Laurence Alvis, CEO of UnitingCare Moreland Hall, writes:
Media coverage of the latest developments in the life of Ben Cousins has done little to advance public debate on issues relating to alcohol and other drug dependence and recovery. Much recent commentary has dealt heavily in uninformed opinion and has sought to pass simplistic judgement on a complex issue.
Some of the more egregious examples include Anson Cameron in The Age trying to channel George Best to shame Cousins into contrition or Herald Sun columnist Andrew Rule’s apparent insisting on seeing him in an early grave.
However, Herald Sun football reporter Mark Robinson takes the cake. In an effort to tie Cousins’ alleged relapse to the opening round of the AFL season, Robinson apparently felt free to disregard all established evidence about the chronic relapsing nature of drug dependence to declare that Cousins’ treatment ‘just hasn’t worked’ and, more disturbingly, question whether he could see a reason for living a life without footy in it.
There was no consideration of him as a human being capable of love for his wife and young child or the rest of his family, just the image of a desolate individual with no hope of redemption.
This apparent determination to paint a picture of a former player in the final throes of a self-destructive downward spiral is clearly about more than boosting circulation.
The relish with which most commentators have leapt to pass final judgement on someone undertaking the difficult task of overcoming drug dependence highlights a recurring theme in public discussion of his exploits: an apparent lack of contrition and a suspicion that he is somehow ‘getting away’ with something.
It is the smirk, the wink, the apparent refusal to follow the now-standard public atonement process that seems to have rankled journalists and the general public so deeply. There is a clear desire to see him punished. Jeff Kennett (perhaps unwittingly) tapped into this sentiment with his dangerously misguided recent statements that Cousins would benefit from imprisonment.
Opinion is polarised even amongst those undertaking journeys similar to his own. Following the screening of his documentary ‘The Ben Cousins Story’, we surveyed our clients on whether they thought the program would help improve public understanding of drug dependence and the recovery process.
Typical responses included:
It gave society, young adults etc. an idea of ‘drugs’, that yes, it can happen to anyone, any walk of life, profile etc. Specially high profile people like Ben Cousins. It gave a realistic attitude to society which, sadly, is naive to drug abuse and very judgemental.
Ben Cousins’ attitude demonstrates, in my opinion, he has a lot of work to do on character faults that are running unchecked. Hence I’ll not be surprised if we hear more about him falling off the wagon! Wayne Carey all over again (unfortunately)!
At least it didn’t give an image of drug users as losers and bums, but people.
Ben Cousins’ story has never been a simple one. His behaviour has stubbornly refused to conform to neat stereotypes about elite sportspeople, drug dependent people and people undertaking significant behavioural change. His life has been messy, full of apparent contradictions and inconsistencies. He is not alone.
He has clearly made some poor choices in his life and is continuing to experience the consequences of those choices. Hopefully, with the support of his family and appropriate treatment services, he will eventually be able to regain control of his life and his future.
Those of us who work in the alcohol and other drug sector see this process happening every day. It is not an easy, quick or simple process. There are setbacks in every person’s journey, but the hope for better health, family relationships and social functioning is tangible. We see people building (and rebuilding) their successes every day.
I hope that Ben Cousins is allowed to do the same.
• UnitingCare Moreland Hall is the lead Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) treatment and education agency of UnitingCare Victoria & Tasmania. Moreland Hall has been operating since 1970 and provides a range of treatment and education services, including withdrawal and rehabilitation programs, counselling and support in the community and at Victorian prisons, professional development, drug diversion programs, supported accommodation and youth and family programs.