Leaving a Legacy of Love – Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker

Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker is one of the most well-known social workers in Texas. In 2023, she received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from RecoveryPeople, a charitable nonprofit with a long-standing history in Texas for its work with people in recovery. Lori serves as the Associate Director of Education and Training for the Addiction Research Institute along with serving as the Steve Hicks School of Social Work Professor of Addiction and Recovery and Substance Abuse Services.

In this moving interview, Dr. Holleran Steiker discussed her current work in the opioid abatement council and SHIFT organization and spoke in-depth about what inspires her and the legacy she will leave in the addiction and substance use field. She also looks towards the holidays and reflects on how those in recovery can find hope during times of loneliness. Dr. Holleran Steiker’s impact can be seen far and wide across the state of Texas. Most recently, she was appointed by the Texas Governor and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to serve on the Texas Opioid Abatement Council which is tasked with ensuring opioid settlement money recovered through the state and its political subdivisions is allocated fairly and spent to remediate the opioid crisis.

“I am extremely moved and passionate about the epidemic, I have lost a number of very close colleagues and friends,” Dr. Holleran Steiker said. “I get choked up about it. It’s getting worse, not better, over the years. And so I see it as an honor, but more importantly, an opportunity and a responsibility to bring all that I know about substance use, substance misuse, substance use disorders, and the ecosystem of solutions that exists particularly in the community.”

In the first meeting of the council, Dr. Holleran Steiker was intimidated by a kind of imposter syndrome despite her number of years of experience in the substance use and recovery field. Nevertheless, she persisted and was happily surprised by the welcome she received. 

“I was sitting there feeling a bit awestruck, and thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope I have something to bring to this.’ And the first person to speak up was a doctor that said that he was the first person appointed to the committee by the Governor. He said, ‘I want everybody to know that it’s not that complicated, that the solutions are evidence-based and widely known. And that, essentially, the person that we should turn to, for the greatest guidance in this respect is Dr. Holleran Steiker. She’s the social worker in the crew. She is the community-based professional. She’s the one that has boots on the ground and knows the folks that have boots on the ground. And I think it’s really important that we listen carefully to the perspective of professions that consider community-based research and intervention.’ And so I immediately relaxed and immediately knew my place on the council. And since then, we have done a lot of planning.”

Having been appointed to the council in 2019, the bulk of the work the council has produced is still in early phases. Dr. Holleran Steiker noted that the appointment will continue over 18 years and the council itself estimates that it will take over 30 years to get back to the opioid and overdose rates seen in the 1990’s.

“So many people have asked, ‘Boy, the council’s been working for quite a while now, why aren’t we seeing more floods of money into the community…? Basically, we want to have all our ducks in a row. We also have created a protocol for the RFPs, the requests for proposals. We also have a workgroup that is talking about short-term solutions, so that we can, even before we make the proposals, get some of that money flowing.”

In addition to her work with the state, Dr. Holleran Steiker started SHIFT in 2018, a UT campus initiative to bring awareness to drugs and alcohol abuse on campus. She prides herself on the work SHIFT has accomplished for students, faculty, and social organizations.

“I think it’s a profoundly unique initiative that brings harm reduction to the university campus, but it’s bigger than that. It is designed to essentially change the culture of risky behaviors towards health and well-being for students, staff, and faculty. And it’s important to acknowledge that its goal is designed to be a catalyst, and the glue that holds the various entities that are leaning into health and well-being, drug and alcohol use, misuse and substance use disorders on campus — to really bring them together, to raise them all to their highest level of functioning and break down silos, which is probably the greatest challenge.”

As she continues her work as a champion in the opioid epidemic, Dr. Holleran Steiker has been able to look back and view the successes of programs and organizations she has started or assisted in the past 30 years. Her legacy spans across generations and at times in this interview, brought her to tears realizing what has been accomplished and the many people she has helped. Dr. Holleran Steiker shares the three components, outside of her family, that make up her legacy — research, teaching and service.

“For me being a person that lives with cancer, legacy is much more potent as a consideration than it would be if I did not have cancer. Before I say anything else, my family and my kids are probably the biggest legacy. Separate from that, I’ll break it down into research, teaching and service.

“In research, I focused on mechanisms to culturally ground drug prevention programs. I think the outright findings were that having young people involved in the design and tailoring [of] programs to use their own language and scenarios is critical so that we should never design drug prevention programs or interventions in the ivory tower.

