What I learned from the Columbine Shooting
Austin Eubanks turns tragedy and trauma into triumph by learning that pain can be managed and healed without misusing drugs.
Most Americans know where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, but for Austin Eubanks, April 20, 1999, is the date that changed his world. He knows exactly where he was: crouching under a library table next to his best friend at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Moments before, a teacher had burst into the library telling everyone to get under the tables because somebody had a gun. Eubanks felt confused, afraid and vulnerable. Within a few minutes, he also felt heartache, grief and guilt. “I was playing dead … next to a pool of blood,” he said during a recent TEDx Talk in Denver. “I had just been shot, and I had witnessed my best friend murdered right in front of me as we were huddled together waiting for help to come.”
Eubanks survived the Columbine shooting but not without feeling physical pain from his gunshot wound. His emotional pain, however, was far greater. He says although his physical pain measured a three or four, his emotional pain topped the scale at 10.
None of the first responders or doctors that day ever asked him about his emotional pain or intentionally helped him manage it. Instead, they medicated Eubanks only for his physical pain. He was 17 years old and had never drank alcohol, smoked marijuana or used illicit drugs. But the drugs the doctors — the professionals, the people with degrees and knowledge — prescribed made him feel better.
Even after his physical wounds had healed, he continued to take the drugs because he was still hurting. Neither he nor his medical caregivers had distinguished between the two kinds of injuries — physical and emotional. He told them he was in pain, so they gave him drugs to mitigate it.
“My understanding of pain that day was nothing like my understanding of pain today,” Eubanks says. Back then, his understanding was more closely aligned with a medical description of pain, which defines it as “a variably unpleasant sensation associated with actual or potential tissue damage and mediated by specific nerve fibers to the brain where its conscious appreciation may be modified by various factors.”
In his TEDx Talk, Eubanks notes what is missing from that definition: emotional pain. No one talked to him about how to deal with the emotional pain, so he kept taking drugs because, as he would learn, “Opioids relieve the symptoms of emotional pain more than the symptoms of physical pain.”
In talking about his resulting opioid addiction, Eubanks admits he did not know he was misusing drugs until half a decade later. He just knew that the drugs made him feel better and that smart people had prescribed them to him, so he thought he was OK. He remembers experiencing his first bout of withdrawal at 23 years old when he had gone out of town and forgotten his pain pills at home.
“I thought I had the flu,” he says. “I was literally lying on the bathroom floor. It was probably about this time that I started to think something was wrong. I had been in active addiction for about five years.”
He completed a 30-day treatment program in 2006 but was right back to what he had been doing in a matter of days. He realizes now that he sought treatment for the wrong reasons: “I went at the urging of my parents, my employer. It was one of those situations where I was like, ‘Yeah, fine, get off my back. I’ll go.’”
Despite his addiction, he outwardly appeared healthy, functioning and successful. Driven and hyper-creative, Eubanks excelled at advertising and design. Layer in doses of Xanax, oxy and Adderall, and he looked calm and productive. “Adderall allowed me to work 70 hours a week,” he says. “I had a Murphy bed in my office.
“Sometimes what our society defines as success — a suit, 70 hours a week — isn’t success at all. My inner circle knew that I wasn’t well, but a lot of people were willing to turn a blind eye as long as work was getting done,” he says.
In his private life, Eubanks’ behavior was irresponsible and unaccountable. He was driving without a license and insurance and was behind on credit cards. His marriage was tumultuous, and he was increasing his oxy dosage to a high of 160 milligrams per use, sometimes up to 400 milligrams per day. “It became very hard to manage anything,” he acknowledges. “Even just the amount of money I was spending.”
Two years later, he got separated from his wife and found himself wanting help again. He called his parents and told them he didn’t want to live the way he had been living. A few hours later, he was on a plane to Texas on his way to a 90-day treatment program.
This second attempt at sobriety stuck a little better than the first. He emerged feeling good and was able to reconcile his marriage. He felt confident in his sobriety from drugs. Nevertheless, he still felt the lingering emotional pain. “It was like I had pressed a pause button on my emotional growth,” he says.
Over time, instead of pills, he medicated with alcohol and eventually pot. He deceived himself into thinking he had beaten his opioid addiction, but the alcohol lowered his inhibitions, and he eventually started abusing oxy again.
