Acclaimed singer/songwriter Johnny Solomon opens up with host William C. Moyers about the mix of self-doubt, addiction and undiagnosed bipolar disorder that led him further and further away from the person he wanted to be—and the healing he found (and continues to find) by reaching out for help and support. Now in long-term recovery, Solomon guides others along that healing path as an addiction and mental health counselor. An unexpected bonus of recovery: he's writing more music than ever.
0:00:14 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of podcasts produced by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on the issues that matter to us and the issues that matter to you. Substance use disorder, prevention, treatment, research and recovery support. I'm your host William Moyers. We're on the road with Let's Talk. We're here at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. Thank you for joining us. And our guest today is none other than singer and songwriter Johnny Solomon. Welcome, Johnny.
0:00:43 Johnny Solomon
Thanks for having me.
0:00:44 William Moyers
Thanks for being here today to share your personal journey with us. A journey of hope I think is one of the ways we like to describe it. There was a time when you were hopeless in your life. Tell us.
0:00:57 Johnny Solomon
Yeah! Yeah, no, there was a—a big stretch of my adult life where things were a little bit bleaker than they were. Or than they are right now.
0:01:06 William Moyers
0:01:07 Johnny Solomon
I was addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine. I, it for a long period. I was also undiagnosed bipolar.
01:01:19 William Moyers
01:01:20 Johnny Solomon
And I was trying to juggle everything and come up with all the reasons why it wouldn't be alcohol or drugs. You know. It was—had to be anything else other than that was the problem. But.
0:01:32 William Moyers
But to that point, I mean you did have undiagnosed mental health challenges. And do you think you were probably or perhaps medicating?
01:0140 Johnny Solomon
Oh yeah, I was definitely—I was definitely self-medicating. I mean it's—it's one of those things where it's like the—the integrated nature of the whole thing you know I—
01:01:49 William Moyers
01:01:49 Johnny Solomon
It's—it's hard to separate out where one began and the other ended. So, it—I kind of look at it because I was able to when I—I'm a Hazelden alum, and when I was in Hazelden, they diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. And so I like it all happened at the same time where I got onto medication, I got sober, I started you know living in the program and so I kind of look at it as a package deal for me.
0:02:20 William Moyers
Double winner! The double winner!
0:02:18 Johnny Solomon
It was like I got it all at once. Yeah exactly.
0:02:24 William Moyers
Diagnosed with a substance use disorder and diagnosed with bipolar.
0:02:26 Johnny Solomon
0:02:27 William Moyers
And you got your addiction to alcohol and other drugs under control while you were in treatment. And then did—did the treatment for your mental health issues come after that or?
0:02:38 Johnny Solomon
Yeah it kinda was always been it's an ongoing thing. I think that's what has been kind of a gift for me. In recovery. Is—is that because bipolar disorder is a lifelong disorder just like substance use—
0:02:59 William Moyers
0:02:59 Johnny Solomon
I have to be aware. I have to be very self-aware. And so it in some ways it's helped my recovery to also have the bipolar disorder because I am I have to rely on support and I have to trust the people around me. And I mean that—that was a little bit hard for a person like me. I—I had—I had an ego that was pretty high up there.
0:03:22 William Moyers
You too, huh? [chuckles]
0:03:22 Johnny Solomon
[chuckles] Ha maybe we're the only ones, but uh so. You know, going in once I was open to the idea that there was another way to live, I had to kinda be open to everything around me.
0:03:38 William Moyers
0:03:38 Johnny Solomon
And open to the support. And that's kinda where I still find my hope. Even though life is so much better for me now. I still get to every day rely on other people to help me with my journey in mental health or recovery.
0:03:56 William Moyers
We often talk about the fact that addiction, substance use disorder, or mental illness, those are illnesses of isolation and the antidote to it is community. "We." Being with other people.
0:04:05 Johnny Solomon
0:04:07 William Moyers
So let me step back just a little bit because you are a singer and a songwriter, the founder of Communist Daughter. Lifelong musician. Which came first for you, a love of music or a love of substances?