“From a teaching perspective, the existence of a Young People and Drugs class as a first-year interdisciplinary course on the UT campus has been a major contribution. The fact that Dr. Casey Claborn co-taught that class and now teaches a version of that class called Drugs and Society to a large audience and the work of the students in that course are profound. The integration of that course with local youth organizations and groups, like the Center for Students in Recovery, which I helped start in 2004, [help to] get the information out that addiction is a brain disease.”

“On the service front, I think that the creation of Central Texas’ first recovery high school and associated alternative peer group is one of the greatest joys of my life. To have been a part of its initiation, and to watch it grow and change. It’s had its ups and downs but University High School is a major player in The Association of Recovery Schools throughout the country. The folks that have been involved in it are incredibly passionate. So it always feels so weird when people call me the founder because the truth is, I think my greatest contribution in all of these settings is that I am a connector.

“This is the part that feels spiritual to me, I feel like my ability to do that was a divine gift. And not something that I studied and got good at, but something that is just part of my personality and my makeup. I see bits of my mother and my father in that. The one other legacy is the part that people don’t see. I grew up with a father that believed the Al-Anon [Alcoholics Anonymous] tenet that every single day you should do something for someone else, something kind for someone else, and not get found out. So one of the legacies that I also leave is, I believe, that I am an example of how someone can transform from a life-threatening addiction to somebody that is not just comfortable in their own skin, but that I’ve become the person that I always wanted to be.”

Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker leads behind a powerful legacy, including the fact that she is a genuinely kind, generous and selfless person. Dr. Holleran Steiker explains that many of the values she displays in her work come from her father.

“My father used to always say it’s an inside job. He valued when I would get teaching awards or research awards, and he would have loved to see this lifetime achievement award. As I was growing up — being a perfectionist and an overachiever — I jumped at a lot of those gold rings. And he always wanted me to know that really, the most important contributions that we make in the world are not the certificates that wind up on our walls but the genuine contributions that come from our spirit and our soul.”

With that, her inspiration and everyday practice for her work comes from the simple process of giving all you can to any given objective and then letting it manifest from there.

“I can bring myself to my life with as much passion and clarity and truth as I can, but ultimately, the outcome is out of my hands. That was something that was useful to me back when I was a clinician, when I was working as a therapist. I can give you all of the tools and all my love and all my support and yet, how you use those things is in your hands.”

As we come closer to the end of 2023, celebrating another year for those in recovery, the holidays can be a time of darkness for many with little to no support systems or those who feel lost and confused in the middle of chaotic schedules and planning. Dr. Holleran Steiker provided some much-needed comfort to those in recovery as we rounded out our wonderful conversation.

“There is the opportunity for community regardless of what your experience has been, and that I think that people very often out of their own introversion, or fear or self loathing are reticent to become a part of that kind of community. But all it takes is a connection with one person to have someone that can listen, and someone that can support you.

“For some people in the program, it’s a sponsor. For some people, it’s family members, but from for a lot of people with substance use disorder, the family can be a very tumultuous, and stressful place. So we talk a lot about our chosen family members. And I have sisters in recovery and brothers in recovery, that are sort of chosen family. I think there are people who can find that person at a workplace. But I would say that, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, having at least one person that knows the truth about who you are, and what your experience is, changes everything. Bottom line is we’re all human beings, and that humanity is messy, and uncomfortable. Don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides. I think that’s a very valuable thing. I think we all have insecurities, and whether you call them character defects, or [as] my dad used to call them ‘glitches,’ we all have those parts that we’re not wanting to show, I’m going to share that my personal experience is that I have never, ever had a negative outcome when I make myself vulnerable and tell the truth. I find settings where people know the full me so that I don’t feel like I’m wearing masks and I don’t feel like I have to maintain some image of who I am.”

For those who feel safe in recovery during this holiday season and want to continue making strides, one option is to become involved in giving back to the community that helped you get to where you are.

“There are so many people suffering these days and things that you can do — serve at the soup kitchen, wrap presents to raise money for SPCA. Get out of your head and go do some service because you don’t have to be very interactive to even do that. There are ways to do service from your living room but there’s something so powerful about the sense of connection with other people when you’re giving of yourself. One other thing that helps my hope, more than anything, is gratitude. Take a look at what you got and work on that being enough.”

Click to learn more about Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker’s work throughout the years along with the current work she is doing. Thank you Dr. Lori for your time and vulnerability in this interview and we wish all of you Happy Holidays from the Addiction Research Institute.