Can human connection heal?

Austin Eubanks remembered with clarity the tragic day that forever changed his life, and, ultimately claimed it.

His best friend was killed instantly in front of him.

Then Eubanks was shot twice, in the hand and knee.

Eubanks was just 17 years old when he experienced and survived the massacre inside the library of Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

Columbine shooting survivor Austin Eubanks was the keynote speaker at the annual ‘Strengthening Our Communities Conference on Mental Health and Drug Prevention’ in Wesley Chapel. He passed away just days later at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, at age 37. (Courtesy of

“I remember seeing my hand and knowing that I had been shot, but I couldn’t feel it,” Eubanks recalled. “I couldn’t connect to the emotion of it, or the physical pain of it, because I wasn’t present in my own body.”

That traumatic experience as a teen, as a survivor in the Columbine school shooting, was the catalyst to Eubanks’ painful journey through addiction and eventually into long-term recovery.

Eubanks put it like this: “I will never be the person I was on the morning of April 20, 1999. That boy did not walk out of the library that day. He was altered, forever.”

Eubanks shared his personal story as the keynote speaker at the annual “Strengthening Our Communities Conference on Mental Health and Drug Prevention,” held May 14 at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.

The conference, hosted by Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) and Baycare Behavioral Health, is designed to increase public awareness and inspire action on mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Just a few days after the conference, the speaker was found dead from a suspected drug overdose at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He was 37.

In a statement, his family said Eubanks “lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face. Helping to build a community of support is what meant the most to Austin, and we plan to continue his work.”

ASAP also expressed its sympathy on Eubanks’ passing in a released statement: “We extend our thoughts and prayers to Austin’s family and friends. Although he has passed too early, his voice will echo in our memories and actions forever.”

Before his untimely death, Eubanks addressed a crowd of nearly 500 people, to discuss the intersection of trauma, mental illness and addiction.

‘An emotional robot’
Shortly after the school shooting, Eubanks was prescribed opiates, benzodiazepines and stimulants for his physical injuries. He soon found the drugs helped him in other ways.

“From the moment I was medicated, that emotion (from Columbine) completely shut off. It was like somebody turned off a faucet,” Eubanks explained.

Nearly 500 people attended the annual ‘Strengthening Our Communities Conference on Mental Health and Drug Prevention,’ hosted by Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) and Baycare Behavioral Health. Columbine school shooting survivor Austin Eubanks was the keynote speaker at the May 14 event, at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel. (Kevin Weiss)

“I learned very quickly how to turn myself into an emotional robot, with the combination of those three substances. I thought that I had found the answer, I never had to feel anything. I was taught how to seek the fast road to relief.”

Years later, at the height of his addiction, Eubanks said he was using upwards of 400 milligrams of the painkiller OxyContin per day, plus a host of other recreational drugs.

His drug of choice, he admitted, was “just more.”

Emotional healing through human connection
After a decade more of undergoing a cycle of addiction and relapse, Eubanks said he finally received the help he needed, at a long-term treatment center in Denver that accepted him free of charge.

It’s there he found the prescription he needed most: authentic human connection.

The treatment center helped him navigate the stages of grief through meaningful, personal relationships with others with similar, lived experiences.

“With emotional pain, in order to heal it, you have to feel it. It is essential to recovery,” Eubanks said.

He added: “What is so essential for emotional healing for all of us, is relying on others from a place of vulnerability and authenticity and transparency.”

The environment also provided him with structure and accountability, too, he said.

Eubanks said, “I had to finally admit that I knew nothing, and I had to trust somebody else enough to believe that they did, and I did everything that they told me to for long enough to where it became a pattern.”

Eubanks explained that after Columbine he didn’t return to school for his senior year, instead relied on a private tutor from home in order to graduate. The decision isolated himself from others, leaving him to rely on substances to cope with his emotional pain.

“I withdrew from human connection entirely. If you can create a better petri dish for addiction, I don’t know what it is,” the speaker said.

“I missed out on a lot of the collaborative, connected healing that many of my classmates experienced in our senior year, because I withdrew from that community entirely.”

Prevention and rehabilitation reforms needed
Eubanks discussed his ideas to combat the nation’s addiction crisis, which he blamed partly on increased accessibility, acceptability and toxicity of various substances.

The speaker called for greater efforts in implementing more systems of prevention and rehabilitation to curtail the demand for drugs.

He challenged the medical community to do a better job of integrating physical health and mental health. He also challenged the education community to put more focus on nurturing emotional intelligence in early childhood education, to increase the ability to relate to other people.

Eubanks then called for greater accessibility to long-term treatment for those who cannot afford its services. He also said the criminal justice system needs to place more emphasis on rehabilitation programs, specifically, by providing inmates a therapeutic continuum of care and teaching them pro-social behaviors.

Said Eubanks, “Drugs are always going to exist. We cannot eradicate these issues by combating them on the supply side. We have to curtail the demand.”

In addition to Eubanks, the conference featured presentations from Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco; Gail Ryder, Baycare Health Systems vice president of behavioral health; and Roderick Cunningham, Drug Enforcement Agency outreach program manager.

There was also a series of breakout sessions that focused on substance abuse prevention and recovery efforts, among other topics.

Published May 29, 2019

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