Climbing Back from Columbine
Shooting survivor spent years battling his addiction to painkillers. Today, a dad of two, he inspires others.
Austin Eubanks experienced all too personally an event that lives in the collective history of Americans — the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
“All I knew was that I had been prescribed a substance to make me feel better — and it was really working.”
Eubanks, then just 17, was one of the victims of teenage shooters Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris, who killed themselves in the Columbine school library after shooting 13 fellow students dead and injuring another 24.
Among those students killed was Eubanks’ best friend, Cory DePooter. Eubanks’ own gunshot injuries were treated in the hospital with powerful painkillers — and his trauma was treated with anxiety medications.
Given just a 30-day prescription, Eubanks immediately found himself hooked. He spiraled out of control in what seemed like the blink of an eye, turning to drinking, drugs, and bad choices of friends — all to try to assuage the deep grief, survivor’s guilt, and vast trauma of that fateful day. He simply couldn’t process it all yet.
“My parents were aware I was losing control. I had a hyper-vigilant mother, and unfortunately I was rebelling,” Eubanks told LifeZette. “I also did not want return to school the next year, my senior year, but instead a tutor was made available to me. As a result, I had very low accountability in my senior year. That’s what perpetuated my addiction.”
Teen-focused education was scant at that time. “I had no clue at the time about how addiction works,” said Eubanks. “I had never been spoken to about addiction, and I had no genetic predisposition to it. All I knew was that I had been prescribed a substance to make me feel better — and it was really working.”
- Austin Eubanks, a Columbine survivor and former drug addict, now devotes his life and career to helping others overcome addiction.
Eubanks graduated from high school in 2000, but his addictions grew from painkillers to alcohol, cocaine, and ecstasy.
Was college in the picture at all? It didn’t have much of a chance.
The shooting and his multiple addictions “contributed to my decision to forgo college,” he said. “I had started designing websites when I was 13, so I relied on my natural creative aptitude to enter into a digital marketing internship at age 19. That ultimately segued,” he said, into advertising and marketing work for nearly 10 years. But, still — there were problems.
He said his mother did everything she could to get him into treatment. “I saw countless therapists, and the word from all of them was, ‘He’s shut down, we can’t reach him, he hasn’t gone through the stages of grief.’ But I was medicated — so I couldn’t go through those stages.”
Eubanks instead proceeded to lose various jobs in various fields, and was arrested for crimes such as bar fights, writing bad checks, and even once stealing a car. “Addiction called the shots in my life,” he said.
Multiple times between the years 2006 to 2011, Eubanks went into therapy as an inpatient. He started to develop an awareness that his behavior with drugs and alcohol were, in fact, those of an addict. His wife at the time — he married at 25, and although the union lasted only four years, the couple had two sons — and his parents were insistent on treatment. He complied, but he was not ready, deep inside, to change his behaviors.
Then, finally, came a turning point. After all he had been through — "I found lasting recovery in 2011 at age 29," he said. "It wasn't a matter of any one person telling me I had to process my trauma over Columbine. It was letting it occur naturally, over seven months. If you are abstinent from drugs and alcohol for that long, you're going to feel real emotion again, which drugs muffle. Those emotions started to naturally show themselves — and I was then able to work through them."
Soon, a new life began to present itself to Eubanks. He grabbed it with both hands. He is now ready to help others through his story, and he has definite ideas about what would help the country deal with its raging opiate addiction numbers.
- Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin as well as the prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
- Addiction is a primary, chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
- Of the 21.5 million Americans 12 or older who had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin.
"I actually have mixed feelings over the new [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines concerning opiate prescribing — I don't ever want to see people with legitimate disabling chronic pain unable to get the medicines they need," said Eubanks. "I think Dr. Sanjay Gupta said it best, recently — that this problem was caused by doctors."
Eubanks would like to see training in detecting drug-seeking behavior made mandatory for all future prescribers. He advocates for a full semester devoted to addiction as a part of basic medical school curriculum.
"This is a hard dialogue to have, but I believe that the only way to serve both interests — to mitigate addiction and still provide medications to those who truly need them — is to train every prescriber in what addiction looks like, and what it really is."
For parents, Eubanks noted, tough but important conversations with their children are absolutely critical. "You must ask your kids if they're taking drugs, right around the age where they have access to them," said Eubanks. "A healthy and open dialogue needs to be started, and I believe complete abstinence from all drugs and alcohol is the only right attitude. If you are predisposed to drugs or alcohol but you never try them, it doesn't matter, right?"
Eubanks is now devoting his professional life to helping others. He is the program director of The Foundry, an addiction treatment center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
"I believe complete abstinence from all drugs and alcohol is the only right attitude."
"We offer 90 days of residential treatment, combined with 12 weeks of outpatient treatment," he explained. "The whole family receives therapy, and structured group treatment goes on for six months," he added. "There is currently a proliferation of treatment centers for addiction that only offer what insurance will pay for. We believe in treating the whole person, and we focus on diet, nutrition, fitness, and engaging patients in the outdoors and in nature. We even schedule a hot air balloon ride every 90 days, to really get those endorphins flowing through the brain."
Today, after such a rough path, life is good for this Columbine survivor, who lost so much on that horrific April day back in 1999. Eubanks has purposefully fought his way back, and is now happily engaged to his fiancée Alex Dooley. He has a terrific relationship with his two sons, now 10 and 6, and he and his ex-wife get along and see to the boys' needs.
"My ex-wife remarried and they have a happy and healthy home. And I get to spend time with my boys and we have a great relationship. I am engaged to a wonderful person who is supportive of my recovery. I have been able to re-establish everything I lost in addiction — and for that," he said with relief, "I am grateful."