Columbine Survivor Who Turned To Opioids Now Directs Substance Abuse Program

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Austin Eubanks and Corey DePooter before the Columbine Shootings
Austin Eubanks whose friend Corey DePooter (right) was killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

For many survivors of the Columbine High School shootings, April 20th brings back painful memories. Seventeen years ago two students opened fire at Columbine, killing 12 students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

For Austin Eubanks, who was shot in the hand and the knee that day, April 20th marks the start of his descent into opioid addiction. Eubanks was in the school library during the shootings and watched as his friend Corey DePooter was killed.

Eubanks is now in recovery and is program director at The Foundry -- a substance abuse treatment center in Steamboat Springs. He hopes to raise awareness about abuse of prescription painkillers and the need to educate prescribers about addiction.

Eubanks spoke with CPR's Nathan Heffel. Below are highlights from their conversation.

On how opioids affected his life:

"I couldn't live my day to day life without them. I would wake up sick. I couldn't work. I couldn't do anything. And so I had to live my life day-to-day based upon whether or not I had access to opiates. And if I didn't, I wasn't functional at all. ... I couldn't see any way out."

On how he dealt with his addiction:

"I definitely did my best to attempt to hide it. I remember I was definitely had access to services after Columbine. But I remember the feedback that I was given and my parents were given was that 'he's just shut down. We can't reach him. We're not sure why he's not able to process this.' And the real reason behind that was because I was medicated."

On how he finally got help, years later:

"It took a willingness on my part to do whatever it takes. I had four attempts at rehabilitation and finally at age 29 I realized that I couldn't keep going living my life under the circumstances that I had been. And so I went into treatment for the fourth time and really with a willingness to do whatever it takes. And so I sat down, I said, 'Tell me how to walk, tell me how to talk, and I will do it. Just tell me how to get out of this.' And I did that for long enough where it really it changed the way my brain was functioning and it restored my brain function to where I could really have long-term behavioral change."

On work the Foundry is doing now:

"When I look at the population that we treat at The Foundry, I would say close to 75 percent come in with an opiate addiction. And the story that you hear is so repetitive. ... It's primarily heroin and well over half of those started with prescription medication. ...

"It's absolutely everywhere and it's in communities that you wouldn't have seen it in 10 years ago. It's in high schools and I've even heard reports that it's accessible even in middle schools in certain communities. And so really it is an epidemic and it's something that we're going to have to find a way out of."

On what needs to be done:

"I think doctors need to adjust their approach to everything as it pertains to addiction. And so the [new] CDC guidelines are definitely going to help. Prescription databases are going to help. However, I think the real problem lies in not adequately training doctors about addiction. Really, doctors are are trained to diagnose and prescribe, diagnose and prescribe. And oftentimes the solution, as it was in my case, is to diagnose and not prescribe. ...

"In my case, had I not had access to medication and then eventually turned to illicit substances I would have been more acceptable in a therapeutic environment. I could have gone through the stages of grief earlier in life as opposed to really numbing myself for a decade and then having to go through that."

On his fears of relapsing:

"I think anybody in recovery will always admits there's a healthy fear. And you have to admit that. For me, abstinence is the only way. And I understand that if I go back to substances that downward spiral is going to happen again. And I tell clients that I work with, that I learned every way that doesn't work and I really tried every avenue. Hopefully, they can learn from my experiences."