Nineteen years ago, Austin Eubanks hid under a table in his high school library as two students opened fire on their classmates. He and his friends had been ready to get lunch when they first heard gunshots outside. They had not recognized the sound, thinking the bangs were just construction noises. Then a teacher ran into the library and screamed at them to hide.
When the shooting stopped, Eubanks fled through the smoke out of the library, and out of the school. He was 17, with gunshot wounds in his hand and knee, and he had just witnessed his best friend killed in front of him.
Hours after a new school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Eubanks, now 36, spoke about the vivid parallels between yesterday’s school shootings, and the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999.
“The similarity here, just in the images coming out in the media, with Columbine, is pretty surreal: The students rushing out with their hands above their heads and the armored vehicles and the police cars and the ambulances on the grass,” Eubanks said on Wednesday evening. “This one is really close to home.”
“The primary emotion for me these days is anger,” he said. “That’s because I see the aftermath of what happens.”
Eubanks, who works at a long-term residential treatment center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, now speaks publicly on the links between mass shootings and other violence and America’s growing opioid crisis.
“We’re dealing with a problem of massive proportions with the rise in mass violence, and I think there’s a direct correlation with the rise in addiction,” he said.
When he was 17, injured and grieving the death of his friend, Eubanks did not know how to process the trauma he experienced. Instead, he tried to hide from the pain.
Within months of the Columbine shooting, Eubanks, who was prescribed opiate medication for his shooting injuries, was addicted to painkillers, using medication to avoid dealing with the grief of the shooting. It would be more than 12 years of damaged relationships, and, multiple arrests for fights, theft and impulsive behavior, before he finally got sober.
His advice for the survivors of Wednesday’s school shooting is to lean into the pain and grief that they are feeling, not try to escape it.
“You can heal physical pain while you’re medicating it. You cannot heal emotional pain while you are medicating it,” he said. While survivors will look for something in their lives that allows them to detach from the pain – substance abuse, negative relationships, technology – that’s the wrong choice.
“In order to health emotional pain, you have to feel it,” he said. “You want to feel better immediately, [but] you have to have the courage to sit in and feel it, and if you can do that long enough, you will come out on the other side.”
Along with post-traumatic stress, Eubanks said, there is also the potential for post-traumatic growth. “That doesn’t imply you will ever be the same person again. After a trauma, you will be changed forever.”
At Columbine, 12 students and one teacher were murdered, and two dozen injured, before the two perpetrators killed themselves. In Parkland, after two decades of Congressional refusal to pass stricter gun laws, the death toll is even higher, with at least 17 people dead, including a football coach. The Parkland shooting is the deadliest high school shooting in contemporary American history, according to mass shooting statistics compiled by Mother Jones, which has tracked incidents going back to 1982.
But the effect of a shooting like Columbine or Parkland cannot be measured only in the number of those injured or killed, Eubanks said. The students who witnessed the shooting, the ones who lost friends, the first responders who have to witness the full extent of the carnage, the family members – all of these people are affected by a shooting, and the impact of the trauma and grief they experience can be passed along, to their partners and their children, particularly when survivors turn to substance abuse to cope with what they’ve experienced.
“The trauma, it ripples through society,” he said. “What would initially start as a few hundred directly affected will become thousands, and, in ten years, tens of thousands just from this one shooting.”
“These are massive, massive traumas, and it’s like an earthquake, it ripples. That’s what I want people to see.”
“My fear is that we’re going to be in the same place that we are every time: that everyone is going to fracture in their opinion and nothing is going to change. If we have a government that is not even willing to fund a study into why this is occurring--there’s no better definition of putting your head int the sand than that.”
Eubanks said he would like to see the government invest in research to understand and address violence, rather than bowing to political pressure to cut off funding for public health research on guns at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the United States did in 1996.
“There’s a common thread through all of this and nobody’s talking about it. The common thread is isolation, loneliness and adverse childhood experiences.”
“Why is it always men? It’s not testosterone that’s doing this,” he said. “There’s something wrong in our society and we have to figure out what it is.”