John Solomon Gives Voice to Healing and Hope

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Native Drum Circle at a pow wow

Out on tour after getting sober, indie-rocker John Solomon made a point of hosting conversations about addiction, mental health and recovery wherever he went. The experience inspired his next career move: Going to graduate school and becoming an addiction and mental health counselor. Today he serves as CEO of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association. From a patient to a clinician to a leading voice in the recovery field, hear why he keeps turning the hope he's found into ways to help others heal.

I was undiagnosed for a long time. I thought I was just an exciting 20-year-old, into my thirties.

John Solomon

0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, our award-winning podcast series brought to you by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, thanks for joining us. We've got a lot of thumbs-up followers of these podcasts, and so many of you probably already know the name John Solomon. That's because he's been on the program before, back in 2019. At that time, we talked about his struggles with mental illness and substance use. How he overcame both and turned his life as the frontman musician with the indie rock band Communist Daughter into a career helping people just like him. He's with us again today from Alaska. Welcome, John!

0:00:56 John Solomon
Thanks for having me, it's good to be back! [Both smile big]

0:00:58 William Moyers
It's good to see you on there. You know, when we were last together several years ago, you announced at that time that you were heading to the Arctic Circle with your wife, Molly, to spend two years applying your clinical expertise and service to the Native Alaskan population. But it's been four or five years now, what happened?

0:01:17 John Solomon
Uh, yeah. [grins] I ask myself that every day. You know, we got up here and it was kind of such a magical place. And the community was great and I think the work was so needed that it felt really good to be working with kind of the background that I had. And so, I decided to stay on for another few years and I was actually making a plan to come back to Minnesota next year. And life happened again. So, I'll be staying up here for a little bit longer as well. 

0:01:53 William Moyers
Well, you've got to tell our viewers and our listeners what it is that you're gonna be doing. [smiles]

0:01:58 John Solomon
So I just accepted a position of CEO of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association. So, in a couple months I'll start as basically the representative of Behavioral Health in Alaska. Working with the legislators, working with the State government, kind of trying to coordinate everybody. Get everybody on the same page.

0:02:20 William Moyers
Good luck! [chuckles] 

0:02:23 John Solomon
[chuckles] Yeah.

0:02:24 William Moyers
So John, tell us you know, I know how important your own story, your own experience, has been to your journey and to watch you're doing today. Can you share that with people to remind us where you come from?

0:02:40 John Solomon
Sure! You know, I like a lot of folks, I was undiagnosed for a long time. I thought I was just an exciting 20-year-old, into my thirties. I think I was more—I kept being more exciting as everybody else kind of tamped down some of that excitement in their life. [grins] So I was a musician—this is before my band Communist Daughter—I was in a rock band. And that kind of "rock lifestyle" [uses air quotes] was maybe a little bit more accepted in my brain as what I was doing. So I got into obviously I was drinking a lot, I got into some of the heavier drugs, I was partying, staying up all night, making terrible decisions, and I couldn't figure out why things weren't really working out for me. You know, with a lot of folks that struggle with addiction. It was everything but the alcohol and drugs. And then I ended up through kind of a large failure being put in jail the night before a big show, where I think we were playing--gosh I don't even remember the bands now—it was some big band, let's just say. That's how old I'm getting now, I don't even remember. But yeah, I got arrested the night before and I was in jail and opened the paper to a big picture of myself saying I was playing this show. And a guy sat down next to me and said, 'I don't think you're gonna make that show.' [grins] And I didn't.

0:04:26 John Solomon
So I checked into treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford. And through that, that was just a life-changing experience. It was—I mean, so life-changing that I don't think I could've described it to that active addiction John. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar I. And through medication, through treatment, through sobriety, a long but really fruitful path, I got sober. And then I started a new band. That was kind of—I guess the band kinda started all at the same time. And you know, songs that I had written right before I went into treatment started to get pretty popular. And then I spent ten years maybe I think touring as a musician. But through that, I used a lot of—you know it became important to me to talk about how sobriety and mental health allowed me to be successful. I think in the arts field. A lot of people think that you have to be tortured, you have to participate in that kind of lifestyle, and that's how you gain inspiration. And I found it was pretty much the opposite. And so, I spent a lot of time advocating for safe spaces, you know, that conversation to be public. So that's kinda where I got to my sobriety. And then, the last time we talked, I had actually enrolled in the Graduate School at Hazelden Betty Ford. Because I felt like the more I talked to people about mental health and recovery, the more I wanted to know and make sure I was saying things that I could stand behind. And I got my degree from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School. As an Integrated Recovery—a Master's Degree. And that's when I announced on your show that I was taking a hard right turn and going up to a village in Alaska to just do counseling for two years, is what my plan was. But, you know, don't make plans, 'cause God has other ideas. So, yeah.

