In late May of this year, Coloradans were shocked to learn of the tragic death of one if their own – beloved Columbine survivor Austin Eubanks. He was 37. It’s been almost a month now and the autopsy report has JUST been shared with the public. However, his family said from the very beginning they knew what killed him – opioid addiction. In a statement last month, his family said Eubanks “lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face.” They continued, “Helping to build a community of support is what meant the most to Austin, and we plan to continue his work.” The nation was stunned upon hearing the news. Eubanks was a well-known and well-respected recovery advocate. He traveled the country sharing his story about overcoming addiction and managing PTSD after Columbine. He had years of sobriety. How could this happen? In a word, heroin.
A Brief Backstory on How the Columbine School Shooting Affected Eubanks
Eubanks was 17 years old when two gunmen entered the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO (a suburb of Dallas) and killed 13 people inside – including his best friend. On that fateful day in April 1999, Eubanks (then 17) was in the school library with his best friend, Corey DePooter. Two students came into the library and opened fire. Eubanks was shot in the hand and the knee. He watched DePooter die beside him. Twelve other students and one teacher were killed that morning and 20 were injured. Both of the gunmen ultimately committed suicide. At the time, Columbine was the worst school shooting in the history of the United States. “Obviously, after that, my life took a pretty big detour,” Eubanks later said. Twenty years later, Colorado is still healing from the mass shooting.
How Eubanks Got Hooked on Narcotics
As a result of his injuries, Eubanks was significantly medicated with painkillers 45 minutes after the shooting. He shared that before that day, he had never smoked weed or even drank a single beer. “I remember immediately being drawn to that feeling because it took the emotion away,” he said. Eubanks reported that in a matter of weeks, he developed an addiction to prescription painkillers. He said he fell into a cycle of drinking alcohol and taking Adderall, Oxycontin, and Xanax. His addiction went on for 12 years. He finally committed to 14 months of addiction treatment and ultimately enjoyed long-term recovery. In sobriety, Eubanks was dedicated to speaking publicly about recovery – specifically how trauma and substance abuse are often intertwined. He used his story of survival and his victory over addiction as a catalyst to inspire others. Because Eubanks was such a vocal advocate, his relapse and subsequent death are especially troubling. He had just spoken publicly about addiction in Kentucky just one month before his death. We will never know what was going on Eubanks’ mind when he relapsed.
What Can We Learn From the Death of Austin Eubanks?
Eubanks was an amazing human being with such a strong message of hope for addicted people everywhere. We still believe in his authentic message. And, we believe he would want us to honor his legacy by learning from his tragic death. Here are three important things we believe we can learn from the death of Austin Eubanks:
- There is a link between trauma and addiction
- Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease
- Opioid addiction is rampant in the State of Colorado
It’s no secret that addiction is thriving in the United States and around the world. It continues to destroy the lives of individuals from all walks of life. People are dying. For those who have a substance use disorder, there is a solution. It’s called recovery. Let’s talk about these three lessons Austin Eubanks left us with.
# 1 There is a Link Between Trauma and Addiction
Eubanks gave us an insight into how he coped with the aftermath of the trauma he experienced the day of the Columbine shooting. Watching his best friend die, amid the chaos of gunfire, he lost a piece of himself that day. To cope with the tragedy, he turned to painkillers. He told Denver7 he used pills to deal with the harsh reality of the life-changing experience that happened at Columbine. “I didn’t know any better. I was 17 years old, and I had been given medication to feel better,” he said. “Immediately I learned that if I took substances, I didn’t have to feel. I didn’t have to feel the emotional pain.” This is all too common. In no uncertain terms, there is a link between trauma and addiction. Eubanks serves as a perfect example of how a traumatic experience can lead to PTSD, which can lead to substance abuse to numb the pain, which can ultimately lead to addiction. And, sadly, in the case of Eubanks, it led to his own death – as it does with many others who turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (also known as “PTSD”) is a psychiatric disorder that develops as a result of a traumatic experience. PTSD affects about 3.5 percent of the U.S. population, which is about 8 million Americans. We hear a lot about veterans experiencing PTSD after they return home from combat. Also, more and more women are coming forward about their struggles with PTSD caused by military sexual trauma. However; anyone can experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. You do not have to have a military background to experience this debilitating condition. You can be a 17-year kid (like Austin Eubanks) who is exposed to something so horrific that it changes the trajectory of your life forever. There is no doubt that Eubanks’ terrifying experience during the Columbine shooting led to PTSD. Statistics suggest that 25 percent of all survivors of a mass shooting will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many people are suffering from PTSD and don’t even realize it – especially women. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), women are twice as likely to experience PTSD than men are. It is important to talk openly about the events that can lead to this illness. Trauma is often at the root of the addiction. If an addicted person does not heal the trauma, they are doomed to repeat the destructive cycle of addiction as a way to cope with the pain. Here are just a few of the traumatic events someone might experience that can lead to PTSD:
- Childhood sexual trauma
- Childhood abuse (verbal, physical, mental, or emotional)
- Sexual assault
- Domestic violence
- Witnessing the death or injury of a loved one
- Experiencing any type of violence
- Witnessing violence against someone you care about
- An accident resulting in injury (car accident, for example)
- Natural disasters and extreme weather
- Combat experience
- Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
- Any event that causes you to fear for your life
These are just a few of the MANY events that can trigger PTSD. If you have experienced any of these, you are at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, let’s talk about the symptoms of PTSD. You could be suffering from this condition and not recognize it. It is not uncommon for people to ignore the connection between a traumatic event and disturbing mental health issues. Understanding the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can help to determine if you have the condition. You can perform your own self-analysis to help clarify if a traumatic event may have brought on PTSD symptoms. However, you should always get a proper diagnosis from a mental health professional if you suspect you have this illness. Here are some of the symptoms of PTSD:
