DENVER – Austin Eubanks stood last month before an audience in Kentucky with a powerful warning: Millions of Americans are suffering with crippling emotional pain that we just don't know how to fix.
The problem, he said, is that we are surrounded both by suffering – shootings and divorces and wars – and by addiction in the form of social media and powerful painkillers. Some people retreat online. Some drug themselves. Neither way is healthy, he said.
"We live in a culture today that is ill-equipped to address emotional pain in a healthy fashion," Eubanks told attendees at the Kentucky Harm Reduction Summit on April 9.
It was a message Eubanks himself learned after being shot in the hand and knee while he a was student at Columbine High School in 1999 during a mass shooting that killed his best friend and left him addicted to painkillers.
The painkillers prescribed in the hours after the attack worked, he said, insulating him from the tragedy surrounding him. The drugs also left him addicted and jailed, his years of abuse of Oxycontin, Adderall and Xanax growing worse until he lost his career in advertising and marketing, descending into a life he described as "Grand Theft Auto," stealing cars and writing bad checks as he fed his addiction.
However, it was that very addiction that gave him a new platform. After spending 14 months in rehab, Eubanks began helping other people struggling with the same challenges. For the past several years, Eubanks worked as a speaker on addiction issues. He cut his ponytail and started wearing a waistcoat. His dress shirts covered up the colorful tattoos along his arms.
And his words worked. Time after time, his talks reached the hearts and minds of audiences struggling to understand drug addiction.
"Austin didn’t just share his personal story, he gave solutions for what we as a culture can do to prevent tragedies such as his from happening again," said Scott Burgess, CEO of the Naples, Florida-based David Lawrence Center, a mental-health counseling center. Eubanks spoke to the center's annual mental health conference in March. "His professional work as an addictions expert combined with his personal experiences, made him a uniquely qualified presenter."
But the very thing that made Eubanks a powerful speaker appears to have cost him his life. Eubanks, 37, was found dead in his Steamboat Springs, Colorado, townhome this weekend, and while the cause of death has not yet been released by the coroner, his family in a statement said he had "lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face."
Eubanks' death highlights the lifelong struggle shooting and other trauma victims face, experts say.
"Here's someone 20 years later who had all these demons and was taken as a result," said former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis, who was in the school with Eubanks and other students when the attack happened. DeAngelis now helps other school administrators address the aftermath of shootings, and is an international expert on school violence and recovery.
"He suffered for 20 years. He seemed to be doing extremely well, but then he had some setbacks," DeAngelis said of Eubanks.
Addiction began with shooting
Eubanks was 17 during the Columbine shooting that claimed the lives of 12 students and a teacher. In the years afterward, Eubanks spoke openly and often about his struggles with addiction, which he said began an hour after he was shot as he was pumped full of drugs.
For the next decade, Eubanks bounced into rehab repeatedly, punctuated with arrests for car theft and check fraud. He separated from his wife and lost contact with his sons as he abused cocaine and ecstasy and alcohol, hitting what he described as rock bottom on April 2, 2011, when he woke up on a jail cell with no memory of how he'd gotten there. He later pieced together his troubled day, which started with heavy drinking and drug use, and led to him passing out in a restaurant, where police and paramedics discovered he had an outstanding warrant for a missed court appearance.
That's when, he often said, he committed to changing his life. He entered rehab again, remaining there for 14 months as he sobered up. After leaving, he began working as an addiction counselor himself, serving for a time as the COO of one drug treatment center and on the boards of several others. He also began speaking out, using his story to help warn of the dangers of drug addiction and the need for better treatment.
"In order to heal it, you have to feel it," Eubanks told the audience at the David Lawrence Center's sixth annual Sound Minds Mental Health Symposium in Naples, Florida, in March.
By all accounts, Eubanks had his addiction managed. This year, he'd already spoken to medical professionals in Vermont, Georgia, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Arizona and Kentucky, and was scheduled to speak in Idaho, Iowa and Arizona this summer. He was also skiing regularly, working on becoming more of a father to his two boys and even talking about running for office.
Those who saw him recently said they saw no signs of trouble.
"It's an unbelievably heartbreaking scenario, just incredibly sad," said Jeff Howard, director of the Kentucky Department of Public Health. "Frankly, it reinforces the message: Even when people seem like they have it together, you have to understand that this disease is chronic and relapsing."
A lifetime of struggle
Howard helped bring Eubanks to Kentucky last month to talk about drug addiction, especially opiates, which have devastated parts of the state. Howard, who grew up in a home where addiction and relapse were common, said Eubanks spoke in a way people could easily understand.
"You don't treat someone for a week or six weeks. It's for a lifetime," Howard said. "For those who suffer from this disorder, it's a constant battle day in and day out. It's a lesson to us all, that even when someone seems well, they still need our support."
For Columbine survivors, this has been a hard year. The 20th anniversary coverage filled Colorado's airwaves and newspapers, and Eubanks was repeatedly interviewed by local and national outlets. And then just as emotions were calming, two students walked into a school near Columbine and opened fire, killing a classmate at the Highlands Ranch STEM School.
That May 7 attack triggered fresh pain for the Columbine community, especially the haunting similarity of children running away from their school, arms in the air.
"There's certain things, smell, sounds, a song," that take you back, DeAngelis said. "One of the things that gets to me is footage of kids running out of the building."
Many Columbine survivors had focused their emotional energy on getting through the 20th anniversary ceremonies on April 20th, and experiencing the STEM shooting so soon after ripped open fresh hurt, said Zachary Cartaya, 38, a classmate of Eubanks'.
"We developed this false sense of security that the tide had turned and then STEM happened, and it happened so close," Cartaya said. "You drop a rock in a pond and it all just ripples out."
Cartaya has struggled with suicidal thoughts for years, and nearly took his life four years ago following a breakup. His mom intervened, and he said years of counseling also helped him move forward. Cartaya is the co-founder of The Rebels Project, a nonprofit that connects trauma survivors with each other and with professional counseling. It's named for the Columbine High School mascot, a nod to the group's effort to make something good out of something so bad.
Cartaya said Eubanks' death is a reminder that trauma survivors will struggle their entire lives, even if everything seems to be OK. Cartaya was also close to Jeremy Richman, the father of a young girl killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. Richman died by suicide in March in the offices of the nonprofit he founded in his daughter's name to push for violence prevention.
"It's incredibly difficult to find hope when this kind of thing keeps happening," Cartaya said. "For people like me who have been so close to the edge, people like Austin are kind of folk heroes. It's so easy to slip into a place where you think 'these people who are so strong and lose their battle, what hope do I have?'"
Burgess, who runs the Florida mental health center, said Eubanks' death can have value, even though those who knew him are personally devastated.
"His passion and dedication to helping those fighting mental illness, addiction and trauma was nothing short of awe-inspiring," he said. "We will all do exactly what Austin would want us to do, carry on his mission of raising awareness and of advancing healing and hope in every way possible. His impact will live on in all those he helped, mentored, spoke to and inspired."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Columbine survivor Austin Eubanks spoke about emotional pain and drug addiction before death