0:06:55 William Moyers
And of course you went up there not solo but you went up there with your wife, Molly. Who had been really a critical partner in your recovery down and back up. How has she been with the journey?

0:07:11 John Solomon
She's good. She, you know, like I am always expecting her to be the voice of reason in my life. And so when she said that yeah, I think this was a good idea for us, I was shocked. But we got up here and the community's been great. She actually enrolled in a nursing program that they have in Alaska. Where she can do some of the clinical parts of nursing in these remote—in the rural hospital here. There's a 17-bed kind of stabilization hospital in our village. And so, she does her clinicals there. She's halfway through the program.

0:07:51 William Moyers
What's it like providing services in a "community" [uses air quotes] like Alaska? I mean, nevermind the distance from population centers. There's certainly a dynamic in terms of diversity. You're in the minority there. You know, you found quality treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford, you got to go to a good graduate school, you don't have those resources up there.

0:08:24 John Solomon
Yeah, I think that's—that was one of the reasons I felt a calling to come up here. You know, it's where I live it's about 85 percent Native Alaskan. It's Inupiaq. And in the villages, which—this is a hub village in the Northwest Arctic. And there's villages that are further inland. And that's about 95 percent Native Alaskan. And we're not on a road system. So everything that is here has to be either barged here in one to two months that there isn't ice, or, flown in. And so, it's yeah, resources are very scarce. And mental health care, addiction care, it's as far out as you can get. So I really felt like it was important for me to bring what I Learned at Hazelden Betty Ford and see what—if I could be some of the farthest outreaches of Hazelden Betty Ford. So, it's been a great experience.

0:09:37 William Moyers
Do you go to the patients and the clients or do they come to you?

0:09:43 John Solomon
Well, it's been interesting since I was up here. So I started as a therapist. And for the first nine months, I was flying into villages. So you'd just take a backpack, sleeping bag, a laptop, and you fly into a village, you sleep at the health clinic there. Usually there's like a couple rooms they have what they call CHAPS which are Community Health Aides. They're kind of like EMTs that live—they're from the village. And so you have to fly in on bush planes. You stay a few days, you see people in the community. It's kind of like the one-stop shop of, you know, addiction, mental health. But then, COVID happened. And we with the Telehealth flexibilities that came through, we were really able to pivot quickly into basically a telephone-based program. And up here, it was very important because what we saw was an 800 percent increase in participation. In substance use. Yeah and it's not that there was 800 percent more people; it was just that people were waiting to get care. And you know, you talk about like—I think there was a lot of stigma about Telehealth and, 'Oh is it as good, is it—it's not gonna be the same.' But up here, it was they didn't have care, you know? So, Telehealth, it's been a game-changer up here. It's been astronomical improvement in the region.

0:11:29 William Moyers
So, from the adversity of the pandemic came this opportunity to apply Telehealth, virtual care, into communities that might not have been able to ever get those kinds of services before. So it's really worked out is what you're saying?

0:11:46 John Solomon
Yeah, I mean, so much—it worked out so much that this state really started to tap Maniilaq which is the organization that I work for currently. And I did a lot of talking to state legislators, the Division of Behavioral Health, a lot of other tribal organizations, explaining like how we were able to do things here. And it was such as success that it, you know, the legislators pushed forward a Telehealth bill. Before you know the rest of the country, Alaska signed a bill cementing Telehealth as a viable delivery, you know, Medicaid will pay for Telehealth. And we're talking telephone telehealth, you know? You can call in to your substance use groups. You can call your counselor. And it's—it's just been an astronomical change here. And so it was neat to have a rural, a very rural community, have such an impact on the rest of the state.

0:12:53 William Moyers
We've only got a couple more minutes before we've got to go, but let me ask you a few things, John. Are you nervous about being the CEO of an organization versus being down in the trenches, interacting with the patients, providing care to your clients?