- Extreme anxiety
- An all-consuming sense of emotional pain
- Panic and fear
- Loss of interest in life and important relationships
- Irritability or aggressive behavior
- Persistent feelings of guilt or shame
- Feeling detached from reality
- Inability to feel positive emotions like joy
- Mental flashbacks to the event
- Not wanting to leave the house
- Substance abuse
Here is a helpful resource that explains PTSD symptoms in depth from the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). In the case of Eubanks, having a diagnosis of PTSD and a substance use disorder qualified him for adual-diagnosis (also commonly called a “co-occurring disorder”). A dual-diagnosis occurs when someone has a mental disorder (like bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD) AND they are simultaneously addicted to drugs and alcohol. According to a report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA), at least 7.9 million Americans currently have a dual-diagnosis. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Living with a mental health disorder is very difficult. To ease the pain of powerful symptoms like nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and isolation; people with an illness like PTSD will turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with daily living. Addiction and PTSD often go hand in hand. Do you think you might have a co-occurring disorder? Take this quiz for an informal self-assessment. Unfortunately, using drugs like prescription painkillers, benzos, heroin, alcohol, or cocaine only complicates matters for those who have PTSD. The drugs are alluring at first because they numb the pain and provide a distraction from reality. However, in the long run, addiction only makes PTSD symptoms worse. And, in the end, someone who has this disorder will not only have the trauma to deal with; they will also live in bondage to a devastating addiction that requires drug rehab. Trauma and addiction need to be treated together. A traumatic event or events are often the root cause of prolonged substance abuse. If the trauma is not treated, it is likely to resurface and trigger a relapse. You can not avoid PTSD. It will not just go away on its own. Neither will a substance use disorder. You simply MUST deal with these issues with the effective treatment provided by a mental health professional. If you want to experience freedom and get some joy back in your life, you have to face these problems head-on. If you don’t deal with your trauma, then your trauma will deal with you. As Eubanks so eloquently said during a TedX Talk, “You have to feel it in order to heal it.”
# 2 Addiction is a Chronic Relapsing Brain Disease
Despite the many myths and incorrect information out there about substance abuse, we want to be clear. Addiction is a disease (not a choice!). Here is a comprehensive definition that explains the illness, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): “Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. It is considered a brain disorder because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control, and those changes may last a long time after a person has stopped taking drugs.” NIDA reports that relapse is often a very real (and frightening) aspect of the recovery process. Learning how to remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol after years of abusing them takes time and a lot of hard work. NIDA suggests that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of all people who receive treatment for addiction suffer a relapse. A relapse is a return to drug or alcohol use after a continued period of abstinence and a sincere attempt at recovery. Relapse often happens within the first two years of sobriety. However, a person in recovery is subject to relapse at any time. A reemergence of the disease is always possible. People with many, many years are not from a relapse. Sadly, this is what happened with Eubanks. Addiction is an incurable disease, but it can be treated and go into remission. When left untreated, however, this illness is progressive, chronic, and fatal. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 450,000 people around the world will die from a drug overdose this year. Eubanks is yet another reminder that addiction is a matter of life and death. It requires life-saving treatment and a daily commitment to recovery. For almost 10 years, Eubanks walked the path of recovery. He was committed to his sobriety and he was passionate about helping others find freedom from drug and alcohol addiction. But, in the end, the disease killed him. There is no real way to know how many people die from a fatal overdose every year after a relapse (as compared to how many people die without ever experiencing recovery). But, the Center for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) reported that there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017. That means there are about 192 fatal overdoses every day in America. And, the majority of these are accidental overdoses. We do not know the details surrounding Eubanks’ relapse. We have no idea how long he was using before his untimely death. Was this the first time he used after years of sobriety? Was he hiding his heroin use from his family? We know that he died of a heroin overdose. But, how long had he been in relapse mode before this happened? Quite often, people will relapse because they want to return to the emotional numbness they once enjoyed. Life on life’s terms becomes unbearable. There are a number of events that can reawaken the sleeping giant. These include the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, divorce, or some kind of tragic event. Other times, there is a more subtle explanation – like boredom or depression. All too often, people in recovery will believe the lie that using drugs or drinking alcohol will be fun for them. They forget that addiction once completely destroyed their lives. No matter the reason, relapse can and SHOULD be avoided. As with the death of Eubanks, no one ever knows when the next time will be the last time. If Austin Eubanks had stayed on the recovery path, he would still be with us. His family would not be grieving his loss right now. The country wouldn’t be saying their goodbyes. We wouldn’t be writing this article. It is such a tragedy that Eubanks left us so soon. But, perhaps what is even sadder is that his death could have been prevented entirely. We do not believe Eubanks had a desire to die. His overdose wasn’t intentional. He just took too much and his system couldn’t handle it. Addicted people almost always overestimate their own ability to beat the disease. They think, “That would never happen to me. Overdoses happen to other people.” And, they never wake up. If you are in recovery, we beg you to stay the course. Just keep moving forward and put one foot in front of the other. You can do this, one moment at a time, one day at a time. No matter how tough life gets, there is nothing that a relapse won’t make worse. If you’re not in recovery, what are you waiting for?
