Ignition

February 2009, somewhere in regional New South Wales, Australia

Two streets back from the rows of neatly trimmed, middle class garden edges, we sit under a tree next to a rusted, wheelless HQ in an overgrown front yard and drink tea while little Mae runs about with the dogs.

The windows of the house have been broken and boarded up so many times that the frames are peppered with empty nail holes in between the flakes of peeling paint. The weatherboard cladding is pock-marked by age and a broken down-pipe hangs loosely from the corroded guttering above.

A scorching nor-wester spins dusty Willy Willies across the melting bitumen: little vortices of malevolent spirit seeking the wayward and unwary.

The boys (Mae’s first cousins) have been staying here for the past few weeks, waiting for things to settle down back home, an hour’s drive north. They were both on parole from juvie and ‘needed to keep their noses clean’ after a recent brawl, according to their old man.

But, trying to keep teenage boys away from trouble without giving them something else to focus their boundless energy on is like carelessly storing hay. Both have the tendency to self-combust as the result of a complex chain of biological events and chemical reactions.

The process, with both hay and teenage boys, goes something like this: exothermic internal reactions preclude thermal runaway (rapid acceleration to high temperatures) and finally, ignition. With hay, spontaneous combustion is the leading cause of haystack fires. Boredom-induced ignition produces similar effects in teenage boys, too often resulting either in time spent in juvie, or in an adult prison. The little marks on a rap sheet build up, like compounding interest, until a magistrate is convinced that the community is better served by one’s absence for a stretch of time.

Being locked up introduces teenagers and young adults to a pecking order based on indefinitely increasing personal capacities for violence and rat cunning. The system establishes a social order of institutionalised relationships that are mediated by what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as social capital – a range of actual or potential resources given value by the network of relationships in which they are embedded.

As teenagers grow up within the criminal justice system, the system itself is reinforced. Michel Foucault saw this recycling of people through the legal systems of Europe and observed that, while prisons punish unlawful activity, ‘delinquency is for the most part produced in and by an incarceration which, ultimately, prison perpetuates in its turn’.

New South Wales imprisons the largest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country, and the state continues to lock up more every year. The social determinants of high imprisonment rates in Aboriginal communities have been well documented in countless government reviews and reports.

One of the key findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (1991) was that ‘the most significant contributing factor is the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally’.[1] This situation has gotten worse, not better in the two decades following the Royal Commission. Incorporating a justice target in the Closing the Gap framework would appear a no-brainer, yet the current Coalition government continues to drag its heals on policy reform in this area.

There has been a raft of recommendations to governments over the years to keep Aboriginal juveniles and young adults out of the criminal justice system, with improvements mooted for education, health, wellbeing, access to employment and job-readiness. As is the case in most Aboriginal communities I’ve hung out in, Kooris here attach a healthy measure of cynicism as to whether there have been any real-world improvements.

The gaze of the casually interested State, one which levers layers of bureaucracy towards short-term funded programs and projects for short-term political gain, sweeps over regional communities in New South Wales from time to time, but never stays there long.

Kids get involved in petty crime, grog and drugs at a young age. There’s not much else to do, and when the older teenagers (one’s immediate role models) are doing it, it’s as much of a rite of passage to throw a brick through a window, get your head punched in (or punch someone elses’) as it is to get drunk on Fruity Lexia, or pinch Mum’s durries or yarndi.

This is not a race thing. It is socioeconomic and part of history.

It is practical too: the more you get in trouble, the more trouble finds you.

Before he passed away, Old Tom used to say that Willy Willies came into being when the spirits were angry with particular people. ‘The heat builds up in bushfire season, with the wind out of the north. The devils rise up from the dust and spin in the air. They find the bad young fellas and go for them to teach them a lesson. Right up their noses!’