0:13:13 John Solomon
You know, like, it's funny because when they asked me, I thought that they had maybe mistaken me for somebody else. [Moyers laughs] Because I was like, 'I don't know if you—are you sure you're supposed to talk to me about this?' But I think the work that I did with explaining Telehealth and you know as a musician, a lot of times you're telling a story. And I feel like that's what I will be doing as the CEO of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association. It's really like taking the concerns and taking the needs of all of the Behavioral Health providers of Alaska and helping to tell that story. So we can move the industry forward. So, I think my nervousness has calmed down. It will be hard to not have somebody else that I can blame if things go south. [grins]

0:14:05 William Moyers
So let's keep on that theme of telling a story and telling your story. Let's get a little bit more personal again. You've shared what you've overcome in terms of mental health challenges and substance use. You're in a higher-stress job soon, when you take the CEO position. You're in a part of the world where it's not easy to get around and you can't take for granted some of what we can take for granted in the Lower 48. How do you take care of yourself these days, John?

0:14:40 John Solomon
You know, I do a lot of—it helps that I'm really family-oriented. So much so that my wife and I before, you know, we had struggles with fertility and so we signed up as foster parents. And I think that's been a real blessing in our life, was to have that. It was always—it felt like every day, every morning, every sleepless night, was also like service. And so, really service has been a way that I've been able to feel I just I feel like I'm always improving. I feel like I get back everything from every—you know, everything I give. It's not like you talk about altruism and it's definitely not altruistic; it's I receive—I receive from doing this service. So, being a foster parent, being really family-oriented. And community-oriented up here. You have to make your community. You can't—there is nothing, I Mean, yeah, there's not a built-in thing to do up here. So you connect with everybody and you—you make your own fun up here. And so that's been interesting. You know, it forces you to be more extroverted. Yeah. So, I think that's been a big help for me. It's also, you know, I've been bringing up other Hazelden Betty Ford folks. And so, it's almost like we're building our own little recovery community here. [grins] So that's—that's been really great.

0:16:19 William Moyers
And you've talked about your role as a foster parent, but you also are a father—you and Molly have a big announcement. 

0:16:29 John Solomon
Yeah! A very new, very new baby. We like as they told us when we started fostering, and you know, they had found out that we had fertility issues. They were like, 'Well, for some reason, one of the best treatments for fertility issues is fostering because suddenly you'll have a baby.' And so that's what we—we got pregnant after one of our foster kids that we had for a long time went home, we were very. It's a bittersweet kind of thing where we were really happy that they got reunited, but we were, you know, in our own kind of depression. And but found out we were pregnant, and now, I've got a 21-day-old son. That is already challenging me in a whole new way.

0:17:18 William Moyers
[chuckles] What's his name?

0:17:19 John Solomon
Henry Patrick Solomon. 

0:17:21 William Moyers
Henry's a good name. My oldest is a Henry, so. [smiles]

0:17:24 John Solomon
Oh, there you go!

0:17:25 William Moyers
There we go! So, before we go John, you've got to update us and you've got to update your fans on your music. What role is music playing in your journey these days?

0:17:37 John Solomon
You know, it's been nice to kind of have a break from music. It's wild to see all my friends being very successful, you know, their careers have taken them to great places. But I feel very comfortable devoting my life to this. And I know now that music is actually kind of coming back. I'm falling in love with music again. It was such a—it was a career for a long time that now, I've been able to fall in love again. And I've actually started playing again which is—I'm not promising anything, but, it is happening. [Both chuckle softly]

0:18:12 William Moyers
And do you use your music at all in what you do down in the trenches, therapeutically?

0:18:21 John Solomon
You know, up here, it's actually I think it's such a rare thing to have music. And so we have started to talk about trying to bring musical instruments into the villages. And then there's, you know, there's drumming that they do here which is such a powerful, incredible thing to be a part of. And so, there is—there is music, there is rhythm, there are these things that are protective, recovery-based things, you know? Like that's a lot of what we're doing is trying to find healthy things that can be done. And so that's been part of the work up here that's been exciting.

0:19:08 William Moyers
Well, it's exciting to catch up with you again, we can't wait another four or five years to do it. [John chuckles] But, John Solomon, thank you so much for carrying the message, for taking your own personal experience and your professional experience and plugging it into that community of need there in Alaska. And we hope that you will, you know, stay in touch with us and keep doing the good work that you're doing, and don't be afraid to ask for Hazelden Betty Ford's help.

0:19:39 John Solomon
Yeah, thank you very much, I know I will always be tapping Hazelden Betty Ford. So, I'm very proud to be a patient and then a student of Hazelden Betty Ford.

0:19:49 William Moyers
And we're proud that you are. John Solomon, thanks for joining us today.

0:19:52 John Solomon
Thank you.

0:19:54 William Moyers
[to camera]
Thank you, too, for joining us for another edition of Let's Talk. We'll see ya again soon. [smiles]

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