Only the lonely

We’re driving up a winding mountain pass outside our hometown, Coffs Harbour, in a beaten old postie van when Roy Orbison comes on the radio. Dad grips the steering wheel harder. ‘Dead, you know?’ he says. Maybe this is the first time he tells me The Big O died of a broken heart. Yeah, that’s what Dad reckons – at the age of fifty-two, Roy’s heart just cracked open. Dad’s got lots of stories like this, taken from his own fragmented memories, exaggerated but believed solidly to be true.

When the public hearings for the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ began in May this year, my brother Mitchell had just been released from prison for the eighth time. This time, he had been in for malicious damage to a motor vehicle. He’s been in and out for the last ten years, mostly for small-scale amphetamine dealing. The longest he’s spent on the outside, since his first sentence in his early twenties, is just six months. None of us can remember the last Christmas he was home; each December, Mum takes him socks and cash for a roast dinner and TV time.

In the past twelve months, 19,394 people have entered prison in New South Wales. Forty-two per cent of them – around 8,000 people – were addicted to methamphetamine (‘ice’) and, just like my brother, began their detoxes inside the walls of a holding cell. Witnesses at the inquiry described the cells as reminiscent of an emergency department, with patients waiting for overstretched medical staff to arrive and assess their condition.

The early ‘crash phase’ of withdrawal can be very dangerous, placing both patients and staff at risk, but it’s only a week or more later that the more serious conditions typically present. By that stage, patients are already on their way to becoming prisoners and so the crucial task of medical monitoring is assumed by correctional officers.

‘Mr PG’, a former dealer, user and successful events manager, told the inquiry that he was held in a Surry Hills cell for seven days after being arrested for selling ice to an undercover cop. In most cases, these cells are designed to hold people for a maximum of six hours. When asked if he had ‘detoxed’ during the period in custody, PG responded:

Well, if detox is rated as being left in a room on your own wearing the dressing gown and clothing that I wore when I was arrested, not having a shower for seven days, being left with the dressing gown cord, which I contemplated on several ways in which I could attach it to something and hang myself, no attendance by any officer from any part of the Corrective Services … if that’s rated as detox for seven days, yes, ma’am.

PG was sentenced to seventeen months (the average sentence in NSW for dealing is 21.1 months). During his time at Parklea Correctional Centre, PG was told to ‘self-refer’. In other words, if he or other prisoners wanted support for their rehabilitation, they had to find it on their own. ‘I regularly asked whether any programs were available for inmates,’ PG testified. ‘I was told there were none.’

Any requests for services had to be made in writing, and twice a day officers at Parklea would stand along the perimeter of the recreational area to collect inmates forms – ‘like feeding animals at a farm,’ PG noted. Despite the alleged official process, no treatment programs were ever made available to PG.


One year my brother Mitchell was arrested on the weekend, held in lockup at the local station and appeared in court early the following week. By then his body was well into the process of withdrawing – the shakes, clammy skin, hyperventilation, cramps, nausea. His withdrawal and lack of access to prescribed medication for schizophrenia had left him with psychosis. We could hear him screaming before he entered the court, and then watched as two officers forced him down into his chair. His white collared shirt, washed and ironed earlier that day by Mum, was ripped and covered in blood. When he saw our faces, he begun to sob loudly. It was my birthday, but none of us could rise to the occasion.

Once the hearing was done, Dad’s eyes glazed over. ‘Yeah,’ he said finally, ‘you just gotta put it down to a bad egg or something.’

In another case, Mitchell was asked to explain evidence that was taken from his bedroom: a list of names with outstanding amounts. ‘You cunts have been stealing my raps for years,’ he responded. He spelt out his initials to the magistrate: ‘M and M’, bursting into an ironic, knowing laugh. More than once, his grandiose delusions combined with his drug use had him convinced that he was Eminem.

Sometimes, a magistrate would take pity on him, adjourning the case for weeks or months, allowing time for him to ‘gather his thoughts’. In these moments, he would join the one-third of prisoners on remand, a population that is largely excluded from rehab, referrals for treatment and all social services.

