In-Depth with Brad Byrd: Columbine survivor Austin Eubanks talks about journey to recovery


In the Spring of 1999, it was a day like any other at Columbine High School, then came the shots.

By the time the two students armed with guns stopped pulling the trigger, 12 students and a teacher were dead.

Police say the shooters committed suicide, and in many ways,  we have not quite been the same since.

Are we to the point now that mass shootings, including those in our schools, are the norm? Are we becoming numbed by it all?

For this week’s in-depth segment, Brad Byrd is joined by Austin Eubanks, one of the survivors of the Columbine shooting nearly 20 years ago.

Eubanks was wounded but survived the massacre. He’s now a motivational speaker with a to the point message.

He’ll also be speaking to students at Mater Dei and Castle High Schools, but those events are not open to the public.

You can also hear Austin’s story at the Crossroad Christian Church on Thursday, November 28, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. It’s $5 for students and seniors and $10 for adults.


Brad Byrd: “Welcome to In-Depth. Are we to the point now that mass shootings including those in our schools are the norm? Are we becoming numbed by it all? Tonight a tale of coming out of the darkness. In the Spring of 1999, it was a day like any other at Columbine High School. Then came the shots. By the time the two students armed with guns stopped pulling the trigger, 12 students and a teacher were dead. Police say the shooters committed suicide. In many ways we have not quite been the same since. Tonight I’m joined by Austin Eubanks. He was wounded but survived the massacre. Was it really survival though? His pain was far from over. He’s now a motivational speaker with a to the point message and he is an addiction treatment specialist who works with people one on one.  He’ll visit two Tri-State high schools and Crossroads Christian Church Thursday talking to our kids right here at home. Austin, our sincere appreciation tonight for you being here the day of the columbine massacre, talking about it 20 years later – is it, is it still painful reliving that awful day or does it offer some soothing of the grief that you went through?”

Austin Eubanks: “Well, First I am pretty disappointed that we are still talking about 20 years later – I think part of that is because we’ve normalized the process, now we see it occurring at an ever-greater rate. So, for me talking about it isn’t really difficult any longer – what is difficult is talking to survivors who have just experienced it again and again and again. And every story that they share with me not only takes me back to that day, but I carry a piece of their story with me.”

Brad Byrd: “And concerning that story, we want to talk a little bit about what happened that day – because it’s all connected to what happened to you years later – the bad and the good, uh, did you know the two shooters?”

Austin Eubanks: “I did not. They were a grade older than I was, uh, and it was a large school so I knew who they were but they weren’t part of.” 

Brad Byrd: “How old were you?” 

Austin Eubanks: “I was 17. I was junior.”

Brad Byrd: “And we have a couple pictures that can pretty well tell the transition. That is you of course over on the left I mean I believe your girlfriend and when was that taken?”

Austin Eubanks: “That was two days after the shooting. That’s my father’s head you see behind me and my mom was right behind on the other side is behind on the other side. They didn’t leave my side for quite some time. Then the picture on the right just about a month and a half ago.”

Brad Byrd: “And what a difference 20 years has made, but it was a long road for you. Let’s talk about. Let’s talk about what happened in that library. You were going to have lunch with your friends.” 

Austin Eubanks: “Yeah, same routine everyday. I would leave my language arts class. I would go and meet my best friend in the hall and we would walk through the library out to the junior parking lot and off to lunch. And on that day we saw some friends sitting down in the library to eat lunch and we sat down to have a conversation to see what we were going to do after school. And it was shortly after that the, the shooting started and a teacher came through the same doors we just entered, yelling for everyone to get under the tables.”

Brad Byrd: “That’s what you did.”

Austin Eubanks: “After a moment, we stood up because in 1999 there was no frame of reference of what high powered gun fire would sound like in the halls of a high school. So, for us it didn’t make sense, we were at school. And shortly after that she said it again, and that time she was serious.”

Brad Byrd: “And you, you lost your best friend. And this happened right in front of you.”

Austin Eubanks: “It did.”

Brad Byrd: “I can imagine, no I can’t imagine because I haven’t gone through anything like that, but that had to be something that uh, how did that impact you? Right then in that moment.”

Austin Eubanks: “In that moment, it wasn’t real. Nothing that was happening was real. So from the time that I saw the perpetrators enter the library, I completely disassociated.  It was like my consciousness left my body. So I can remember everything that happened that day, but it’s almost like I was watching it on television. And I think when you get to a point when you’ve accepted that you’re going to die, as I did that day, your body will do whatever it can to keep you safe.”

Brad Byrd: “With all of that being in a state of shock, did you realize you’d been shot? Not once, but twice.”

Austin Eubanks: “Well, I was hit in my right hand and I could see it but I couldn’t feel it. And it wasn’t until I tried to stand up after the perpetrators left the library that I knew I’d been hit in my leg. I couldn’t feel anything physically or emotionally. I was in complete shock.” 

Brad Byrd: “The story starts there, but then the real nightmare for you continues, even though you survived. And this was a different era, this was before the opioid crisis, before the different look that we now take when it comes to painkillers.”

Austin Eubanks: “We were just getting warmed up.”

Brad Byrd: “Yes. And you were just 17 years old and you were prescribed painkillers. Take it from there.”