0:04:20 Johnny Solomon
You know, so—I would say that—that the love of music came first. But, the way I loved music was the same way that I loved substances. The way it transcended—
0:04:38 William Moyers
0:04:38 Johnny Solomon
My where I was at the moment. So, to me, the high I got from playing music suddenly I found another thing that was also like 'Ooh, I can take this' and get high as well. And it started to supplant making music. I—it's been—it's been a really interesting life because it's been so intertwined.
0:05:07 William Moyers
0:05:07 Johnny Solomon
That it—there was a lot of—of soul-searching when I was trying to unwind it—
0:05:12 William Moyers
0:05:13 Johnny Solomon
0:05:13 William Moyers
So you had this—this dynamic of a ball of string—[gesturing with hands]
0:05:17 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. Yeah. [chuckles]
0:05:22 William Moyers
To un—parse it, right? You had to parse it—
0:05:22 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. Pull too hard on one, it just tightens up. Yeah. Yeah.
0:05:24 William Moyers
Right. So you did that and you—you—you loved music and you loved substances then all of a sudden you gave up those substances.
0:05:33 Johnny Solomon
0:05:33 William Moyers
Through treatment and you disclosed through Hazelden you talked about. And that you still loved music and you're still good at music. Was it hard to put the substances down and be as good a musician or be the musician you wanted to be?
0:05:44 Johnny Solomon
You know, I think the thing that came back, so there's a lot of things that you get back when you—when you stop using substances. When you're a musician that relies on substances, a lot of people—a lot of musicians—use it because you have a lot of self-doubt—
0:06:01 William Moyers
0:06:02 Johnny Solomon
You have a lot of anxiety. It's just something that I think a lot of artists share. And so you get into using substances to mask those things. And when you take that away, you are—you have to come full circle and face these issues. And—and really decide what you're gonna do about 'em. And so I had to face myself and decide like okay, you have this self-doubt, what are you gonna do about it? And—and luckily, without substances, you can actually sit down and work on things. And you can be—you know, you can—you can progress in that journey and—and I was able to build my self-esteem and there were hard things, like I used to think that music was like this—it was this magic that came outta the air and like you know just blessed me with the song. And I still have this feeling of that. Except for now I know that there's a lot more of me involved in the process. Where before I was take drugs, take alcohol, and I'd wake up in the morning and be like 'Hey, look! I—you know I did this thing, it was magical!' You know? [chuckles]
0:07:18 William Moyers
0:07:18 Johnny Solomon
But—but now I know I can work and there's a certain bit of my own skill involved in this and something that I can—it gave me pride to be able to work on things. And to take ownership of my music. Of my art.
0:07:36 William Moyers
So you were a good musician while you were using?
0:07:39 Johnny Solomon
0:07:40 William Moyers
Yeah, you were accomplished?
0:07:41 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, that's—I—when I was in Hazelden,
0:07:45 William Moyers
What year was that?
0:07:46 Johnny Solomon
0:07:49 William Moyers
0:07:48 Johnny Solomon
I was in Hazelden and that's when we were like—we were in the paper, like, we had songs on—I—I actually had some songs on Grey's Anatomy TV show while I was in treatment. So I mean, it was—I definitely had a moment where I was like well maybe, that was the magic. Maybe substances—
0:08:14 William Moyers
Was the magic?
0:08:15 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, maybe that's the key to—to what I do.
0:08:17 William Moyers
It was a myth though?
0:08:18 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. Oh, for sure.
0:08:19 William Moyers
So how'd you knock that down?
0:08:21 Johnny Solomon
[laughs] Ha well you know I—it took a while for my self-esteem to catch up with everything else. So, my success kept going. After the substances. And in fact, and I've told friends of mine who also had substance issues, that were musicians, it was like the only way I was able to succeed was because I gave up substances. Because there is a certain amount of work that you have to do to be an artist. And and even though the self-doubt was there, the—if I just kept doing the work, much like doing the work in recovery, if you just keep doing it, you know, you—
0:09:01 William Moyers
It works if you work it!
