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Ben Cousins not alone in the wasteland of addiction

Ben Cousins not alone in the wasteland of addictionAlthough distant from football culture, I have followed Ben Cousins’s case with interest. My attention was piqued not so much by the prominent parading of Ben’s situation in the daily media as by its synchronicity to the case of a young man I know. Let’s call him John.

John shares the same city and roughly the same age as Ben. However, beyond that, our man may as well inhabit a spartan, parallel universe.

John’s father was killed when he was a young child, and his family later broke down, abandoning him altogether in his early teens. He speaks of the terror of being alone on the streets in a big, strange city with no home, no food, no friends, no family and no money. Predatory drug dealers soon filled the void with a free smorgasbord of heroin, speed and ‘pills’ to numb the pain. As soon as he was addicted, he had to earn his fix. So began John’s criminal record, for which some may condemn him.

Uneducated, illiterate and unsupported, John later fought his drug addiction; however, alcohol — safe, legal, omnipresent alcohol — remained a problem that caused him more trouble than all the rest put together.

Despite skilfully prepared psychological reports that attest to chronic trauma and debilitating brain injury John has been righteously berated, even vilified, by some in authority who would struggle to imagine a day in his shoes. The reports have been shelved, with negligible action on recommendations that would have given him a fighting chance.

Many have made money out of John, legally and illegally. The illicit drug trade has had its cut, as have the legal breweries. He has contributed handsomely to the keep of many professionals ancillary and central to the criminal justice system: doctors, psychologists, disability case workers, public servants, wardens, and judicial and legal staff. However, aside from the committed and caring work of his lawyers, there have been negligible effective outcomes from this small but expensive army. For almost ten years, John has languished in the shadows of systematic indifference.

Ben Cousins not alone in the wasteland of addictionNot for John the luxury rehab of the stars, or any rehab at all. So far, despite the efforts of concerned humanitarians to whose attention he finally came, the professional rehab support he has desperately needed for a decade has never materialised.

Yet, each time the criminal justice system comes down on John, it does so more emphatically and with more vociferous castigation for his drinking, no matter its blotting out of trauma, abuse and neglect. The system sees not his kind-heartedness, his respectful courtesy towards women and children, nor his earnest struggle for redemption. It seemingly cares not for the sincerity in his eyes. Thus, internal bruises are reinforced, along with acute senses of failure, worthlessness, and shamefulness, further burdening this invisibly disabled man at his next round of trying to help himself. For, most assuredly, he is ultimately always left to his own devices.

This is a true story, but the man’s name isn’t John or anything like it. He has an Arab name and his skin isn’t milky white. His family won’t forgive him for drinking alcohol and taking drugs, no matter what inner devastation he has sought to imperfectly assuage by doing so. If this changes your reaction to John’s story, we may be part of the way to understanding how our society has failed the bright young refugee boy who arrived, imbued with modest childhood hopes and dreams, with two exhausted female relatives, innocently trusting the war was left far behind.

In fact, the war was just beginning. Muscling up against the hopeful little boy in a sunny new land were the potent saboteurs of poverty; family fragility under unrelenting stress; and a system so apparently indifferent to its most vulnerable, invisibly injured citizens that a young man can live and die under a Melbourne railway bridge with his body going undiscovered for months.

Ben and John could have dovetailed on one more score, none other than a sporting pun intended. John is a star at soccer, and could have been a champion sportsman if somebody had detected his early potential, and found him a loving foster home years ago. As it stands, John won’t be accepting the honour of the guernsey offered by the Street Socceroos to represent Australian in Europe this year. He will be on the futile treadmill of revolving doors between alcohol and prison. Unless somebody, somewhere can open the doors John most needs to a new life of fulfilled sporting and life potential: an effective rehab program and a secure, healthy home.

Surely, big-hearted, sports-loving, egalitarian Australia can bring back its sons from the wasteland of addiction, particularly this one who was too poor to fulfil his potential, but so rich in spirit as to have already beaten the worst demons from a starting point of virtually unimaginable disadvantage light years behind the eight ball. If John can haul himself this far with nothing, literally, imagine what he could do for soccer, for Australia, for himself, if he gets the support he has long deserved.



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