. He told me an honest, deeply personal story about himself that I could completely relate to. For the first time in over a year, I felt that I was not a lost cause.
I wish I could say it got easy then, but it didn’t. I was encouraged to get help through immediate medical intervention and long-term sobriety as a path to health. I refused, but Jim never once compromised my privacy.
When my life situation finally got painful enough for me to go, it was Jim who ensured I walked into an appropriate care facility and began the long journey toward a life in recovery.
In the following weeks, months and years, I’d spend a lot of personal time with Jim. He checked on my progress regularly. He drove me to appointments. He introduced me to people who didn’t care what I had been or what I had done, but who wanted me to become healthy.
Congressman Jim Ramstad showed me and many others how to operate in a life without any limits, while happily abstinent from alcohol, and without any drugs not prescribed by a doctor.
The Jim Ramstad I knew showed America what a Washington insider who is honest, polite and humble with others and who surrounds himself with loving, supportive people can achieve. For all the time I knew him, Jim lived day to day in recovery and supported others — especially those who needed permission to love themselves.
If I ever do get to write that book on Minnesota’s greatest leaders, I will start the Jim Ramstad chapter with these words: “We can recover. We do recover.”
Andrew Borene, a native of Edina, is a corporate executive and attorney in Washington, D.C. He is a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Defense, a former intelligence officer and a former Marine.