# 3 Opioid Addiction is Rampant in the State of Colorado
The opioid crisis has been ravaging the United States for years now. Some say it’s old news. It’s not. The epidemic rages on and not much is being done by the federal government to curtail the problem. However, the death of Eubanks is a stark reminder that we are losing almost 200 people a day to drug overdose. America’s drug epidemic should be front page news every day. The people who die are not just some random number or statistic. They leave behind flesh-and-blood family members whose lives will never be the same.
Statistics that Provide Insight into Colorado’s Drug Problem
Here are some statistics about how opioid abuse is skyrocketing in Colorado, provided by NIDA:
- In 2017, there were 578 opioid-related overdose deaths involving opioids in Colorado (959 drug overdose deaths total)
- This translates to a rate of 16.1 drug overdose deaths for every 100,000 residents, up 83 percent from a rate of 8.8 in 2001.
- There was a spike in heroin-related, with a nearly fivefold increase from 46 cases in 2010 to a whopping 224 cases in 2017
- From 2017 to 2017, deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (mainly fentanyl) doubled from 58 cases to 112 cases
- Overdose deaths caused by prescription opioids (like Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, and Fentanyl) nearly doubled from 176 to 300 cases from 2007 to 2010
- More Coloradans are dying every year from drug overdoses than car accidents
In Colorado, the problem of opioid addiction can no longer be ignored. Many people mistakenly believe opioid addiction only affects individual addicts. This is not true. Addiction is not “their problem.” It is OUR problem. To the best of our knowledge, Austin Eubanks didn’t use heroin during his first time around with addiction. Perhaps we are just misinformed. He spoke openly about his addiction to prescription narcotics, but we don’t recall ever hearing about the use of street heroin. But, it is not surprising to us that Eubanks died of a heroin overdose. Some estimates suggest that as much as 86 percent of current heroin users switched to the drug after developing an addiction to prescription painkillers. Street heroin is now cheaper and easier to get than drugs like Percocet, Oxycontin, and Hydrocodone. The CDC has created strict rules and guidelines that restrict the prescribing of prescription painkillers. This had forced opioid addicts to turn to street heroin to get a fix. Doctors are no longer easily manipulated into prescribing these medications to drug-seekers. Plus, they are federally regulated when it comes to writing prescriptions. Essentially, pain doctors have significantly decreased the number of prescription opioids they are willing to dole out. Heroin, on the other hand, is readily available in Colorado and abuse of the drug continues to spike. Some suggest that an addict can score a bag of heroin within an hour from almost every point in the state. Is it possible that Eubanks wanted to use prescription opioids, but getting heroin was just easier than getting legal narcotics? When it comes to heroin use in Colorado, it is important to recognize is the drug it is often laced with other substances. These include synthetic opioids, which can lead to a fatal overdose. More and more frequently, dealers are lacing heroin with Fentanyl to make their product stronger and go farther. This increases profits and the dealer gets a reputation for having the “good stuff,” which results in more buyers. These dealers DO NOT CARE that the use of Fentanyl in heroin has spiked overdose deaths. Fentanyl is reportedly as much as 40 times stronger than Morphine. A very minute dose can cause death. Buyers have no idea what they are getting when they buy heroin on the street. Is this what happened to Eubanks? Did he score a bunk stash? Was it laced with Fentanyl or something else? We will probably never know.
The Takeaway From the Tragic Overdose Death of Austin Eubanks
Several years ago, Austin Eubanks said, “I think that it’s really important that – not as survivors of trauma but survivors of addiction – speak out and they share their story. Just because you never know when your story is going to change the life of somebody else.” Austin Eubanks has changed our lives – both in his work and now in his death. He taught us how profoundly trauma can affect an individual and how it can lead to addiction. He showed us that addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease and that a relapse can be fatal. He also reminded us that drug addiction is a very real problem in the beautiful state of Colorado. If you have an addiction to drugs or alcohol, we want you to know that you are more than your disease. You do not have to be an addict for the rest of your life – you can be a recovering addict who finds a new way to live. Learn from Austin Eubanks. Death is a very real consequence of addiction. If you are hooked on drugs or alcohol, stop now. Before it’s too late.
Some Final Words for Addicted Women
If you are a woman who is battling a substance use disorder, there is hope. You can recover. You can find a new way to live.
We are here to help.
Need some encouragement to get sober? Here are 8 reasons why being a sober woman will change your life for the better.
Also, check out these 8 women who are rocking recovery!