Austin Eubanks: “Yeah, so that was the first mind-altering substance that I had ever ingested. I was 17. Drugs were not prevalent in my family, my friend group. I was never exposed to them and I never had to have any major surgery as a child. So immediately after Columbine, I was in a state of shock. I was hysterical. I had just witnessed the murder of my best friend. And I had just been shot in an environment where you’re always told you’re going to be safe. I was heavily medicated for my physical injuries. And without even knowing it, I immediately started taking those substances to mask that emotional pain, not even knowing what I was doing. At that time, I knew that a bunch of highly-qualified people prescribed me medications to make me feel better and they were working and that’s it.”

Brad Byrd: “And, and it was a different set of rules in 1999 than it is now and they were legally prescribed for you. But they started consuming you.”

Austin Eubanks: “They did, yeah. So it was really only a matter of weeks before I was taking them off-label, taking them at times that weren’t prescribed, taking more than what’s prescribed. And very, very quickly what started with prescriptions turned to alcohol, marijuana, a list of narcotics, you name it. I was gonna do whatever I could to not have to be present. Because when I had to be present, I was forced to feel that pain. And I was totally unwilling to do it, not even knowing why.” 

Brad Byrd: “You brought up an interesting point when we were talking in the newsroom and that is the sociological effect of dependency that we have in this country on, not only drugs but just about anything.  Cellphones, uh, food in some cases. When did you realize that there was something very, very dark going on with you?” 

Austin Eubanks: “For me it wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s, really. I had been using then, by that point, for going on three years. And I remember being, uh, I went on vacation and I forgot my medication and I said, eh, oh well, I’ll get through it. And I remember waking up in the worst flu I had ever had.  And after two days of that, I googled “what is withdrawal?” That’s how little I knew what was going on with me.”

Brad Byrd: “And there was a turning point and you were in your late 20’s. But this really escalated. This affected your life in so many ways – your friendships, your relationships. It was really a miserable period for about 12 years it sounds like.”

Austin Eubanks: “Very much so. I mean addiction, as it does for everybody, it’s a progressive disease. It will consume you. And for me it did. I couldn’t get out of bed without using and it was everything. And if I could get by throughout the day, I could piece together some semblance of existence.”

Brad Byrd: “So what was the spark that got you out of the cave?”

Austin Eubanks: “Well, there was a number of them. When people ask me today, how did you finally find recovery? I tell them, well, I learned every way that doesn’t work. And so, I went to treatment on four separate occasions, three residential and one outpatient before I finally found the willingness to do whatever it took to change my life and to get better.?”

Brad Byrd: “When you see these mass shootings now, and the mental health issue has really entered the debate on this, gun control, law changes, background checks. The two seem to be so far apart, but it’s a little more complicated than that.” 

Austin Eubanks: “Very much so, and I think you’re seeing those trends in almost everything in our culture today is people growing further and further apart. And so, I get really frustrated when people did into the debate on one of two sides because the fact of the matter is both play a part. Does mental health of these perpetrators, is that an issue? Absolutely. Does accessibility to weapons play a part. Very much so. In order for us to eradicate this, we have to look at it in a comprehensive fashion and we have to get back to the golden thread which is disconnected, isolated, lonely society which is what we’re all living in.” 

Brad Byrd: “And this is what you’re working with people one on one, treating them for addiction?” 

Austin Eubanks: “Yes. So, the treatment center I run in Steamboat Springs, we look at substance abuse as an emotional symptom of pain and trauma, and we’re looking at getting to the root cause because stopping the use of drugs and alcohol is just the root of the service. You have to get below that to fully recover. And for me, that took staying in treatment for 14 consecutive months. You can’t change the function of your brain overnight. It is a long process, and you have to stay committed to it.” 

Brad Byrd: “And you had something to say to the kids at Parkland because they mobilized. It was almost as if they said ‘Enough’s enough, we’re going to head to D.C. and we’re going to organize.’ What was you message to them?” 

Austin Eubanks: “Well, first, my message was don’t get so consumed with something that you forget to focus on your own healing because you can medicate in a thousand different ways. And then the second piece was try not to get so dug inside this debate to where we stay at gridlock, and that’s my fear that anytime we go to one side or the other we just create this polarization. And so, I think we have to come together and say ‘Look, we have a big problem. It’s increasing. How are we going to solve this?’ And it really does start with the way we are socializing and educating youth in this country.” 

Brad Byrd: “And the treatment of people who are in legitimate pain, lot has changed but they are suffering kind of in an unusual way. They’re legally prescribed painkillers, but there have been a lot of restrictions on that. And is that a good thing or not? Not the suffering, I’m just talking about the tightening up.” 

Austin Eubanks: “Anytime somebody’s quality of life is lessen by some initiative, that is a failure on our part. And I think that is a perfect example of everytime our country tries to solve a problem on the supply side, it ends in failure. We tried this on methamphetamine in the mid-2000s, locked up all the chemicals use to create meth. Now today, meth is cheaper and more potent and more accessible than in the history of this country. And so, we have to solve this problem on the demand side. We have to change the way we are responding to them as a culture because there is a reason we have so many medicators. It’s because we have a culture that wants to numb.” 

Brad Byrd: “Well, Austin, you’re going to be speaking at Crossroads Christian Church Thursday evening, and it will be open to the public. And there is a $10 fee I believe for adults, students a $5 fee. But it is open to all the public. You’ll also be speaking at Castle High School with students. Those are closed doors and also at Mater Dei High School. Austin, I need about another half hour. No, I need another hour to talk to you. But I sincerely appreciate you showing really the courage to step up after a lot of your life was taken from you, and thank you so much for being with us tonight.” 

Austin Eubanks: “Thank you for having me.”

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(This story was originally published on November 28, 2018)

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