Monday, 30 August 2010

The Ben Cousins Story - Experts vs. Bozos

It amazes me the flack that Ben Cousins has received over his documentary. Why? Ben simply tells it like it is. But this is where the controversy lies - the critics don’t want to hear the truth but an anti-drug message that makes them feel better. “Them” being mostly parents who always respond well to the usual tough messages about drugs but have no idea if the message actually works. The effectiveness of a anti-drug message is not the issue for “them” but whether it works in their eyes and makes them feel safer.

Ben’s story doesn’t paint a typical scenario of what most drug users would encounter because he is someone with special circumstances. Ben is an elite sportsman, a champion footballer and a pinup boy for the girls. Somewhat the opposite of what we perceive as a “drug addict”. Trying to dig out some sort of anti-drug message for the masses just won’t happen. If anything, it shows that someone who took nasty, illicit drugs was able to perform at peak conditions for so long.

This morning, I heard 3AW’s Neil Mitchell berate Ben Cousins after first declaring he loathed him for being a spoilt brat. What Mitchell was saying was that Ben’s story wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Ben didn’t collapse into a maelstrom of drug addiction hell or lose everything. Instead, Ben faced his problematic drug use and turned it around. This is what really irked Mitchell.

Ben Cousins is a likeable fellow who probably copped more media attention than he deserved. And like Michael Phelps, the American champion swimmer, he was ruthlessly dissected by the media for taking illegal drugs. But the real lesson was that their drug use had very little if anything to do with performing on the sports field (or in the swimming pool). No one would even know they were using drugs judging by their on-field display of superior sports skills. 

THE Ben Cousins issue could be looked at from another perspective. Here is a sportsman excelling in his game and everyone wonders how his drug taking took so long to uncover. Doesn't this show that one can use drugs and not have it interfere with one's work? People were shocked mainly because he didn't fit their idea of a drug taker. How do you know your solicitor didn't get high over the weekend? Or your child's teacher or your accountant?
--Alla Posa, Armidale (Letter - Sydney Morning Herald)

For 12 years, Ben Cousins took huge amounts of illicit drugs. During that time, he won a Brownlow Medal, captained a Grand Final winning team and won various sporting awards. Not a sign of an out-of-control drug addict, that’s for sure. The hard, cold truth is that many people do take these drugs and live a relatively normal life. The downfall happens when the drugs are abused for too long or if they are caught. Across Australia, millions of people take these recreational drugs and get up for work on Monday morning with little or no evidence of their weekend behaviour. Only small fraction of these people will ever have a problem with drugs but if they do, it can be life changing. And it’s these people we tend to focus on.

Critics Vs. Supporters
What do Neil Mitchell, Miranda Devine, Karl O’Callaghan, Jeff Kennett and other critics have in common? They wanted the documentary to be a anti-drug warning for kids. But the documentary was never meant to be an anti-drug campaign or one of the usual attempts to scare people into being drug free. It was Ben Cousins explaining his side of the story and how he saw it. He didn’t harp on about regretting what he did or try to appear as a disgraced junkie, instead he told it in his own words. Ben’s character is confident and he comes across as cheeky or smug but this is just his manner. To criticise the delivery of his story is just an attempt by self important, misguided moralists to undermine a documentary that didn’t fit their ideal for an anti-drug message. 

Mike Sheahan, in the HeraldSun had a go at the so called “experts” who criticised Cousins for being smug and a spoiled brat. He rightly asked what experience they had in dealing with drug addiction and if humiliating him was the right course of action. 

WHAT an amazing coincidence. Why is that so many of the people who have applauded Ben Cousins and his father Bryan in the past couple of days all seem to have had first-hand experience of drug addiction?

Extraordinary, really.

It's confusing. The "experts", those wise old heads with microphones and newspaper columns at their disposal on a daily basis, say it's all a nonsense. It's a spoiled brat showing off.

Surely THEY know, because they know EVERYTHING.

