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It’s a Solution and a Problem

I didn’t know it at the time, but what started as a service opportunity for me became the most important learning moment of my life.  I was helping with a twelve-step-based program when I was introduced to a very wise young man.  He taught me about addiction – and about life in ways that I both marvel at and cherish.

The man explained to me that substance use wasn’t the problem, it was the solution.


“How can something that is so problematic be a solution?” I wondered out loud.  I heard the heart of a man who had experienced deeply troubling pain.  He was debilitated by the pain.  That’s when he first started using drugs.  He wanted a brief escape from the constant, unrelenting pain of life.  It wasn’t like he had been in an automobile accident and faced chronic pain as a result.  His pain was different.

His pain was internally based.  He never thought he was good “enough.”  He felt like a failure, a letdown, and an imposter.  He believed with every fiber of his being that he was “wrong.”  His drug of choice made it all go away for a while.  He was the life of the party.  The voices of judgement in his head were suddenly stupefied into submission.  No longer could they harass him.

As with all addictions, the coping skill became an addiction.  He wanted a moment of relief and then another, until the drugs had control and he didn’t.

Fundamentally, for him, the drugs represented a solution to the problem of the relentless pain.  They offered a way out – even if it extracted a high price.


I encountered him well after his sobriety was cemented into his being.  I had no sense that the addiction was in control of his life or that he was at risk.  However, as we spoke, I heard stories about how others had consistently treated the drugs as a problem and how he didn’t see them that way.  We hear stories about how drug users – including alcohol users – are defensive about their use.  “It’s not that bad,” “I can stop at any time,” and “I am in control,” are such common answers they’re cliché.  The more that people tried to convince him that the drugs were a problem, the more convinced he became that they didn’t understand.

They were selling a message that drugs were the problem, and he was pursuing them as a solution.  The perspectives couldn’t have been more incompatible.

Suicide Prevention

I came to the topic again not because of personal conversations but the continuing research on what we can do for suicide prevention.  Thoughts of suicide come when people are dissatisfied with their life as it is, and suicide becomes the consideration to make it better.  It’s a solution to the pain they’re feeling – it may be a bad one, but it is still a solution.

Instantly, when most folks hear that another person is considering suicide, they leap to tell them that things aren’t that bad or that they’ll get better.  It’s called the “righting reflex.”  It’s an attempt to bring the other person’s perspective of reality in alignment with ours.  The problem is that, as a result, we end up invalidating the other person’s perspective.

An alternative response is fear on the part of the listener and an instant problem that they believe they must solve – after all, suicide is irreversible.  It’s permanent.  Like the game of hot potato, they don’t want to be the last person that talked with another who died by suicide.  They’d rather get emergency medicine, psychiatric care, or someone else involved, so that they don’t have to accept responsibility for a tragic outcome.

Certainly, I’m not saying to validate that suicide is a good idea.  However, until we can see that suicidal thoughts are a solution to the problem of life’s circumstances, we can’t connect with the person and help them see other solutions and other options.

The first step for us as listeners is to realize that sometimes things are problems, and sometimes they are solutions.

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