0:09:02 Johnny Solomon
Yeah! And you get to a place suddenly where you can look back and I can look back and say like oh, most of my success today and for a long time has happened after I got sober. So, as much as you know like there is this myth and maybe that's part of my addiction brain that's like you know ooh, look at that magic you struck when you were using. It's well, I—I've hit that magic a couple times now, so.
0:09:28 William Moyers
You sound like Eric Clapton. I mean he was an accomplished guitar player, a rock 'n roll god, and he—go ahead.
0:09:35 Johnny Solomon
Can I use that as a quote that you say that I sound like Eric Clapton? [laughs]
0:09:39 William Moyers
Sure! Sure as long as you attribute it to me and I get 10% of your royalties.
0:09:43 Johnny Solomon
[laughs] Yeah, that's, yeah!
0:09:44 William Moyers
No but seriously, he was an accomplished guitar player, a musician, recognized, he got—found recovery and he's still accomplished musician. You did the same thing. You were well-known, established, talented before. You put the substances down, and you're even more creative and accomplished now.
0:10:00 Johnny Solomon
Yeah and the thing that I think has been the biggest journey for me was that I got to enjoy the life that I had. That as an artist when you're living on that edge using substances and kind of putting your self-worth in—in that art and—and those substances, you for—you don't get the chance to enjoy your life. You—you it's from—from that point when I was sober I—I had you know I had my daytime back. You know. [chuckles] Which is you know something that I hadn't had in a while.
0:10:37 William Moyers
0:10:38 Johnny Solomon
And you know I got to tour, I got to meet fans, I got to really experience real connection with people. And and—and those are the things I would not have had if I had continued using substances. In fact actually, some of my biggest breaks have happened because I was sober.
0:10:58 William Moyers
0:10:58 Johnny Solomon
And I met like one of my friends Jason, who's sober, and he's—if—if you consider me successful then he would be like ten times more successful than me. But he—we met because we were both recently sober musicians. And we just started talking about how—what it's like to be sober musicians. And—and I every year I still go out on tour with him you know a few dates a year. I mean not—not—not regularly like his—
0:11:29 William Moyers
No, but you're getting out there with him.
0:11:31 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, he still calls us once in a while. And that's really nice because to me, that was two musicians who were recently sober—
0:11:38 William Moyers
0:11:38 Johnny Solomon
Who just connected. And then every year, we'll—we still play a couple shows, you know.
0:11:43 William Moyers
It seems like there's two pathways that musicians who have addiction follow. One is to the bottom of death. Whether you're Tom Petty, or Prince, or Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. Or, find recovery and continue to perform music. You know, Eric Clapton and the man you just talked about.
0:12:01 Johnny Solomon
0:12:03 William Moyers
On the other hand, though, there are not too many sober musicians who then take it to the next level like you have as it relates to what you decided to do with your professional life.
0:12:14 Johnny Solomon
0:12:14 William Moyers
Vis a vis become a counselor. Share it with us.
0:12:18 Johnny Solomon
So, I guess in some of those things that like because I toured a lot. I—as a musician. I—I really got to experience some height of success that a lot of musicians didn't. And—and you know and actually being on the road with Jason a little bit, you know, and get—as he got bigger, and we'd play with him, I got to see what it would be like. And—and I realized that my passion is in writing music and recording music and—and I realized that my—in my life, my passion has been more about mental health and recovery.
0:12:55 William Moyers
0:12:56 Johnny Solomon
And and so about two years ago, we got off the road and I decided that I was gonna check—I was—check in. This is my—my brain is still thinking 'check into Hazelden.' [Moyers chuckles] But I checked into Hazelden Graduate School. And—
0:13:11 William Moyers
Our Graduate School for Addiction Studies.
