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A Survivor’s Story: ‘I Did Not Want to Feel’

Austin Eubanks’ testimony of trauma, addiction and recovery was compelling and terrifying, beginning with horrific sounds of the Columbine High School mass shooting.

He played part of a 911 call made by teacher Patti Nielson from the library, where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 10 students and injured 12. Nielson can be heard screaming, “Under the table kids!” and, later, Dylan Klebold shouting “Everybody get up!” to the sound of gunfire.

Eubanks said the bullet that went through his hand struck his friend Corey DePooter in the neck. Corey was the last person to die in the massacre.

Related: Community Forum Puts Local Names to Opioid Crisis – Austin Eubanks’ trauma began the morning of April 20, 1999, when a dozen of his classmates — including his best friend hiding under a table with him — were shot and killed at Columbine High School. But the trauma lingered for 12 more years in another form: his addiction to opioid drugs. The infamous massacre wounded Eubanks’ hand and knee, but left deeper emotional gashes that led from painkillers to a drug addiction that nearly destroyed his family and career…

The opiates he was given in the hospital relieved his physical pain, but he kept taking them to numb his emotional trauma, Eubanks said: “I almost immediately turned myself into a robot, because I did not want to feel the emotional pain that I needed to feel in order to heal.”

Columbine was “a tipping point” in U.S. society, the beginning of a “normalization of mass shootings” that send out wide ripples of emotional pain, Eubanks said afterward. Example: A member of the SWAT team that entered the library told him recently that he is recovering from substance abuse, and that 10 of the 16 team members have died by overdose or suicide.

But it doesn’t take a Columbine to trigger addiction, Eubanks hastened to add; it could be the loss of a parent or adverse childhood experiences, and opioids much more effectively ease emotional pain than physical pain. In his case, the initially necessary physical painkillers and sleep inducers led to other drugs like marijuana, alcohol and ecstasy: “More – that was my drug of choice, whatever it was.”

Educating Students Crucial

Then followed a long spiral out of control: a couple stints of short-term rehab, being fired from his job in advertising, estrangement from his wife and child, and finally waking up one day in jail with no idea how he got there. “I was alone, and out of options,” he said.

A 14-month stay in rehab with therapy finally addressed the grief he should have dealt with at age 17. He got sober in April 2011, is the married father of two sons and chief operating officer of a holistic treatment center in Colorado. The program addresses both mental and physical health, which Eubanks said are too often disconnected in medical treatment: “People are prescribed opioids with no conversation about what’s going on underneath.”

Better coordination of mental and physical health care is crucial in the opioid crisis, he said, along with longer-term treatment, recovery programs for incarcerated people, and educating students such as in the Rockford forum.

“When I was 17 years old, I never had any education about any of this,” he told the crowd. “Looking back, had I had an education, I would have done something different.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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