The tragedy that keeps on taking

When former Columbine High School student Austin Eubanks lost his life last weekend at age 37, my heart sunk. Eubanks was one of the many students wounded back on April 20, 1999, that fateful day when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students, a teacher and wounded many others, including Eubanks.

Harris and Klebold then turned the guns on themselves and committed suicide. (In case you forgot what happened, here are some of the facts from the awful day at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.)

Just weeks before the 37-year-old Eubanks died in Steamboat Springs, CO, Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, (just outside Denver), held a series of events during a week-long 20-year remembrance of the horrific massacre back in 1999. A piece in USA Today reflects on the 20th anniversary of the shooting and explains how many of those Columbine students of the late 1990s, now in their mid-30s, are still finding new normals in their lives.

I followed the Columbine tragedy over the years, but it was indelibly etched in my mind in 2016 when I read perhaps the most sobering, mournful book I have ever read — A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan, one of the shooters. The book, written 15 years after the shootings at Columbine, is the honest, thoughtful and severe account of her story.

It’s sad to me that just this past weekend, only weeks after students gathered 20 years later to remember that awful day in April of 1999, comes the news of the death of Austin Eubanks. Eubanks was a 17-year-old student injured during the Columbine shooting. His best friend, hiding under a table in the library with him, was killed. What could be more awful? And how could you ever recover from that? Truly, I can only imagine.

Eubanks did recover from his physical injuries rather quickly, but his emotional healing was an entirely different story and it did not come for years. He had said that an over-prescription of opiates (narcotics) by physicians quickly led to an addiction to oxycontin, adderall, illicit drugs and alcohol. All-the-while, Eubanks’ emotional health increasingly deteriorated, even as he masked his pain with alcohol and drugs.

To put it midly, Eubanks had a difficult decade following high school but finally in 2011, Eubanks sought help, admitted his addiction and finally got clean. And thankfully, he apparently stayed clean. His sobriety and desire to stay sober persuaded him to change from a career in advertising to begin working in addiction recovery, which he did for the last several years. In fact, he became a well-known speaker in the recovery world, where he was admired for giving fellow addicts hope. His 2017 TED Talk is mesmerizing and well worth watching.

Eubanks had just spoken to a large recovery audience in Tampa, FL, a few days before his own death last Friday night or early Saturday morning at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Colorado authorities do not suspect any fowl play in his death. An autopsy was done to determine the cause of death; however, a May 18 story from Denver’s Fox 31 television station says:

While Eubanks’ cause of death has not yet been determined, a family spokesperson sent the following statement:

Unfortunately, Austin lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face. Helping to build a community of support is what meant the most to Austin, and we plan to continue his work. As you can imagine, we are beyond shocked and saddened and request that our privacy is respected at this time.”

Addiction is an awful, despicable and too often deadly disease straight from hell. Eubanks had been clean for 8 years and just days earlier had returned from speaking at an event hosted by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) near Tampa, FL. ASAP board of directors chairperson Monica Rousseau sent the following statement Monday:

Last Tuesday, our community had the honor to meet and hear Austin Eubanks provide a powerful keynote presentation about the intersection of trauma, mental illness, and addiction. His speech inspired 500 attendees, as he shared his intimate 20-year journey and messages of hope.

Austin’s message resonated in a way that is unique to those who have survived trauma and addiction; but he spoke in a way that made our diverse audience understand and empathize.  Most importantly, he motivated everyone to act and make the world a better place in the face of the addiction epidemic.

Austin has stated, ‘What is essential to healing emotional pain is authentic human connection… and that is something we are being torn away from at an ever greater rate.’ We encourage our community members to honor Austin by remembering to always connect authentically with our loved ones, our colleagues, our friends, and every member of our community.

We extend our thoughts and prayers to Austin’s family and friends. Although he has passed too early, his voice will echo in our memories and actions forever.”

It’s sad, sobering, and mysterious to me that, for whatever reason, there are times when the disease of addiction ends in death, sometimes even after years of being clean.

Thank you Austin Eubanks for helping the recovery community for many years and for being such a gifted, honest spokesman.

Your death is a terrible loss. RIP, my dear man. I can only imagine the emotional pain you must have endured. May the peace of Christ rest upon the Eubanks family, upon Austin’s friends, upon the recovery community to whom Austin was closely connected and upon the hundreds of former Columbine students who knew, loved and pulled for Austin Eubanks, even as they pulled for themselves and the Columbine High School family who endured unspeakable evil back in 1999.