I hear sirens echoing down through the valley – heralding a new brush fire in the escarpments? Smoke haze has been lingering in the hills for days now. Perhaps it was a police car, or an ambulance? Sounds are hard to distinguish in the buffeting wind. Mia and I jump on the roof of the car to look for signs of fire, but can’t see much except for an orange-hued stain across the afternoon sky.

The phone rings and I hear footsteps running inside and voices shrill with alarm. I can make out a few words amid the chaos:

Hospital.

Jai and Aiden.

Blood everywhere.

Exothermic thermal reactions producing thermal runaway and ignition. Little Mae runs inside crying.

Laying low for two weeks in the middle of the February heat (whilst being conspicuous in their absence from the trouble up north), the nephews ran into trouble down the street. A carload of enemy gangbangers had cruised south, blitzed on snow cones of methamphetamine and hydro cannabis.

The boys had seen the car parked at Woolies, heard the subwoofers pounding through the pavement.

Anger. Pride. Testosterone levels peaking. Adrenaline-fuelled thermal runaway. You can smell it in the sweat.

Ignition.

Two teenagers have been admitted to hospital with stab wounds in…{DELETED}…following an altercation in a supermarket car park on Tuesday afternoon. A man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with wounding a person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, possessing or using a prohibited weapon without a permit, and affray. A second man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with affray.

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, 1991, Vol.1., p.1.7.1.

Don’t give Santa rum

December 2008. Somewhere in regional New South Wales.

I sit, roll a Champion Ruby, and wait for my coffee. To the left, a newsagent’s window display glistens with tinsel and Christmas baubles. To the right, a pharmacy promo poster has raindeer leaping through Winter snow. I’m sweating bullets and its only 10am. The table wobbles.

It’s early summer in south-eastern Australia. The heat and humidity is increasing and the flies return after winter to fuck and swarm. They seem to be attracted to my stink this morning, and I suspect my sweaty back is a seething brown-black blanket.

I remember some advice I heard about anthropological fieldwork that, when all else fails, a struggling researcher should just start counting stuff. So I count flies and, in doing so, begin to record other mundane details about the comings and goings on the street.

It’s Thursday, which is Pension Day. I call it Pokie Day. Plenty of people are out in the sunshine shopping and running errands, stocking up for Christmas and Boxing Day, when the shops will be closed. However, the Pokies carpark was already full when I drove into town.

There is a pre-Chrismas buzz in the air, but I don’t care much for smiling children and green and red faux lanterns this morning. I started drinking with an informant while fishing at the estuary jetty last night on dusk, which became a bottle of wine or two with dinner that became…what exactly?

All I know right now is that I need to be working rather than focussing all my energy on trying not to have a panic attack. Other people feel sick on a hangover. That doesn’t faze me too much as I’ve been hungover for mostly a decade now. It’s the spontaneous, crippling anxiety that worries me most.

Carols, playing on loop, interupt my thoughts and sour my mood each time the automatic door opens at the pharmacy. I close my eyes, breathe, and listen for other sounds in the street. Trucks, cars, seagulls, magpies.

The smell of cigarettes, exhaust fumes, grease (from the fish and chip shop).

A car horn blares, accompanied by two loud, echoing exclamations:

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Cunce!

An Aboriginal man, who I have seen around town a few times since I moved here but haven’t met, wears a Santa Claus outfit, has the attention of a few dozen people, takes one last hit from a bottle of spirits in a torn brown paper bag and seizes his moment in the middle of the main street.

For the next fifteen minutes, or for however long it takes for the cops to drive around the corner from the station, Santa starts yelling and doesn’t stop.

It is a rambling, slurred monologue about the injustices of European colonialism and genocide, punctuated with more loud, echoing exclamations. It could have been epic, had Santa not been so righteously hammered.

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Parents wheel their prams and usher children into shops.

Ten centimeters of ass crack is visible when Santa bends over to pick up his dropped cigarette.

Did Santa have official duties this morning? I suspect some community Christmas event might be missing out on their VIP, if that was the case.

