Austin Eubanks survived the Columbine High School shooting.
Surviving nearly killed him.
Well-intended doctors loaded the 17-year-old with pain medications to blunt his double gunshot wounds—and they did their job, numbing both physical pain and emotional anguish. He’d watched his best friend, Corey, die next to him in the library. “Addiction hit me before I realized what was happening,” Eubanks wrote in a 2017 blog. He would spend more than a decade addicted to drugs and alcohol before entering a long-term treatment program that taught him, among other things, to face his emotions and confront the trauma of that day.
Eubanks, now a nationally recognized expert on addiction and recovery, will be in Naples on Saturday for the David Lawrence Center’s Sixth-Annual Sound Minds Symposium. The event falls just about a month before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre and a month after the first anniversary of the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.
A survivor of two of America’s greatest maladies—gun violence and addiction—Eubanks sees a common issue at play, a cultural flaw blocking our ability to cope with stressors. In advance of Saturday’s event, Gulfshore Life spoke to Eubanks about his concerns—and about the ways in which he believes we, as a society, can heal.
“I think this is really a cultural pandemic, and there’s a reason why we are disproportionately affected, and I believe it is because of our cultural inability to resolve emotional pain in a healthy, prosocial fashion,” he says. “Everything we use in our lives today is designed to be addictive. In order for something to be addictive, it has to be all-encompassing; it has to allow us to detach and it has to pull us away from the human connection. That authentic human connection is essential to who we are as a species. We are hardwired for it, and you cannot heal emotional pain without it.”
The more we allow cellphones or pain pills or vice-of-choice to build barriers between ourselves and those around us, he argues, the more prone we are to substance abuse disorders, depression and, yes, the kind of rage that erupts in mass shootings.
“This isn’t so much about the psychology of the perpetrators anymore; it’s about the sociology of the culture that brought them up,” he says.
American schools, he argues, need to pay a whole lot more attention to the emotional development of children—to focus not only on IQ but also on “EQ” or emotional intelligence. Schools across the country—particularly following 2017’s Stoneman Douglas and Santa Fe High School (Texas) shootings—are beginning to pay more heed to students’ psychological well-being (you can read about Lee and Collier counties’ efforts here), but the shift isn’t happening fast enough, Eubanks says.
“Teachers are more aware of the (emotional) needs and are changing their approach. But I think what’s needed is to bring clinicians into the classroom to focus on emotional development. We as a culture are horrible at that,” he says.
Eubanks, a father of two, is alarmed at the growing propensity of parents to soothe infants and toddlers with technology rather than touch.
“My fear is we are priming entire generations for dependent behaviors, and then we are sending them into a world where drugs are more deadly and more addictive than they have ever been in history. If we don’t address this, we are effectively reducing the emotional resiliency of youth at a rate that we’ve never seen before.”
“There’s no malicious intent in the parents,” he adds. “Oftentimes, they just want to have a nice dinner. I understand that. They just don’t understand what this is doing to a developing brain. It is literally changing the physiology of minds.”
Eubanks had to undergo much to change the patterns in his own mind. He had tried short-term treatment programs—28- and 90-day stints—but failed. The nonprofit Stout Street Foundation took him in for 14 consecutive months. He credits the organization with saving his life. “It takes a long time to heal a brain,” Eubanks says.
“You have to remove all the negative influences in your life and replace them with people, places and things that hold you accountable to being the absolute best version of yourself,” he says. “I believe our approach to addiction is not comprehensive enough, and oftentimes people think the solution to the problem is you just stop using drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, that’s just the surface of the problem.
“If you don’t go below that to the biological and sociological components of it, then there’s no wonder why we’re seeing the low success rate we’re seeing. What was so crucial to me was getting back to the authentic human connection I’d lost and being able to move forward in a happy, healthy, prosocial fashion with people around me who were holding me accountable. I believe the thing we are missing is we are just not going deep enough in what it really takes to recover.”
To those who’ve walked similar journeys, Eubanks offers hope.
“I will never be the person I was on the morning of April 20, 1999. That person was lost as a result of that trauma. However, I am able to do the work that I do today because of the process of healing that I went through to get to this place. I am different because of it, and I had meaningful development of personal character through that process. And that is what ‘post-traumatic growth’ is. There is light at the end of the tunnel for anyone who finds the courage to go through that process and heal in a healthy fashion.”
To learn more about Eubanks, visit his website.
The Sound Minds Symposium will be held on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at Moorings Presbyterian Church in Naples. Suggested donations are $10 per guest. You can register by clicking here.