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Eubanks Survives Columbine And Addiction

Austin Eubanks talks about emotional pain " the root of what he calls America's addiction pandemic "during a Nov. 29 presentation at Mater Dei High School. The Message photo by Tim Lilley

Mater Dei High School’s auditorium was full of freshmen and sophomores from that school and Reitz Memorial High School on Nov. 29 – all listening to Austin Eubanks’ frightening, fascinating and compelling story.

Eubanks, now in his 30s, survived the April 20, 1999, mass shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. He lost his best friend in the attack, and he lost himself to addiction in the aftermath.

Although Eubanks spent some time recounting what he experienced during those horrific moments, his focus was on his descent into dependence on the drugs that physicians prescribed to help him heal. “The moment the shooters walked into the library and everything became real to me, I disconnected,” Eubanks said. “I have vivid memories, but it was like I was watching it all on television. Our minds do amazing things in moments like these to try to protect us.”

Once he escaped the school library, Eubanks found himself on the way to the hospital for treatment of two gunshot wounds. He said that he received pain medication quickly; a lot of it. It was then, without even knowing it, Eubanks started down the addiction highway.

“We have a profound desire to medicate,” he told the students. “That is the paradigm shift that has to occur.”

Eubanks noted that just a few years before the shooting, Oxycontin had been introduced. “The truth is that opiates are profoundly more effective at relieving the symptoms of emotional pain for a short time than they are at relieving the symptoms of physical pain.” He is in recovery and has been sober for quite some time. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of The Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

He also gives powerful presentations to groups around the country as many as 75 times each year; the one he presented to the Mater Dei and Reitz Memorial students was: “A New Prescription for Pain: Flipping the Script on the Worst Public Health Crisis the Nation Has Ever Seen.”

“We have to reframe the way we look at addiction,” Eubanks said. “Everything we do today is designed to be addictive.” He called addiction “the best customer-loyalty program ever,” and traced its development to big tobacco. Today, he explained, companies are adapting that model to “hook” consumers on whatever it is they are selling.

“Anything in your life that is all-consuming … that is an addiction,” he said, pointing to three areas that have led us to what he called an “addiction pandemic.” Accessibility is one area. “It’s our responsibility to determine how drugs and other things will play a role in our lives,” he suggested. Acceptability is another area. He noted that, as local, state and federal agencies have cracked down on the accessibility of prescription opiates, the black market is filling the void. He also explained that while American law enforcement has done quite a bit to slow production of Methamphetamine here, Mexican superlabs have stepped up to fill the void.

In explaining the difficulty in trying to truly control illicit drug trade, Eubanks gave a brief history lesson on “the dark web” – that portion of the Internet where identities and other commodities are traded by and among criminals. The first iteration was called “Silk Road 1,” and Eubanks said that law enforcement was able to track and gather enough data to shut it down. “Silk Road 2” came fairly soon thereafter. “And to give you an idea of how things have progressed, it took only 13 minutes for ‘Silk Road 3’ to launch when ‘Silk Road 2’ was shut down,” he said. “It is still going today.”

The third area responsible for what he called the addiction pandemic is toxicity. “Fentanyl is the worst,” he said of the latest crop of addictive drugs. A synthetic opioid, Eubanks said the drug can be as much as 2,200 times more powerful than morphine. “And it’s everywhere,” he added. “Law Enforcement has seized enough to kill more than 80 million people in just the past 12 months.”

Eubanks lives in Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana. “Growers are upping the potency,” he said. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.” He also noted that some 30 million people suffer alcohol addiction. “They just wanted to ‘medicate’ themselves against some pain,” he said. “Then it became necessary … then transformative.”

Eubanks told the young people that he has seen research reporting that half of teens today feel addicted to their mobile devices. As an example, he described an algorithm that the online video portal YouTube uses to “hook” viewers by suggesting videos based on those they have watched. “The goal with all of these devices was to help us be more connected,” Eubanks said. “In reality, more and more people are disconnected.”

That disconnect inevitably leads to emotional pain. “Emotional pain is what really is driving the addiction pandemic,” Eubanks said. “It can be healed by authentic human connection. In order to heal it, you have to feel it.

“You have to stay present, open, and physically and emotionally connected to others,” he added. “That’s the paradigm shift that you young people have to come together and work together on changing. We cannot rely on medications. And there is meaningful development of personal character in that kind of healing. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Eubanks came to Evansville through the generous sponsorship of Old National Bank, which made it possible for him to visit the city for multiple appearances. He was the featured guest on WTVW-TV’s Eyewitness News In Depth segment with anchor Brad Byrd during the 9 p.m. newscast on Nov. 28. After speaking at Mater Dei the next morning, Eubanks spoke to students at Castle High School in the afternoon before delivering the keynote at the Mental Health America Symposium at Crossroads Christian Church in the evening.