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Drug Relapse Overdose Kills Columbine Survivor

Twenty years after the Columbine school shootings, the tragedy has taken another life.

Austin Eubanks, 37, died of an opioid overdose last week. Eubanks was in recovery from injuries suffered in the shootings, the trauma of seeing his best friend killed, and opioid use that he used to numb both pains.

He also acknowledged using Adderall, Xanax, cocaine, Ecstasy, and excessive amounts of alcohol.

Eubanks was thought to have ended his opioid use. He had celebrated five years of sobriety three years ago. He was running an addiction treatment center and was speaking at schools on the dangers of addiction.

This wasn’t a slap-dash rehab that thinks the job is done when you’ve been sober for a week. Eubanks said, “we look at substance abuse as an emotional symptom of pain and trauma, and we’re looking at getting to the root cause.”

Elsewhere, Eubanks said, “The core of my message is really looking at the ways we are prone to medicating emotional pain and transforming the ways we talk about addiction.”

It seems as if Eubanks had a good chance for a lasting recovery if anyone does. He had the support of family and friends, public sympathy, and access to the best treatment. He was giving back, professionally and on a voluntary basis, too, a tactic that many therapists and 12 step programs encourage.

It wasn’t enough. Autopsy results won’t be known for weeks, but his family has acknowledged he died of an overdose.

Relapse isn’t uncommon. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes research that finds 40-to-60 percent of people with substance use disorders relapse, which is actually slightly less than the 50-to-70 percent of relapses for asthma or hypertension.

With opioids, relapse can be fatal because a long-time user develops a tolerance for the drug, requires more of the drug to get high than a first-time user. In recovery, however, they lose that high tolerance. When a former long-term user relapses, they often resume drug use at the previous high dose, but their body can’t tolerate it anymore. They overdose and sometimes die.

If they are using black market drugs, the risks are even greater. The crackdown on illicit prescription opioid use has led to dealers and suppliers lacing or substituting popular drugs with the far more potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is less expensive and easier to obtain.

Fentanyl use led to the overdose deaths of musicians Prince and Tom Petty. Relapse drug use led to the stacking” death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman after 20 years of sobriety.

It’s not known when Eubanks resumed his opioid use, or if obtained them through official channels or the black market. Maybe the recent anniversary of Columbine or coverage of similar school shootings caused the relapse. Maybe it was the stress of his job or separation from his sons. Maybe his trauma and addiction weren’t treated simultaneously as a dual diagnosis.

Eubank’s death doesn’t mean that there’s no use in trying to stop substance use disorder. It just emphasizes that there is as yet no cure for addiction, just like there’s no cure for diabetes. Even drug rehab is no guarantee that you won’t relapse. It requires lifelong vigilance.