Yet people caught up in the drug spiral, those working with and on behalf of those caught up in the drug spiral, keep telling me the Cousins - father and son - are their new heroes, their inspiration.

That's not to suggest for one minute Ben is cured. Simply, he is battling a terrible addiction, and apparently going OK.

I just can't work this one out. He simply offered his story. I didn't see any wild promises. What I do know is that an ongoing problem of any sort is much more likely to be solved by discussion.

Which is why it is so disappointing to hear people who should know better slamming the documentary.

OK, let's not worry about the message. Let's bake him for being "smug", for being a narcissist, for daring to thumb his nose at the system.

That's it. Let's have a public humiliation in Fed Square. That will make us all feel better that naughty Ben will do his penance. Can't have handsome boys from middle-class families who refuse to cry doing drugs, can we.

Let's not worry about the problem. Or the cure.

If awareness of drug addiction, and how it is best handled and treated, hasn't been heightened by the Cousins documentary, then the MCG is in Sydney.

Here's the issue. Those who know the subject best, either personally or professionally, all share the same view - good on Ben, good on his family for laying itself open for two million people to see.

I feel compelled to applaud Mike Sheahan who could have so easily fell into line with other fellow sportswriters and slammed the Ben Cousins documentary. But it seems that Mike Sheahan actually took a few minutes to access the documentary for what it really was and gave more credence to the real experts who have experience with this issue. 

I respect the opinion of Les Twentyman and some other people who have experience with drug addiction but Les and Paul Dillon are barking up the wrong tree. It is not an anti-drug documentary developed by someone in the AOD sector but a Ben Cousins story and his struggle with drugs.

Neil Mitchell 3AW

Over at 3AW, Neil Mitchell wasn’t the only bearded burbler making silly comments. Derryn Hinch, Mitchell’s fellow jittering mouthpiece and highly animated conscious crusader was also stuttering his way through his own criticisms of Ben. But in typical Hinch style, there was more than just Ben to hammer. There was drug addiction itself. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the complaint that all this damage to people’s lives didn’t include locking them up as well. Ironic really when Hinch himself has been jailed for making a stance against laws that he warranted as counter productive.

And I thought Bryan Cousins deserves a medal for doing everything a parent could possibly do to support a selfish, self-indulgent, flawed, drugged up Peter Pan son, who apparently has never said ‘sorry’ to his Dad, Mum, brother and sisters for what he put them through.


At not stage in all of this did I heard the word ‘illegal’. Cousins was breaking the law. He hasn’t revealed the names of his dealers.


The other point belaboured last night by well-meaning people was the argument that drug addiction is a health problem. An illness. A disease.

Bryan Cousins even said the AFL Three Strikes policy was right and zero tolerance was wrong because ‘you can’t make a moral problem out of a health problem’. People steal to support a habit. Is that just a health problem?

Drug addiction is not a disease. It can lead to illness and disease. Like cigarette smoking is an addiction. It can lead to diseases like lung cancer and blood clots.

Alcohol addiction is not a disease. It can lead to diseases like brain damage and cirrhosis of the liver.

I believe that if you neatly brand heroin or cocaine addiction as an illness then you are giving an addict an excuse. Conveniently forgetting that you snort the first line, inject the first muck of your own volition. It’s not compulsory.

Claiming Ben Cousins feels no remorse or the documentary glamorises drug use is just the opinion of those who expected a different show on Channel 7. It seems to be the Australian way to cut down those who have a drug problem even if they try to amend their situation. The feedback on 3AW and other media outlets has been mixed with many callers/readers slamming Cousins for throwing it all away or being a greedy rich kid who wanted it all and got what he deserved.

Cousins has contrasted how Americans were willing to ''high five'' him during his stay in a drug and alcohol treatment centre with an Australian environment in which his addiction was ''looked down upon'' by society. But the researchers said that the Brownlow medallist did not ''whinge'' about his lot and was simply explaining how he viewed his situation.

