For Austin Eubanks, getting shot at Columbine High School 17 years ago was only the beginning of his troubles.
During the 1999 massacre, which killed 13 and injured 24, Eubanks was shot in the hand and knee and was prescribed painkillers at the hospital. Within three months, he says he was addicted to a variety of opioids and other drugs. Years of problems followed, including arrests, unstable employment, the demise of his marriage and his estrangement from his two young sons.
“It took getting to this point in my life where I think it would have value,” he tells PEOPLE. “Hopefully I can help people.”
Eubanks, then a 17-year-old junior, was injured when fellow students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris attacked the Littleton, Colorado high school before committing suicide in the school library. Among the dead in the mass shooting were Eubanks’s best friend, Corey DePooter.
Eubanks was put on anxiety and pain medication at the hospital, which instantly eased his suffering, he says. “You lose a best friend, you lose a sense of safety .I was in all this turmoil and now I feel better,” he says. “I liked that.”
After surgery, Eubanks was prescribed a 30-day supply of drugs for his pain. He quickly became an addict, he says.
“I learned to manage emotional pain with substances,” he says. In addition to his continued use of prescription opioids, his drug use eventually expanded to include alcohol, cocaine and ecstasy, he says. “I learned I didn’t have to process emotion. I could keep myself numb if I was on substances.”
Eubanks never returned to Columbine, instead getting private tutoring three days a week until he graduated in 2000.
The shooting “really derailed me,” Eubanks says. “It was the catalyst to really becoming an addict.”
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‘I Woke Up Incarcerated and I Had Absolutely No Recollection of How I Got There’
The ensuing years saw Eubanks continue to spiral downward as his addiction led him to promiscuity, day-long partying and staying out all night, he says. He obtained and lost a series of jobs in the advertising and marketing industries and was arrested numerous times for such infractions as fighting in bars, writing bad checks and stealing a car.
“Addiction shut down the frontal lobe of my brain,” he says. “It affected my judgment and rational thinking. My life just focused on impulsivity.”
He got married at 25 but divorced four years later and lost contact with his sons Caden, now 10, and Landon, 6, he says.
Eubanks sought treatment for the first time at 26 but nothing stuck for long, he says. Eubanks says it would take three more attempts, until he was 29 years old, to finally begin to work through the trauma and survivor’s guilt of Columbine.
“I woke up incarcerated and I had absolutely no recollection of how I got there,” he says. “I decided I was either going to die or figure out what was going on in my brain.”
With the help of therapists, seven months of in-patient treatment and accountability partners, he says he has now been sober for five years. He now has a good relationship with his ex-wife, sees his boys on weekends and is engaged to a woman, Alex Dooley, who works in the real estate field, he says.
Eubanks also recently started working as a program director at The Foundry, an addiction treatment center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he lives, working to help others overcome their addictions.
He also is trying to spread a message of empowerment, telling addicts they can help themselves. “You tell them it’s not about having a disease, it’s, ‘You’re powerful beyond measure,'” he says. “We create a roadmap to help them figure that out.”