Scott Steindorff has always been an explorer, from running around his family’s 300-acre farm in Minnesota as a youngster to searching the shelves at bookstores for the next best-seller to learning about addiction and recovery.
Known as the film and television producer who can turn a great book into blockbuster movie — think The Lincoln Lawyer, based on the novel by Michael Connelly; Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and Empire Falls, based on the novel by Richard Russo — Steindorff is now working on a brand-new project: his own book.
For the past 30-plus years, Steindorff has been pushing the limits of his creativity, asking questions about what works and what doesn’t work in addiction and recovery, and living as a recovery activist. In Life Recovery, Steindorff’s book due out in 2018, he explores the search for his authentic self.
Steindorff sat down with Renew to talk about how he went from depressed and abusing drugs to content and producing movies, his view of the current state of things in addiction and recovery treatment, and what he wants to change about the treatment programs that have been used for decades.
Renew: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Scott Steindorff: I haven’t grown up yet. I’m in LA trying to grow up. I was raised in a little town in Minnesota called Stillwater. I grew up on a farm. My dad was a real estate developer. We had a large piece of property that I thought, as a little boy, I owned. I was an explorer. I had a big sense of awe of the world. I have very, very fond memories of my early childhood. I was very curious. I was very sensitive. My parents both abused alcohol. There weren’t a lot of feelings or emotions talked about in our household. A lot of stress because of the alcohol. My escape was nature. My happy childhood ended when I was about 10 years old because I started getting bullied in school. I went from a B student to a D student. I started suffering from identity crisis and low self-esteem. I really withdrew inside myself. I escaped reality and lived in a fantasy world.
At that point, I started writing and creating dreams of being a king and having my own island with nobody on it. I drew up what my life was going to look like on this island. I was the king of my little kingdom. But it was all to escape the pain of my life. I didn’t know how to express those feelings to anybody because I didn't learn how.
I ended up moving schools and got back on track. I was a skier. I got on the U.S. Ski Team and competed as a freestyle and acrobatic skier. I started having self-esteem around that activity. My whole self-worth was caught up in skiing. Then I started getting injured. I could no longer compete. I guess I was in my early 20s when I started abusing cocaine and alcohol.
Renew: Tell me about your relationship to addiction and recovery?
SS: I started making money. I was working for my dad. I was 22 years old. I started doing cocaine. I immediately liked how I felt on the cocaine. I felt that all-powerful connection to the world. I didn’t want to feel all those feelings that I had of worthlessness. Those came back after my ski career ended. When I would do coke, I wouldn't want to come down, so I’d just keep doing it. At the same time, I was doing success training and studying Napoleon Hill and The Law of Success
. There was a part of me that wanted to be really successful. I’d go a week or two without. But it kept getting worse and worse. In less than a year, I was doing large quantities of cocaine. I wouldn't sleep. I started overdosing. I would go into respiratory arrest. My tongue would go into the back of my throat. I’d gasp for air. I ended up in the ER a couple times.
That was such a different time. That was in the early 1980s. I started realizing I was going to die from this. One day, I woke up and took out the Yellow Pages. I didn’t know how to get help. I didn’t know how to stop. My parents had a home in Santa Barbara, California. I found rehab out there. I checked myself in. Nobody knew I had a problem. It was all secret. I had just gotten married. My wife didn’t even know.
In rehab, they talked about admitting I was an alcoholic. At that time, I didn’t think alcohol was my problem. Cocaine was my problem. They weren’t doing anything about my cocaine. The guy said, “Well, why don’t you leave?” Something shifted in my consciousness. I just felt like I need to defeat this — whatever this is I have. So, I let go. I remember my thinking changed. My stress and anxiety left me. And I just jumped in. That was almost 34 years ago.
I have been very active in recovery. I spend a lot of time on it. About a year and a half ago, I woke up and thought, “We can do so much better. We can do so much better.”
Renew: What is your view of the current state of things in addiction and recovery treatment?
SS: I don’t think it’s effective enough. I started doing business with Silicon Valley people. These are innovators, young millennials who question everything. Why? Why? Why? How can we do things better? They looked at taxis and said, “We can do better than that.” And they created Uber. We’re making such advances.
About a year and a half ago, I started researching a project for my day job to create a TV series about neuroscience. I started dealing with these incredible minds and became curious. We just know so much more today than we knew when I got sober. We’ve done so much research in neuroscience and emotional work and psychology and how the mind works. Every day we’re learning more and more. That’s what got me on this mission to question what’s working and what’s not working.
Because the problem is getting worse. People are dying. And they’re dying because they’re not getting the proper treatment, or it’s not working for a lot of people.
The statistics are all over the board, but most people who go to rehab will not stay in recovery. They will relapse. We can do so much better than that. We can save lives. Why aren’t we updating and learning a new model? I don’t have all the answers. But I’m learning more and more every day.