According to the most recent Network Patient Health Survey, put out in 2015 by the NSW Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network, ‘[i]ncarceration provides an important opportunity to address a range of physical and mental health issues in a vulnerable population.’ Yet, according to witness testimonies, most inmates are left to either withdraw on their own or purchase ice within prison, with at least 35 per cent of users on the inside injecting the drug. Without a clean-needle program, these prisoners are at very real risk of contracting hepatitis C and other serious diseases.

Paradoxically, as our knowledge and understanding of mental health disorders grows, so too does our misguided belief that people ‘use’ their conditions to absolve themselves of responsibility and evade punishment. In cases where behaviour has stemmed from deeply rooted, intergenerational trauma, our existing system – based on the presumption that punishment ought to be the primary tool to create change – is failing: members of Indigenous communities, who comprise just 3 per cent of the NSW population, make up an astonishing 23 per cent of adults incarcerated, and 46 per cent of the juvenile prison population.


My other brother, Jason, is also a drug addict. He also suffers from bipolar disorder. When I flip through photographs of the last ten years, I see that Jason was almost always obviously high. At times he’s cultivated the strength to stop, but he always relapses, lacking the support, services and psychoeducation needed to remain clean. Some days I’d return home from school to find every knife in the house hidden, a sign that Jason was on a bender that would most likely climax in violence.

During one episode, in which Jason claimed that Dad had cut off his legs, we had to call for an ambulance. Given the severity of the situation, the paramedics were accompanied by the police and their dogs. When he heard the cops entering the house, Jason grabbed a screwdriver and locked himself in his room (the combination of a mental illness, an active drug addiction and no sleep for three days transforms everyone and every­thing into a threat). Upon entering Jason’s room, the police deemed the screwdriver a weapon and tasered him.

In the court case that followed, Jason was said to be a risk to society and was ordered to receive monthly depot injections – high doses of antipsychotics that leave him not only unable to go in sunlight for the first week of each month, but also unable to perform the most basic of functions for periods of time.

Mum, who was a community nurse for almost ten years, is Jason’s registered full-time carer. She is also the full-time carer for my 95-year-old grandmother who lives with her. Mum is a sufferer of bipolar herself. Her brother, a generous and loving man, was a heroin addict throughout his life and died at forty-four. Mum has developed an unwavering commitment to helping people, even to the detriment of herself.

On the day of Trump’s election, Mum phoned in a confused state, rambling about rape and the bats circling above her house. A few days later, a patient of Mum’s called her boss, claiming Mum was driving the two of them around in circles. She spent the next month on the couch in a state of severe paranoia and crippling depression – so stagnant that blood clots formed throughout her body and she had to be taken to the emergency department.


Maybe there’s a discernible moment when family life is derailed, a crossing over from normality into a state of disarray. I can’t remember if or when this space ever existed. For as long as my memory stretches, my family life has been the same: the endless sirens of cop cars, the soulless theatrics of the ‘justice’ system, the bleak white walls of psychiatric wards and prisons, the seemingly unconquerable expanse between my hands and those of my brothers or my mother as we’re dragged in opposite directions.

There are other memories, too: wishbones drying on the windowsill, after the flesh of a roast chook had been plucked and eaten. Mum would call me into the kitchen to take hold of it with our pinkies, snapping for a wish. It didn’t matter who won, because we always wished for the same thing: a sense of calm.

At nights, Dad would play the DVD of The Big O that I gave him one Father’s Day. He’d hand roll cigarettes and crunch beer cans and play ‘Crying’ on repeat. The signs that things were bad at our house: knocks on the doors from cops; my brother creating forts out of household items to keep him safe and hidden; Mum bent over her bed, praying; and ‘Crying’ on repeat.

If you could see Coffs Harbour from above, in all its rolling coastal glory, you could almost believe that my family’s story is an isolated case. But that’s not reality: ice use is much higher in regional towns than in metropolitan Sydney. I’ve often thought that part of the problem with a place like Coffs is that it’s big enough for you to believe you can be someone, but small enough to severely limit such possibilities.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Coffs Harbour Council reported that, in 2015, first-time arrests for amphetamine possession had risen by 70 per cent in just five years. The involvement of Community Services in child protection is well above the average in NSW, and of the 25,000 households in the municipality, 65 per cent are in the country’s lowest income bracket (less than $750 a week).