0:13:13 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. And so I enrolled in graduate school and in about well I—I will be graduating here in a few days.
0:13:24 William Moyers
Bravo. [claps hands silently] A few days being in April of 2019?
0:13:26 Johnny Solomon
0:13:28 William Moyers
But it's more than that, you've also got a job!
0:13:30 Johnny Solomon
0:13:32 William Moyers
Can you share with your fans? First time, by the way. Let's Talk Podcast is the first to break this big news.
0:13:33 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, so. Yeah. [chuckles] Yeah, I haven't told people because I you know there is a lot of questions that people have. Like oh, are you gonna keep doing music? And—and there is still you know that little bit of me that's self-worth of like am I interesting without my guitar?
0:13:52 William Moyers
You are so far today. [Both chuckle]
0:13:53 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. So far, yeah. We'll see, you know. How long is the podcast? [Moyers laughs] So I took a job I—I—I've really enjoyed working with underserved populations. And I with—with going, getting licensed as a Clinical Counselor or an Addiction Counselor, you—you have to do a certain number of hours. And so I had an opportunity to go become an itinerant therapist in Alaska.
0:14:23 William Moyers
What does that mean, an itinerant therapist?
0:14:25 Johnny Solomon
So [sighs] I will be flying in Bush planes to villages above the Arctic Circle to do assessments and—and therapy and addiction, substance use therapy, with native populations up there.
0:14:43 William Moyers
0:14:45 Johnny Solomon
Without—so there—there's no roads that go to these villages. So—
0:14:48 William Moyers
They fly in.
0:14:48 Johnny Solomon
Everything—yeah, everything has to be in and out. And I'll be based at a hospital above the Arctic Circle. And just flying in and out. My wife was all in for this so, you know, I know people out there are probably like—
0:15:02 William Moyers
But you—you're still gonna be though but you're still gonna be able to do music—
0:15:06 Johnny Solomon
0:15:07 William Moyers
0:15:08 Johnny Solomon
And we have an album that's close to—to coming out. We've—we've been talking with labels. And I mean the—the music stuff still—still exists and like I said when I—we just in September did some tour dates. And that was with Jason we did a couple. And and it is a thing where it's like I know now especially in an age of Internet and—
0:15:37 William Moyers
0:15:37 Johnny Solomon
My music to me the connection is writing the music and—and getting the music out there to people. And and we're still like, you know, we've had songs on TV shows recently and I'll still probably make it out on the road a few times. Maybe not the 200 dates a year that I was doing, but.
0:15:55 William Moyers
But you'll be out on the road, you'll still be writing and producing, performing music—
0:16:00 Johnny Solomon
0:16:01 William Moyers
And you'll also be helping people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to get the help of a professional. You'll have your Master's, right?
0:16:08 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. My Master's.
0:16:09 William Moyers
0:16:09 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. And I'm actually—
0:16:12 William Moyers
0:16:12 Johnny Solomon
—Even considering going on.
0:16:14 William Moyers
0:16:15 Johnny Solomon
School—school agreed with me. So—
0:16:17 William Moyers
0:16:18 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, it's just—it—when I got sober, I—when I was not sober, my life was like heading towards one direction. [Moyers points down.] And once I got, yeah, that direction was down. [chuckles] But once I got sober, it opened up all these—these opportunities that I didn't even realize that I had. Like the thought of me getting my Master's degree and doing this. You know?
0:16:45 William Moyers
Who'd a thunk it?
0:16:46 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. Wouldn't—I couldn't have dreamed of it in a million years. So.
0:16:50 William Moyers
From adversity comes opportunity.
0:16:52 Johnny Solomon
Yeah. That's why you're the writer. [laughs]
0:16:57 William Moyers
That's why you're the singer and performer. But, we only have a minute or two Johnny. Tell me about the role that your wife has played in your journey.
