No Easy Road to Recovery
March 7th, 2019
Do you remember where you were on April 20, 1999? Austin Eubanks will never forget.
He was curled up under a table at Columbine High School, fearing for his life. Two students went on a shooting spree that day, in what was then the worst school shooting in U.S. history. Eubanks, then just 17, watched as they murdered his best friend right before his eyes.
Eubanks had also been shot, but not mortally wounded. Terrified, he lay in a pool of blood, pretending to be dead, waiting for the nightmare to end.
Eubanks survived the massacre, but 12 students—including his best friend—and a teacher did not. Still, something died in Eubanks that day. He recovered from his gunshot wounds and his physical pain.
But mentally? Now, almost two decades later, he says he may never fully recover.
Part of that, of course, is that it was such a traumatic event. And another part of it is because long before America became familiar with the term “opioid addiction,” Eubanks was one of its first victims. Less than an hour after he was able to run out of the school library on that horrific day, he was given meds—opioids—to alleviate the pain.
Eubanks had never had a beer or smoked a joint. But that day, he had no idea he was about to suffer drug addiction—and it wasn’t because of his physical wounds.
“Opioids are profoundly more effective at relieving the symptoms of emotional pain than they are at relieving the symptoms of physical pain,” Eubanks said in a recent TedX Talk. He says his physical pain that day was only about a three or four, “but my emotional pain was an absolute 10. I was in agony beyond comprehension.”
But doctors never asked him about his emotional pain.
“Acute physical pain ends relatively quickly; complex emotional pain does not,” Eubanks said. “My physical pain had subsided in just a matter of days, but my emotional pain was just as debilitating as it was lying in the hospital bed that day, so I continued taking the medication that was prescribed for my pain. I was addicted before I even knew what was happening.”
So Eubanks did what many trauma victims do—he kept taking the pain meds, because it diminished his brain pain. Numbing his emotions was the only way he could cope.
“I believe that emotional pain is what’s driving the addiction epidemic,” he said. “Think of someone you know who struggles with addiction. I’m betting you can point to an element of unaddressed or unresolved emotional pain in that person.”
Eubanks was actively addicted for more than a decade, during which he damaged relationships and had multiple arrests for fighting, thefts, and impulsive behavior. It took him several more years of attempted recovery “before I finally learned the difference between feeling better and actually being better.”
“I had to quit looking for the fast road to relief,” he said. “I had to do the emotional work that needed to be done no matter how much it hurt. And after multiple attempts at short-term treatment, I finally found a willingness to do whatever it took, and I stayed in a continuum of care for 14 consecutive months in order to figure it out.”
Today, Eubanks says he’s “in long-term recovery,” but is turning his experience into helping others who are dealing with trauma and addiction. He’s a self-taught expert in the addiction treatment industry and a recognized speaker and media contributor on topics surrounding behavioral health and addiction recovery. He is the CEO for Foundry Treatment Center, a 30-bed recovery facility in Colorado.
He is a strong advocate for prevention and early intervention, particularly in children and young adults who may be in the early stages of anxiety and depression.
He says we tend to wait too long to address addiction. Too often, Eubanks told TedX Mile High, the approach is, “Let’s pick this person up off the floor who has been in active addiction for 10 or 15 years with a few suicide attempts, and let’s try to get them some help. We wouldn’t do that with any other disease. We wouldn’t say, ‘We’ve detected a lump, come back in three years and we’ll see what’s going on.’ The chances of success at that point are going to be pretty slim.
“With any disease, early detection and prevention give you the best likelihood of success. And . . . helping children to process trauma is certainly a form of prevention.”
After the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last year, Eubanks had some advice for the young survivors.
“In order to heal emotional pain, you have to feel it,” he told The Guardian. “You want to feel better immediately, [but] you have to have the courage to sit in and feel it, and if you can do that long enough, you will come out on the other side.”