Over forty years ago, in an experiment conducted by psychologist Bruce K Alexander, rats were offered two water bottles – one filled with water and the other with heroin or cocaine. The rats would indulge themselves on the drug-laced bottles until they all overdosed and died. But when the experiment was replicated in what Alexander called ‘rat parks’ – enclosures where his research subjects could freely roam, eat, socialise and play – they almost always opted for plain water and never overdosed. It’s sad to think that it took the construction of a caged paradise to learn what we ought to know intrinsically: that the opposite of loneliness and addiction is not abstinence, but fulfilment and connection.


In the prison abolition movement, there’s a shared belief that you should never call the cops. I confess that I have called them more than once. I called them when Mitchell tried to stab Dad, and when he threatened to cut my head off. I called them when I was forced to lock my parents in the bathroom with the dogs while he stormed through the house destroying anything at hand. Each time, I was desperate for help, and the minutes between making the call and the police arriving moved like molasses.

On reflection, what happened when ‘help’ arrived was often more heartbreaking than my brother’s violence. The police would ask where he was, and telling them inevitably felt like a betrayal. Then my brother would resist, permitting the police to use ‘necessary’ force. I’ve mopped my brothers’ blood off the floor more than once after he’s been taken away.

But I wouldn’t call the cops again. I’ve learnt that this behaviour is episodic, that it will draw to an end, that help doesn’t lie in the prison system. We need an entirely new space full of possibilities, beyond our current mental health facilities and without punitive confinement.

One proposed alternative to police intervention is the creation of ‘pods’, networks of friends and relatives you can call when crisis hits. I like this idea, but our extended family has often failed Mum, threatening to sever their relationships as some kind of intervention for her to stop supporting her kids. I think of her as already isolated: Dad lives in another house fifty minutes out of town, and often Mum’s solution to crisis is to lock herself in her room and wait it out. My family’s pod has gotten smaller and lonelier.

I’m reminded, often, of the ongoing motif in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely beside Ourselves: ‘but where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail.’ I’ve come to see Mum’s unwavering hope for her kids as one of the greatest acts of resistance – seeing someone, not in all of their failures, but for who they were and who they still might be.


Ice is increasingly causing homelessness, the inquiry was told, yet in the past six months many detox facilities have refused to take patients without a residential address. In more than one case, nurses wrote down the address of the hospital in order for patients to access treatment.

Mitchell is currently on the social housing waitlist. There are 50,000 people on the same list, and the average wait is anywhere between five and ten years.

Right now, there are just two diversionary programs for adult offenders in the state, with a maximum capacity of just fifty­-one clients at any one time. Meanwhile, the NSW state government spends 64.9 per cent of funding on law enforcement and just 9.5 per cent on prevention. Their most recent proposed strategy is to combat ice use by tripling the number of roadside tests by 2020. At the same time, the country’s largest prison is being built, opening next year in the Clarence area, just fifteen minutes from the other prison in which my brother has spent most of his incarcerated life. It will be built by the consortium Northern Pathways, which includes Macquarie Capital and security contractor Serco, and which already operates prisons in Western Australia, Queensland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It will be privately operated for twenty years by Serco (the company that currently runs onshore immigration detention centres in Yongah Hill and Villawood) on a contract worth $2.6 billion, and touting an injection of $560 million into the local economy (via construction).


In 1968, The Big O’s house burnt to the ground with two of his three kids inside. I imagine this is what Dad means when he says he died of a broken heart, that this pain eventually engulfed him. I imagine this is what Dad thinks about when he disappears into reverie. I see him there, watching on, unable to put out any of the flames himself, yet trying nonetheless.



Rachael McGuirk

Rachael McGuirk is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She has a Masters of Publishing and Communication from the University of Melbourne and has worked on a variety of arts, media and development projects in Australia and the Pacific.

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