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An injured survivor of the Columbine shooting, Austin Eubanks’ traumatic experience as a teen was the catalyst to his painful journey through addiction. Now in long-term recovery, he is a nationally recognized speaker on addiction recovery and the Chief Operations Officer of The Foundry Treatment Center, a 30-bed treatment program in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Here, we talk about digging to the root of addiction, the lingering effects of Columbine, and the importance of first impressions.

As the Columbine shootings continue to be mulled over and analyzed, do you find that there’s an aspect of the tragedy that people don’t acknowledge or focus on?

Culturally there’s been a shift. The Clock Tower Shooting at the University of Texas in the 70s, one of the first school shootings, was considered an outlier, an isolated incident. Columbine occurred in the digital age. Information spread much faster in 1999 than it could back in the 1970s and as a result, Columbine had a profound impact on our culture. Based upon all the research that’s been done after his death, Eric Harris was psychopathic. I don’t want to say it makes sense, but it’s more understandable. Crazy people do crazy things. But, what’s happened culturally since that time is that society has become more and more desensitized.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent piece on this and he said the reason why this is happening at an ever-increasing rate is not because we have a greater density of psychopaths running around in our society, but because it’s become more socially acceptable to pick up a gun and kill a bunch of people if you’re really pissed off and want to prove a point. So what you’re seeing now today is that there is a lot of these people committing massive tragedies that aren’t meeting criteria for being psychopaths. They just were in a situation where they found it socially acceptable to use this outlet to solve their problems. I am terrified by that.

It seems like now you’re able to look back at the tragedy from a pretty clear vantage point. What was that journey like? Is it possible to be completely objective about it at this point?

Unfortunately, no. I will never be free of biases because I lost my best friend. There’s still no element of forgiveness there—there never will be. I am one of those people who believes that you don’t have to forgive to move on. I think it’s a nice goal, and you should try it in most scenarios, however there are some things in this world that are unforgivable. I was also privy to a lot of information that wasn’t available to the general public. Knowing the behind-the-scenes of what led up to the tragedy gave me a perspective that a lot of people don’t have.

What was the journey of healing like for you?

After the shooting, it was only a matter of months before I turned to drugs and alcohol in order to mask the pain I was going through. Like most who struggle with addiction, there were multiple rock bottoms and on each occasion I learned a little bit more about myself and I was able to incorporate that knowledge into my attempts at recovery. That trauma is always there, and there are things that will bring it up to this day. But for me, it was about learning healthy coping mechanisms and being able to address those things when they arise. You can’t address addiction without addressing the cause. I think in my early attempts at recovery, I was trying to address the addiction by stopping using drugs and alcohol. That ended in failure every time and it wasn’t until I said, “Okay look, I’m going to have to really dig deep. I’m going to have to do the hard work that it takes to resolve this trauma so that addiction won’t be the driving force in my life. Where I won’t feel the continual need to medicate just to get through the day.” That type of recovery is much harder.

I read an article earlier this year that was advocating for treating patients of trauma more seriously. Specifically, helping kids unpack traumatic experiences. I wonder if that could help prevent addiction in the first place.

I would very much agree with that. A lot of the work I do today is focused on prevention and early intervention. One of the unfortunate parts about the way we’ve evolved to treat addiction is that we often wait until it reaches the highest level of acuity before we try to do something about it. 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 gives you the best likelihood of success. And to address your question, helping children to process trauma is certainly a form of prevention.

Can you tell us about a point of departure in your life.

I have two that are quite profound: when I turned to addiction and when I found a way out. The first point of departure was immediately after Columbine. I always use the phrase, “it derailed me.” There’s really no better description. I was on a certain path. I was well-rounded kid. I had never used alcohol or drugs—that wasn’t a part of my life. I had a profound trauma happen to me, I lost my best friend. As a result, I learned a very maladapted skill-set and turned to substances. And then the second point of departure, which had a far more positive outcome, was when I finally reached a point of my life where I was ready to do whatever it took to recover. I was done fighting—I had a new level of willingness that I never had before. I remember sitting down in my therapist’s office and saying “If I have to stand on my head for six hours a day I’m going to do it!” I went to long-term treatment and I stayed committed, no matter how hard it got. Through that process, I was able to address all the underlying issues that were driving my addiction and I changed literally everything about my life. I walked away from a career as an advertising executive and took a leap of faith to work in behavioral health and addiction treatment. It was the best decision I ever made.

Do you have a favorite TED talk?

I have two favorites: the first is Brene Brown’s talk on vulnerability and the second is Amy Cuddy’s talk on presence, which describes how first impressions can be so powerful. People basically determine a lot of how they think about a person from a first impression. Brene Brown’s talk reminds me to always strive to be somebody who speaks from the heart and isn’t afraid to be vulnerable all aspects of my life.

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