In 2011, he woke up in a Denver jail with no recollection of what had happened or how he had ended up there. By his own admission, he was using a tremendous amount of oxy, and even as he navigated the judicial system, he was able to continue using in spite of probation-required drug tests. If he failed a urinalysis for opiates, he had a legitimate prescription for them — and a way around court-ordered restrictions.
Again, he found himself estranged from his wife and two sons. Upon reflection, he determined that he had never been truly willing or humble enough to accept treatment. He remembers thinking, “I was going to get better, or I was going to kill someone because of my reckless behavior.” April 2, 2011, about two weeks shy of the 12th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, is Eubanks’ sobriety date.
He admitted himself to a long-term residential treatment center in Commerce City, Colorado, called Stout Street Foundation (SSF). Now on its board of directors, Eubanks credits SSF with saving his life. Here, he found humility: “They shave your head. I remember the willingness I had to admit that I had none of the answers.” He also found treatment that finally addressed his underlying emotional issues. “I was able to resolve trauma, to go through the stages of grief,” he says.
As time and Eubanks progressed, he earned more freedom, and through the 14 months of treatment, divided between SSF and a halfway house, he made a commitment to do things differently “until they became habit. Nobody wants to give up a year of their life to go to treatment,” he says. “For people who are in active addiction, it takes a year to recover, to get a foundation of abstinence. Thirty-day treatment is a myth.”
His willingness to walk away from his career and everything in his life for a year was a sign to him that he was ready to truly embrace recovery. “I had to give up to show that I had the willingness not to give up,” he says.
Re-entering life slowly was important to Eubanks’ recovery. He says he would work for months and months and then get one privilege back. He ultimately changed career fields because going back into advertising felt riddled with mines to his recovery. It would be far too easy to slip into old patterns and behaviors. He wanted something different.
“I had to learn the difference between feeling better and being better,” he emphasizes.
Part of being better was dealing with the trauma from the shooting. He had lost some hobbies, such as fly-fishing, which he had enjoyed with his best friend, Corey, who had died next to him. In pain and in addiction, it was too hard to participate in an activity they were passionate about together. But in recovery, by learning to talk about the pain, to lean into the pain and to confront it, Eubanks was able to recover his love of fly-fishing.
SSF introduced Eubanks to post-traumatic growth, which he defines as “the positive psychological change occurring in an individual after they’ve experienced a traumatic life event.”
“I am a living example of post-traumatic growth,” he told the audience at the Buell Theatre. “Post-traumatic growth implies that by finding a way to endure through significant suffering you can actually have meaningful development of personal character and elevate yourself to a higher level of functioning. But achieving post-traumatic growth requires that you lean into the pain. You can’t run from it. You can’t medicate it.”
Eubanks transitioned his advertising and marketing savvy to a career in addiction treatment. Today, he works as chief operations officer at the Foundry Treatment Center, a 30-bed long-term comprehensive program in steamboat Springs, Colorado, that incorporates medical, clinical, wellness and family care. As necessary, addressing underlying trauma-related issues is part of the treatment. It would be hard to imagine Eubanks part of a program that did not recognize the significant role emotional pain plays in the origins of substance abuse and misuse.
As proof of his own post-traumatic growth and a model to others that a full, healthy life can be accomplished “by choosing to harness adversity to impact change,” Eubanks also sits on the founding board of directors for 5280 High School, Denver’s first and only public recovery high school, and is a featured member of Speaker for Change, an international speakers bureau dedicated to providing education to overcome the stigma associated with addiction. He notes that without his experiences of adversity, “I wouldn’t be effective at what I do today.
“I believe that emotional pain is what is driving the addiction epidemic,” Eubanks says to the audience. He continues by challenging listeners to think of someone they know who struggles with substance abuse. “I bet you can point to an element of unaddressed or unresolved emotional pain in that person.” Drugs and alcohol provide an immediate route to feeling better.
“Emotional pain is toxic and it’s pervasive,” he says. “And society has programmed us to avoid it.”
The only way around it is “to lean into it.” By that phrase, Eubanks means people must deal with their emotional pain. Doctors, nurses and first responders need to help victims address both kinds of pain, not by simply medicating the pain but by offering solutions that confront the emotional injury.
Today, Eubanks credits the trauma he experienced for putting him in the position to help other people facing emotional pain and substance abuse. Interestingly, when he talks about trauma, he is referring to both the Columbine shooting and his struggle with addiction.
“I did experience post-traumatic growth,” he says. “I’m finding the courage to lean into the pain. No matter how much it hurts, I’m not going to give up. I know what will happen if I do.”