0:17:05 Johnny Solomon
So, I—you know I talked about the support that I have to rely on. And the—the person that that has been there with me from the moment that I—I had the first inklings that maybe I should get sober was Molly. My wife. And she, through her strength, which some of that included not putting up with me for various periods. It got me to kind of see myself and see what I—what I needed and—and she went to the Family Program when I went to Hazelden. And we have been together since I got outta Hazelden—
0:17:52 William Moyers
0:17:52 Johnny Solomon
And we got married and she has been like the main thing in my life. The number one support and direction I guess for me. It's like I—I look to her as inspiration for what the kind of person I wanna be. And she's the person I trust to tell me when I'm not acting the way that I want to act. You know.
0:18:13 William Moyers
So you see that camera right over there? [pointing] Why don't you tell her something?
0:18:16 Johnny Solomon
[chuckles] Molly, I love you. It is the reason, yeah. She really is the reason. It's—it's great. Like in these—there's this magazine here [points to magazine on coffee table]
0:18:27 William Moyers
Article that Together magazine with you on the cover.
0:18:29 Johnny Solomon
0:18:31 William Moyers
Should we hold it up here?
0:18:32 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, that's—but they—they took a great photo of my wife in and I have a photo—
0:18:37 William Moyers
Oh is it in here? [pages through]
0:18:37 Johnny Solomon
Oh it's probably in there somewhere.
0:18:40 William Moyers
There's not one of me in here! [Johnny chuckles] Oh and there you are again! There you are again. [holding up inside photo] But.
0:18:44 Johnny Solomon
I like to get—yeah.
0:18:46 William Moyers
There's one more I've been told and it's—oh, there she is! [holds up page featuring photo of Molly and Johnny together]
0:18:48 Johnny Solomon
There she is, yeah! That's the one.
0:18:49 William Moyers
There she is. That—so that's Molly.
0:18:51 Johnny Solomon
Yeah and I have that hanging up. It's one of my favorite photos.
0:18:54 William Moyers
0:18:55 Johnny Solomon
And it—it really does kind of encapsulate. I'm—I'm kinda leaning on her shoulder there. So.
0:19:01 William Moyers
And the point of it is is that addiction is an illness that affects all the family—
0:19:05 Johnny Solomon
0:19:07 William Moyers
And recovery is not just about the person who has the illness but it's about the family member too. And she's hung in there. Yeah.
0:19:11 Johnny Solomon
Yeah she went—she went to the Family Program. She's gone to Al-Anon, and—
0:19:16 William Moyers
Yeah she does her part. For her.
0:19:19 Johnny Solomon
0:19:19 William Moyers
We gotta close but before we do, I want you to leave our audience today with a message. Because yours is a very powerful story. You can be creative in recovery. But you also—yours is a story that you can recover from one—from more than one chronic illness. You've had the double whammy. And you've done it. Leave our viewers and our listeners with a—who might be struggling today with mental illness or with substance use disorder or both—leave 'em with a message.
0:19:44 Johnny Solomon
Whooo. [sighs] You know, it's I guess to me, the way that I look at it is once I accepted that recovery was possible, it became a blessing in my life. If you change the perspective that you have about these—the illness—substance use—and bipolar or whatever mental illness, it can become the—the driving force in your life to become a better person.
0:20:11 William Moyers
You've done that and you've proven it with your own life.
0:20:14 Johnny Solomon
0:20:13 William Moyers
[reaches over to shake Johnny's hand] So, Johnny Solomon, thank you very much for being with us today and sharing your story of hope. For standing up and speaking out as a man in recovery, as a musician in recovery, and soon to be a counselor.
0:20:25 Johnny Solomon
0:20:26 William Moyers
In recovery. Helping other people. I can think of no better story than yours so thank you for being here today, Johnny.
0:20:31 Johnny Solomon
Yeah, thank you.
0:20:32 William Moyers
And thanks to all of you for being here too. On behalf of our Executive Producer Lisa Stangl and our great crew from Blue Moon Productions, I'm your host William Moyers. We hope you'll join us again for another edition of Let's Talk.