Austin Eubanks survived the Columbine shooting but almost lost everything after his addiction took him to the brink. “I could literally get whatever I wanted. Telling them I’d been shot at Columbine and lost my best friend was like [getting] an open prescription book from any doctor.”
“I’d been filled with grief and survivor’s guilt but I finally found lasting recovery.”
Seventeen years ago, 17-year-old Austin Eubanks was terrorized on April 20, 1999 during the Columbine High School massacre. Eubanks was in the library with his best friend Corey DePooter when they heard a bomb go off. It was chaos and Eubanks ran to hide under a desk. He was shot in the arm and knee, but his deepest wounds were emotional. Austin saw his best friend murdered in a barrage of bullets.
“My injuries were not to the point of needing an opiate pain medication,” Eubanks told The Fix in an exclusive interview. “But I was immediately given a 30-day supply. Within three months I became addicted.” From then on, he said, “I used substances every day, day in and day out.”
After the shooting, his parents took him to see a therapist who said Austin was too shut down to process his horrific trauma. But the reason no one could reach him was because he was overmedicated.
“I learned to manipulate doctors,” Eubanks said. “I could literally get whatever I wanted. Telling them I’d been shot at Columbine and lost my best friend was like [getting] an open prescription book from any doctor.”
Austin never went back to school at Columbine and his parents hired a tutor. He graduated in 2000 and attended the Columbine ceremonies without setting foot back in the school. He went into advertising and married in his early 20s. He and his wife had a son, but Eubanks’ substance abuse escalated. His first attempt to get sober was in 2006. “I went to a 30-day inpatient program,” he said, “but within hours of leaving, I went right back to the same regimen—abusing pain pills and Adderall.”
Right before Columbine, young Austin had been misdiagnosed with ADD.
“I didn’t have ADD,” said Eubanks. “I just liked being outdoors and playing golf better than being in school. At that time, if anybody was truant at school they said, ‘Oh, they must be ADD. Let’s put them on a stimulant.’ That was why I got Adderall. I liked it because I could abuse opiate pain medication to the level that most people would be nodding out. With Adderall, I could function. Basically, I was doing oral speedballs. It was like using methamphetamine and heroin.”
His second try at living clean came in 2008. His son was three and he was separated from his wife. “That’s when I started to have an intrinsic motivation to change. I went to treatment, stayed 90 days, and achieved eight months of sobriety.”
He and his wife reunited and decided to have a second child. Another boy was born.
“This is one of the examples that I use when I give presentations about learning every way that doesn’t work. First, I did the normal addict path. I achieved abstinence for a period of time, and built up enough false confidence to where I said, ‘I can drink, because alcohol was never a problem for me.’ I went back to drinking. After a few weeks, drinking led back to smoking weed. Smoking weed led back to Xanax, which led back to Oxycontin, and then I was right back into the same routine.”
In 2011, he was approaching 30 and estranged from his wife and kids. “My sobriety date is April 2, 2011. I woke up in a jail cell and had absolutely no idea how I got there.”
The last thing he remembered was heading to see the Colorado Rockies baseball team on opening day. He’d been using Oxycontin and drinking, and had passed out in a restaurant. Police arrived and arrested him for probation violation. Due to his addiction, Eubanks spent years in and out of the court system for various offenses, including car theft and writing bad checks.
“I woke up, I opened my eyes in jail, sick. I was in withdrawal from opiates. I was hungover from alcohol. That was the absolute lowest moment of my life. I had ruined the marriage. I had two children I was estranged from. I told myself, ‘If I don’t stop right now, I’m going to die’ and I wasn’t ready to do that. I hit multiple rock bottoms and finally came to understand that I had learned every way that doesn’t work, and I gave up the fight to keep trying to [get sober] on my own. I went into treatment and said, ‘Tell me how to walk, how to talk, what to do and I will do it.’”
After staying mum all these years, Eubanks decided it was finally time to talk about his addiction publicly. “By talking about being at that low place in my life, it’s my attempt at helping others. I’m proof there is a path out and there’s a path out for everybody, regardless of where you are in life and what you’ve lost.”
When he finally found what he calls his “lasting recovery,” it was not in a 12-step program. “I had gone to a 12-step rehab,” said Eubanks. “I used the 12 steps, I worked them, I met with a sponsor. But I left there with two words in my mind: powerlessness and disease. Those are two dangerous words to put in somebody’s mind who is trying to enact behavioral change in their life. I’m not contesting the value of 12 steps and I’m not saying that addiction is not a disease, but I’m saying that you have to approach it from a position of empowerment to create a life for yourself that is so great you can’t imagine going back to using substances. Without that, relapse is much more common.”
He credits a therapeutic community (TC) for his long-term sobriety. “They focused on the behaviors around addiction.” He stayed for seven months. “The TC model helped me understand what was happening in my brain. I’ve always been a thinker. It was really beneficial to be able to say [to myself], ‘These decisions are happening right now in your life because this is how your brain is functioning. This is what’s happening in your prefrontal cortex. This is the reason for your impulsivity. This is what your mid-brain functionality looks like. This is what it’s going to look like at three months of abstinence. This is what it’ll look like at six months of abstinence. At a year of abstinence, if you’re able to achieve that, your brain is going to be fundamentally different than it was in the beginning.’”
Eubanks learned what his triggers were. “I could say, ‘These are impulses I’m having right now, but there’s a date on the calendar where my brain is going to be functioning differently. If I continue to exhibit pro-social behaviors and work toward that goal, I’m going to continue to make progress.’ It helped me as a roadmap.”
Now sober five years, he works for The Foundry, a TC substance abuse treatment center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “We talk to people about brain function,” said Eubanks, “about transactional analysis and what that looks like; what ego states make our decisions and why impulsivity is so strong. And why an addict behaves like a rebellious child. Then we apply all that to 12-step principles, which we have found to be phenomenally beneficial for people.”
Eubanks believes that addiction is on a spectrum, similar to autism and Asperger’s. “That spectrum is dictated by a number of factors and it’s everything from IQ to socioeconomic status to somebody’s social group to the age of the first time they used. A lot of things contribute to a person’s ability to function for a life of abstinence. We have to look at that on a case-by-case basis.”
It’s true, one size does not fit all and individuals require different tools. You might have somebody able to function in an environment where there’s alcohol around and not be susceptible to relapse, while others can never be in an environment like that without the risk of slipping.
The Foundry’s TC model is based on four pillars: medical, clinical, wellness and family. Medical includes tests to determine blood levels and how a patient metabolizes medication. When appropriate, medication is prescribed. Clinical includes counseling, observation, and treatment to help patients cope with behavioral, mental and emotional problems that interfere with their daily lives. Wellness may include yoga, diet and exercise to help build a better life. Family may involve working with families on a weekly basis and then bringing them out for a family intensive, where they go through the curricula for three days with other families.
“The message I want to send to people is to ask for help,” Eubanks said. “I lived in the dark for over a decade in my addiction. I could never see the path out. Ask for help because it’s there. I finally took the road of recovery and never looked back. Through that process, I was able to re-establish a relationship with my children that is fantastic today. They play a big part in my life. I have a functional relationship with my ex-wife, who is now remarried and I’m recently engaged and going to be married again. Life is too good to ever consider going back to where I was.”