I’m sure that if Ben Cousins was not a sports star then the criticism would have been worse. Takeaway his high profile and Ben would be judged as just another druggie. What many of the critics overlook is that drug addiction is often portrayed by the media as a problem for the lower classes. A problem that plagues lazy dolebludgers, bogans and  unmarried mothers. Airing a show that has a champion footballer as the disgraced druggie might open the public’s eyes about a problem that has no boundaries and can affect anyone’s family. Whether this sinks in or not is another issue but at least it’s out there for discussion.

Our society is none too keen on "junkies". Even in the context of death, the term is applied as a deeply derogatory label in tabloid headlines. Public opinion surveys show that the majority of people regard drug addicts as dangerous, unpredictable and, crucially, having only themselves to blame for their predicament. And it is this latter aspect that seems key to the extreme stigma associated with drug addiction.

Many people have little sympathy for drug addicts because they took illegal substances in the first place. People believe that if drug users really wanted to, they could just simply stop taking drugs. Such attitudes betray a lack of understanding of the nature of addiction.

What would any drug issue be without a comment from that old anti-drug, anti-harm minimisation work horse, Miranda the Devine? Devine thinks drug addiction is a failing of weak individuals who run away from personal responsibly. Like Hinch, she dismisses the notion of drug addiction being a health issue but simply, a bad choice made by bad people. I must admit, I don’t consider drug use a “disease” but for many users, the compulsion to use drugs is an attempt to self medicated a deep problem. People use drugs for many reasons but a small group are actually born with a predisposition to self medicate. These people usually have a combination of several factors including a chemical imbalance in the brain, 66 known genes and other physical medical conditions that make it harder to quit drugs than most. To write them off as just being weak, selfish or childish doesn’t cut it anymore in the 21st century. Those days are gone along with burning witches and chaining up mental health patients. 

Despite all the gratuitous public service announcements about the evils of drugs, Channel Seven's two-part documentary on AFL's most famous drug abuser, Ben Cousins, did more to glorify cocaine, ice and six-day-benders than any nightclub VIP room.

There was very little remorse from Cousins, 32, who plays his final game for Richmond tomorrow. But there was a lot of self-pity, blame-shifting and the fatuous idea that he is afflicted by a ''disease'', rather than that he is simply a spoiled, selfish, childish man.

So, did the documentary, Such is Life: The Troubled Times of Ben Cousins glamourise drugs? Did Ben “get it” as asked by Neil Mitchell? Was it just a bunch of excuses?

I think Mike Sheahan correctly answers these much asked questions:

As for glamourising the use of illicit drugs, spare me. If you are of that view, did you see Cousins twitching uncontrollably under the influence of illicit substances?

Did you see him shamed and humiliated in public in Perth?

Do you remember him as the most famous name in West Australian sport being stripped of the captaincy of his football club, then sacked, then deregistered by the AFL?

Did you see him helping carry the coffin of his friend and fellow drug victim, Chris Mainwaring?

Did you listen to the 911 call in the US, when he had to be rushed to hospital by ambulance? Did you see him almost break the spirit of his parents, Stephanie and Bryan, and sister, Melanie?

Glamour, eh?

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Bron said...

Excellent post, Terry.

Cameron said...

Hello Mr Wright,

I am a long time reader and fan of your blog.

I'd be interested to read your thoughts on proposition 19 in the coming Californian ballot? Other states with their own financial woes are watching this ballot intently as a potential revenue measure. If California goes, others will follow. I think there is reason to be optimistic about the times we live in.

Anonymous said...

here here.

Long time anonymous poster. I havnt seen the doco yet, but i couldnt stand reading about it in the papers.

Terry Wright said...

Thanks Bron.

Thanks Cameron.
I have a fan??? So coool!

We can only hope that prop. 19 will set in motion, much needed reforms. I think that if it gets through, we will see the whole world change their policies, not just other US states.

Thanks Anon.

Anonymous said...

i seen ben cousins buying fish, he was anxious, paranoid, turning his head like a fearful sparrow, such is life on drugs hey