Cunce!

The scene is stereotype, played out in 3D surround-sound stereo before my eyes and ears. I feel ill.

A woman walks past, mutters:

Bloody Abos.

I stare bleakly at my notebook. Yes, the date at the top reads 2008. No, not all whitefellas here are like that, I tell myself. Kevin Rudd just won office. Some Koori people said they feel more hopeful about reconciliation since John Howard failed to even hold his own seat.

Farrrrrkooorrffff!

Why am I even writing about this, its not like I’m going to put it in my thesis about *insertresearchquestion*? This is an outlier situation right?

And, what right do I have to take notes on public drunkness as a ‘dispassionate observer’ when I’m seriously considering rehab for my own drinking?

Bad Santa probably won’t remember much of this. Much like I can’t remember anything after the 7:30 Report finished last night.

Get off the road ya fucking alco!

To their credit, when the Police do arrive, they do their best to calm St Nick before escorting him quietly away. Or maybe that last slug of grog finished him off?


Some years later I met Santa outside an AA meeting. He was in plain clothes, picking up a friend. It turns out Santa isn’t an alcoholic. But he did love to drink when he had a wallet flush with cash, and freely admitted he sometimes took it too far and landed himself in trouble. When the doctor told him his liver was shot, Santa simply gave it away. Didn’t need AA. Didn’t need rehab. Didn’t even get the shakes.

Santa’s take on that December morning in 2008?

I had a full head of steam, felt the injustice clear and wanted to shout it from the rooftops. And Captain Morgan’s was on special. Problem was I forgot we had Christmas golf day! Didn’t even make it to the first tee! See. Don’t give Santa rum!

.

The Beagle

I guess I should probably explain my pseudonym. In AA, we don’t have pseudonyms and usually follow a standard form {First Name}{Last Initial}. Tenured academics don’t use pseudonyms because if they didn’t put their names to things they’d be out of a job. Publish or perish and all that.

But me? To write honestly about addiction, I need to be able to let it all hang out. Since some of the stuff that hangs out might not look so good on a resume or CV, I need a pseudonym for now.

Could it be a reference to HMS Beagle, that unassuming Royal Navy vessel that carried the naturalist Charles Darwin on his famous voyage that led to the development of his theories of natural selection and evolution?

No, not quite.

Truth be told, the Beagle is just an old nickname that I got given during my early 20s.

A quick whiff of the breeze and friendly dog at the customs counter knows what’s what.

Stop wagging your tail and get away from me you bastard.

This is not to say that all sniffer dogs are druggies – let’s not make rash generalisations. Neither am I.

But, since a young age I have always kept my eyes and ears open, and have been fascinated with how and why people seek to alter the way they feel. In short, I have always known who to ask for various things, but have never been shackled to other drugs like I have been to alcohol.

Also, I have always felt oddly at ease interacting with people who others find scary. That’s mostly down to my gender and physical characteristics. I’m big enough to make people think twice about violence, and disarming and friendly enough that nobody would ever try. Respectful? Tick. Discreet? Shh.

Librarians love me too. I have niche demographics.

That said, I did have a loaded shotgun pulled on me once during fieldwork when I forgot to ring ahead before visiting someone for an interview. I got the interview.

These attributes of course were mostly a front. That self-confidence and fearlessness crumbled to dust when the alcohol stopped working in my late 30s.

Alcoholics, as we say in AA, are chameleons. We are attracted to other drinkers, and situations where heavy drinking is normalised because it allows us to blend in, which also helps us to convince ourselves that our own drinking is fine. My success as a chameleon meant that my alcoholism went untreated until the wheels completely fell off.

Absolutely fine. Nothing to see here. *Crash, clunk.*

But, it’s not about how we fall down. It’s how we get back up again. Which is why I started this blog.

So, there you have it. As pseudonyms go, it’s a bit shit, but necessary all the same.