And there is so much stigma and shame that has to be broken down. All of us have a family member or friend in recovery. There's a great book out right now called Option B
. It’s about Sheryl Sandberg being transparent about the grief and emotions and feelings of losing her husband, that we should talk about it and not keep a secret. That’s helping her recovery. So why should we have a program of recovery that says we need to be anonymous, that we need to be secretive? Doesn’t that create more stigma and shame?
We need to be able to be open and communicate about our feelings and emotions. Most people in recovery have emotional trauma, emotional issues that need to be resolved, and they’re not being dealt with properly. We need to understand our own internal belief systems, and we need to have meaning and purpose in our lives.
It can be so simple — our meaning and purpose. Those people who are in “Life Recovery,” as I call it, are people who have found meaning and purpose. Nobody goes into treatment for substance abuse because they’re on top of the world. They are there because they are defeated and their life is not working. The solution is for people to understand themselves. No. 1: We need to start with prevention. We need to start having kids talk about their emotions and feelings and understand them. There’s nothing like it right now.
Renew: How would you describe your authentic self and how you found him?
SS: I’ve always been transparent about my recovery. I feel freedom in expressing the fact that I was dependent on drugs and alcohol. And here I am. That has a lot to do with being my authentic self. I didn’t have any shame about it. I got over that. I feel it’s very important that people realize that’s not who they are; it’s what they were doing.
Then I could connect creatively to who I am. It goes back to that little boy who was in the woods making trails, exploring, curious about life and adventure, trailblazing, and connecting with that energy of who I really am. And dreaming. Thank god those kids bullied me and I became a dreamer. It sucks I didn’t have a great reality on the outside, but inside, I was creating a safe haven for myself.
My big break in show business came 22 years ago. I wrote a stage show in Las Vegas called the EFX at MGM Grand, which was about a boy who dreamed of becoming P.T. Barnum, H.G. Wells, Houdini. It was a $65 million show that ran for seven years. It was really who I was, who I am. Dreams do come true. I always wanted to do this. I wanted to create things. And now I want to create things that have an impact. The movies and TV shows I’m developing now are about creating an impact.
Renew: Has anything you’ve worked on involved addiction or recovery? How did your personal experiences shape your professional ones?
SS: For example, last year, we produced a docuseries firefighters called Fire Chasers
about all the wildfires in California and how it impacts the environment. We follow several women who are in a minimum-security prison who volunteer through the prison system to work to put out the fires. These women, who are just newly in recovery, find meaning and purpose in this activity of theirs and learn empowerment. They become empowered. It’s really a beautiful thing. I can’t wait for people to see it. It will be out this fall on Netflix. It gets to my point of — and it was a part of my recovery — I’m not powerless. I can be powerful in my meaning and purpose in life. I need to be empowered. I need to be empowered in my job. I need to be empowered in my relationships. I need to be empowered in my life.
So, I’m looking for projects that have a major impact on us, not just solely on recovery. Like Chef is about a family that struggled through divorced but came together through a purpose. Penelope is about self-esteem. The Lincoln Lawyer is about a character who has to protect his ex-wife and child. In all my movies, there’s also been a central theme of hypocrisy. The Human Stain, Empire Falls — both about hypocrisy.
We must be authentic. We must be our truthful selves. We don’t have to be ashamed of who we are and what we've done and what we’ve experienced in our lives. We don’t need to be shamed over the fact that we have a loved one who's caused damaged through dependency.
I’m around a lot of people who are suffering because of the opioid epidemic. I have three grown children. What I realized when I embarked on this new journey is, “Where would I send one of my kids if they had a problem?” Here I am, 33-plus years sober, somebody who is around a lot of the mavericks of recovery in the world, and I don’t know where I’d send my child. What would I do? What I do know is tough love doesn’t work. I do know that love and compassion work. The only way we can communicate is through love and compassion.
Renew: What do you want to change about the treatment programs that have been used for decades? How are you going to transform them to produce new and better results to help people?
SS: It’s Life Recovery. It’s more about what we can do as far as understanding our behavior and the actions we need to live better lives so we can find meaning and purpose and joy in life. It’s not about alcohol and drugs. People are escaping through social media, food, cigarettes. People don’t want to feel what they’re feeling. So, you have to heal those emotions so you don’t need that shot or cake or cigarette or drink to feel better. It doesn’t mean you can't have those things if you feel OK about yourself and you just want to enjoy it. But if you’re abusing that stuff to escape how you feel … And today I don’t have to escape how I feel. Whatever problems I have, I’m grateful for those that I have.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in all of this is self-love. I can’t love another, I can’t help another until I heal myself and love myself. When I love myself, I’m going to be spreading love because I have good feelings inside of me and I’m going to express those.